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How Kevin McCarthy is influencing the race for his former congressional seat

Left, Tulare County Sheriff Mike Boudreaux. Right, Assemblyman Vince Fong.
Tulare County Sheriff Mike Boudreaux, left, is running against Assemblymember Vince Fong for the 20th Congressional District seat recently vacated by former House Speaker Kevin McCarthy.
(Associated Press)
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Good morning. It’s Tuesday, May 21. Here’s what you need to know to start your day. I’m Laura J. Nelson, a political reporter at The Times. Here’s what you need to know to start your day.

Running against the Kevin McCarthy machine

When former Rep. Kevin McCarthy (R-Bakersfield) left Congress last year, it was the end of an era — but far from the end of his involvement in politics.

Today is election day in McCarthy’s old district in the Central Valley, which stretches up State Route 99 and the 5 Freeway between Bakersfield and Fresno. The seat has been vacant in the conservative agricultural district since the end of 2023, when McCarthy resigned after being voted out as House speaker.

As I reported this week, McCarthy isn’t on the ballot in the 20th Congressional District. But he has been an influential presence in the race, lending his connections and his significant fundraising prowess to help his chosen successor.

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McCarthy’s pick is Assemblymember Vince Fong, 44, a Republican, who started his career working for McCarthy’s predecessor, then-Rep. Bill Thomas, and worked as McCarthy’s district director before being elected to the state Legislature to represent Bakersfield in 2016.

Fong’s opponent is longtime Tulare County Sheriff Mike Boudreaux, 57, also a Republican, and the head of the California State Sheriffs Assn. Boudreaux is best known in the northern half of the district, which stretches through portions of Kern, Kings, Tulare and Fresno counties.

Whoever wins Tuesday’s election will finish McCarthy’s term, which ends in January. They will also go into the November election as the incumbent, a significant advantage. They will be representing an area that has become accustomed to electing representatives who stay in Washington for years and rise to powerful positions.

Central Valley legacies

McCarthy spent nearly 18 years in Congress and became House speaker. His predecessor, Thomas, was in office for 28 years and chaired the powerful Ways and Means Committee. And in neighboring Fresno, former Rep. Devin Nunes was in Congress for 18 years, including a stint chairing the House Intelligence Committee.

“A lot of the big cities and the urban centers get a lot of the attention,” Fong told me. But, he said, he would hope to follow in the footsteps of McCarthy, Thomas and Nunes, who were “able to make sure that the Central Valley had a seat at the table.”

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Fong is best known in Kern County, which is home to more than half of the district’s registered voters. He and his supporters say that he’s the best and most experienced candidate, who could easily transition from Sacramento to Washington.

“I’ve been on the streets, on patrol, enforcing issues of immigration and crime resulting from bad legislation,” Boudreaux said. “I have 38 years of real-life experiences that I can take to the Hill.”

How some voters see the race

At a fundraiser for Boudreaux’s campaign, on a beautiful patio overlooking a Visalia golf course, his friends and supporters ate skewers of feta cheese and watermelon with balsamic drizzle while I quizzed them about how they saw the race.

Several put it almost exactly the same way: They see Boudreaux as a principled conservative and an experienced leader who is facing down a freight train of money from McCarthy and his allies. (And just because they’re all Republicans doesn’t mean they always get along — it’s complicated.)

Retired Republican Rep. Connie Conway, who replaced Nunes in Congress, said — to laughter in the crowd — that she had encountered “just a little pressure” not to endorse the sheriff.

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“Kern County thinks they’re kingmakers,” said Mariann Bettencourt, a former chair of the Tulare County Republican Party. “They don’t much like it when you run against them.”

Fong has raised nearly $1.5 million, more than three times as much as Boudreaux.

Running against the “McCarthy machine,” Boudreaux said, has been “daunting, to say the least.”

McCarthy has contributed $450,000 from his political action committee into a pro-Fong PAC called Central Valley Values. (The PAC has also received $500,000 from a new political group funded by major Republican donors, including Barbara Marshall-Grimm of Bakersfield’s Grimmsway Farms, the world’s largest carrot grower.)

Another sign of McCarthy’s involvement: President Trump’s endorsement of Fong in March.

“The Kern County GOP really is a machine,” said Greg Perrone, president of the Greater Bakersfield Republican Assembly. And Fong, he said, has “got it all behind him.”

For more from the Central Valley, check out my story: “How Kevin McCarthy is influencing this congressional race — without being on the ballot.”

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