Bakersfield Republicans, so recently elated that their hometown congressman Kevin McCarthy appeared on the verge of winning a bid to become the next speaker of the House of Representatives, were both stunned and angered to learn of his abrupt withdrawal Thursday.
After failing to win support from Republican conservatives, McCarthy told reporters that he decided to step aside so the GOP could find a "new face" to unite House Republicans.
Bakersfield tea party leader Tom Pavich had criticized McCarthy for being too closely aligned with outgoing Speaker John A. Boehner, saying they were too accommodating to the Obama administration and congressional Democrats. But even he was surprised by McCarthy's decision.
"I'm stunned. I really didn't anticipate this," said Pavich, a grape grower. "From everything I've heard, he was willing to embrace the conservative side. He was certainly saying all the right things before the vote.''
On Wednesday, however, the House's conservative Freedom Caucus, which may control 40 to 50 votes, announced its support for one of its its own -- Rep. Daniel Webster of Florida -- to be the next speaker.
"We're servants. We should put this conference first," McCarthy said Thursday. "If we are going to unite and be strong, we need a new face.''
Shafter farmer Larry Starrh, who has known McCarthy and his family for decades, said the Republican infighting in Washington was destroying public confidence in the party. Starrh, an active member of the Kern County Republican Party and a proud fiscal and social conservative, placed the blame squarely on the hard-line conservatives in Congress.
"These guys, they don't have solutions. Their solutions are, tear it all apart. Is that good for our country?" Starrh said. "It's a disaster. They're a floundering ship without a rudder."
Bakersfield is the largest city in McCarthy's 23nd congressional district, which includes most of Kern and Tulare counties. The district is among the most conservative in California, with Republicans accounting for 45% of the registered voters, compared with 29% registering as Democrats.
State Senate Republican leader Jean Fuller, who also represents Bakersfield and is among many successful Kern County Republican politicians supported by McCarthy, praised the congressman for his work to help the GOP take control of Congress. She said she still expects him to remain a political force.
"He joined House Republican leadership in 2009, and under his direction the Republicans took the majority in 2010 and continued to expand their ranks to the largest House Republican Conference in almost a century," Fuller said in a statement. "I know he will continue to serve his colleagues, California, and the nation well."