When a handful of uber-right Republicans forced Speaker Kevin McCarthy out, they may have doomed GOP chances of retaining marginal seats in California and thus control of the House.
McCarthy, whose district is centered in Bakersfield, made winning seats in his native state a high priority, recruiting candidates and supplying them with whatever money they needed. It paid off last year when Republicans won back four of the seven California districts they had lost during the 2020 presidential election and, by some analyses, provided McCarthy with the narrow margin he needed to become speaker.
The current count is 221 Republicans and 212 Democrats with two vacancies, so it wouldn’t take much for the latter to regain the majority they had held for many years prior to 2022.
The GOP victory forced long-serving Speaker Nancy Pelosi of San Francisco to cede the gavel to McCarthy, her arch-rival from 250 miles to the southeast. However its narrowness compelled McCarthy to make concessions to the right-wing to be elected speaker after the election — procedural changes that ultimately led to his ouster.
Eventually, after numerous false starts, House Republicans last week elevated Mike Johnson, a Louisiana congressman more attuned to the right-wing bloc than McCarthy, who was suspected of harboring centrist inclinations.
That makes California’s Republican delegation — particularly those who won back four seats from Democrats in 2022 — political orphans, unable to depend on McCarthy’s prodigious fundraising ability to stave off Democrats’ high-intensity efforts to unseat them.
The GOP dilemma in California is magnified by 2024 being a presidential election year, which generally means a higher voter turnout, and Democratic efforts to link the Republican incumbents to former President Donald Trump, who is extremely unpopular in California, and now Speaker Johnson.
Within hours of Johnson’s election, Democratic campaign operatives were beating the media drums about Johnson’s anti-abortion and anti-gay rights positions and his support for Trump’s efforts to overturn the 2000 presidential election results.
“Mike Johnson is Jim Jordan with a sports coat — possibly worse — and he has a new posse of best friends in California: Kiley, Duarte, Valadao, Garcia, Kim, Calvert and Steel,” Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee spokesman Dan Gottlieb said in a typical broadside. “These GOP shills have enabled MAGA extremism every step of the way, and we’ll make sure that voters know that they once again put the far-right before California workers and families.”
The seven GOP congressional members Gottlieb cited are generally regarded as Democratic targets next year, but they vary in degree of vulnerability, with the four in districts carried by President Joe Biden considered the most imperiled.
The other three, John Duarte in the San Joaquin Valley, Ken Calvert in the Southern California desert and Kevin Kiley in Placer County, seem to be a bit less vulnerable.
“Nothing’s better than having Kevin McCarthy from the Central Valley as the Republican speaker of the House,” Duarte told Politico. “And I’m a Central Valley Republican running in a tough district.”
While Republican-held seats are the primary battlegrounds in deeply blue California next year, there are a few Democrat-held districts in play, particularly the 47th district in Orange County. Democrat Katie Porter won a very narrow re-election in 2022 and is giving up her seat to run for the U.S. Senate.
Republican Scott Baugh, whom Porter edged, is back for a second try while the main Democratic contenders are state Sen. Dave Min, who was arrested this year for drunk driving, and local activist Joanna Weiss.
Dan Walters is a CalMatters columnist.