BAKERSFIELD, Calif. — The next speaker of the U.S. House could very well hail from California — not Nancy Pelosi’s slice of the Golden State, but the other California, Donald Trump’s California.
House Republican leader Kevin McCarthy is a son of the Central Valley, a farming and oil-pumping heartland that eagerly embraced the former president. A swath of rural conservatism amid California’s progressive politics, it’s where residents often feel ostracized, resented and left behind by their liberal neighbors in San Francisco to the north and Los Angeles to the south.
“We’re the forgotten valley,” said retired insurance salesman Chuck Hall at a Republican Party dinner last week in Fresno.
It’s here where McCarthy launched his political rise, from a young entrepreneur who set up a sandwich counter inside his uncle’s frozen yogurt shop to one of the more powerful Republicans in state and national politics. His career took off during the Trump era, when McCarthy was an early backer who understood the magnetic pull of Trump’s populism in drawing working-class people away from Democrats and into the Republican fold.
McCarthy’s career in many ways reflects the arc of Republican politics, coming of age in the heady optimism of Ronald Reagan’s presidency and then shifting to align with Trump’s more hard-edged criticism of the status quo and Democratic policies.
Inflation has sent gas prices sky-high, at nearly $6 a gallon, pushing the price of a fill up into triple digits for some. Crime remains a problem as the region struggles with population fluctuations and income inequality. The coronavirus crisis hangs over the community as it does elsewhere as the nation emerges from the pandemic.
Families watching kids at a weeknight Little League game held mixed views, with some believing McCarthy is part of the problem in Washington and others seeing him as a potential solution.
Garrilynn Dickerson, a respiratory therapist and mother of two who treated COVID-19 patients at a local hospital, said she just wants Republicans and Democrats to work together.
“Honestly, I just want unity,” said the independent voter who said she likes libertarian leaning Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., but also wants to see McCarthy reach out more to Democrats. “I don’t like the mudslinging.”
Despite its conservative roots, the place that’s often called the Texas of the West is also changing. The once predominantly white population is fading as Latinos and other demographic groups gain in numbers. The Bakersfield City Council is working on new district lines to incorporate the growing Punjabi population.
Christian Romo, chairman of the Kern County Democrats, said the birthplace of the farm workers movement and the home to civil rights labor leader Cesar Chavez is coming into its own. As second- and third-generation immigrants become eligible to vote, their party allegiance is highly sought after by Democrats and Republicans working to boost numbers and turnout.
“We’re a red dot in a very blue county, but I keep telling people the blue wave is cracking through that red wall,” he said.
To prepare for the November elections, McCarthy is reaching back to the tools of another former Republican speaker, Newt Gingrich of Georgia, who won control in the 1994 election after presenting voters with the “Contract with America” list of GOP priorities.
McCarthy has tasked his rank and file with assembling its own list of priorities to present to the public this summer. He acknowledged his ideas are not being embraced by the other GOP leader in Congress, Sen. Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, who has said the election will be a referendum on President Joe Biden and Democratic policies.
“This is where Mitch and I disagree,” McCarthy said. “I think we have to lay out to the American public what you’re going to do ahead of time, because when the people go to vote, they vote for the agenda.”
Longtime Kern County Republican Party leader Cathy Abernathy, who first hired McCarthy as a young congressional intern a generation ago, said she is not convinced that Republicans will be able to win control this fall, despite outside analysis suggesting the election is theirs to lose.
“I don’t take it for granted,” she said.
It’s not the first time McCarthy has reached for the speaker’s gavel, having dropped out of a race abruptly in 2015 when it was clear he did not have support from hard-right lawmakers.
“Do I want to be speaker? Yes. But I don’t have to be speaker,” McCarthy said. “My life will be fine one way or another.”