“There is that historic and continuing effort to topple the folks who have been on top for a while,” said Tim Rosales, a Republican consultant who’s not involved in the race.
Those headwinds could dull the edge typically enjoyed by an outgoing incumbent’s pick.
Fong does bring formidable advantages to the race. He has built up his name identification over years in office, starting out as McCarthy’s district director in 2006 before ascending the Sacramento ranks to become Assembly Republicans’ top budget official. His home county comprises the majority of the district. He also has endorsements from both McCarthy and the California Republican delegation.
Fong has projected himself as a reliable frontrunner.
“Washington and Sacramento have this gigantic bullseye on our region and we are feeling the consequences,” Fong said in an interview, pointing to Democratic efforts to phase out an oil industry that is an economic pillar in the district. “I’m the most experienced, tested, and proven candidate.”
Those assets may only go so far in a tumultuous new era of Republican infighting. McCarthy is still viewed with suspicion by a fervently pro-Trump conservative wing that sees him as insufficiently conservative and toppled his speakership. McCarthy
limped into retirement after that ignominious finish, weakening his stature in the district.
Fong’s chief rivals, Tulare County Sheriff Mike Boudreaux — a longtime incumbent who is running on a law-and-order platform with a healthy dose of Trump — and Fresno-based businessperson Kyle Kirkland, who is presenting himself as a political outsider, hail from different parts of a
redrawn district, giving them built-in bases.
As they compete for the mantle of Trump fealty, they are also making the case that Fong is part of a discredited establishment. Boudreaux described Fong as a kind of legacy admission.
“Look, Kevin picked his buddy,” Boudreaux said in an interview. “He’s endorsing his friend — that doesn’t mean he’s the best candidate.”
Voters will be writing the ultimate epitaph of McCarthy’s up-and-down career. His ascent brought uncustomary clout to a district that’s far removed, economically and ideologically, from California’s political power centers and population hubs of Los Angeles, San Francisco and Sacramento.
Yet McCarthy’s decision to bail on the remainder of his term stirred frustration at home — and his exit
followed grumblings he had become
detached from the district as his focus turned to Washington and currying favor with Trump.
“There are John Q. Citizens out here who were critical of him” for “neglecting the district and the
hypocrisy over Trump,” in which McCarthy both embraced and briefly distanced himself from the former president, said former Bakersfield City Council member Mark Salvaggio, who is remaining neutral in the race. “He was known for his fundraising and recruiting Republican candidates throughout the nation, and when that vanished with his humiliating ouster, he didn’t have that anymore and I think it wasn’t fun for him.”
In an email thread between local conservatives, a prominent businessperson who is supporting Boudreaux denounced McCarthy as a “quitter” and Fong as “McCarthy 2.0,” a product of the “local machine pumping out candidates.”
Assemblymember Devon Mathis, a Republican who backs Boudreaux, derided Fong in an interview as “the guy who’s trying to skate in on someone’s coattails.”
“Frankly, a lot of people see that McCarthy abandoned everybody,” Mathis said. “He loses power, so he gets mad and he quits. That’s what I hear on the street. If a guy’s the number two to that, why would I want a guy who’s probably going to do the same thing?”
Fong and McCarthy belong to a decades-long lineage of Kern County Republicans elevated by a kingmaker political firm, Western Pacific Research, that worked for each of Fong’s Assembly runs.
An earlier paragon of that system, former Rep. Bill Thomas, already broke with McCarthy by
denouncing his former protege’s handling of the Jan. 6 riots. Now some local conservatives see this election as a chance to break that system by rejecting Fong, the next in line. Western Pacific President Cathy Abernathy dismissed the infighting as “wannabes” missing the point.
“There are some activists that spend more time-fighting other Republicans than fighting Democrats,” Abernathy said in an interview, “and so those people like to think there’s a machine or something going on that prevents their candidate from winning.”
Redistricting created an opening for more candidates, extending the 20th congressional district far beyond its former Kern County power base and creating what some staffers refer to as “the Godzilla district.”
Then, McCarthy’s eleventh-hour retirement unleashed chaos. Fong initially declined to run but reversed and jumped in when another presumed candidate decided against running, embroiling him in an
ongoing legal fight.
McCarthy’s network has already buoyed Fong. In the weeks after launching, Fong raised tens of thousands of dollars from political action committees tied to House Republicans — including a McCarthy ally, Rep. Patrick McHenry, whom the party’s conservative wing rejected as speakership candidate. A new Super PAC
just began spending on Fong’s behalf.
Yet Boudreaux outraised Fong last year in a show of his staying power. Kirkland has given his campaign $100,000, allowing him to compete with better-known candidates and fund advertising.
The former speaker has been busy
exacting electoral vengeance on Republicans who crossed him. But there is a broad expectation among local Republicans that McCarthy would intervene on Fong’s behalf if he is at risk, either directly or by marshaling some of the deep-pocketed allies he collected as speaker.
“Kevin’s a competitive guy, and the odds he’s going to let someone take his seat who’s not his candidate — it’s unlikely,” said a campaign operative familiar with McCarthy’s thinking who was granted anonymity to discuss internal Republican politics.
And then there is the Trump factor.
The former president’s near-inexorable march to the Republican nomination is hanging over the race. Despite the withered state of the California Republican apparatus, it produced more votes for Trump than any other in 2020 because of its large population. Whoever wins McCarthy’s seat could well be working with a second Trump administration — and they are jostling for position.
Boudreaux has rolled out endorsements from former Trump officials and included footage of himself with Trump in his first campaign spot. Repeat candidate David Giglio was already running as the MAGA movement’s anti-McCarthy scion before McCarthy retired. Fong’s endorsement from McCarthy could cut both ways: The former speaker at one point earned the affectionate moniker “My Kevin” from Trump, yet has faced MAGA resistance.
As they compete for primary votes, candidates have focused on red-meat topics like immigration and the border — an issue that
is also central to Trump’s reelection bid. Both Fong and Boudreaux highlighted it in their first campaign spots. At the same time, Boudreaux has faced attacks from the right for floating a pathway to citizenship for undocumented immigrants.
“It’s echoing the national messages that are coming from the Trump campaign,” said Republican political consultant Tal Eslick, who has worked for multiple California Republicans.
For some voters, perceived fealty to Trump could be the deciding factor — and Fong risks being tied to McCarthy’s liabilities on that front as well. McCarthy rose to prominence by wrapping his arms around the former president but lost his speakership after failing to appease GOP hardliners in a standoff over the federal budget.
“People see Kevin as someone who pretended to fully embrace the MAGA message and movement only to get power and then not deliver on things like border security,” Giglio, who placed fourth in a primary for a different seat last cycle, said in an interview. “We need someone who fully aligns with (Trump’s) vision and that way when he wins next year, it’s not someone who’s going to obstruct him.”