Former House Speaker Kevin McCarthy’s announcement today that he will vacate his seat and not seek reelection sets off a tidal wave of speculation on who will represent a wide swath of California’s agricultural heartland.
The timing of the announcement also puts McCarthy in a spot to be a political kingmaker if he makes an early endorsement. It’s a role he’s played before and relishes. In announcing his resignation in a Wall Street Journal op-ed, McCarthy reiterated that he will “continue to recruit our country’s best and brightest to run for elected office.”
One thing is virtually certain: McCarthy’s replacement will be a Republican. And one of the names on a possible list of GOP stalwarts is a big one — former Rep. Devin Nunes.
The sprawling Godzilla-shaped district is a GOP stronghold as ruby-red as any in California. Its voters supported former President Donald Trump and the recall of Gov. Gavin Newsom by wide margins.
We also know the process for how McCarthy will be replaced, at least initially. Since he isn’t leaving his seat until after the candidate filing deadline, it’s up to Newsom to decide whether to call a special election in early 2024 to fill the remaining months of McCarthy’s current term, according to the Secretary of State’s office. A spokesperson for the governor’s office said a special election would need to be called within 14 days of a vacancy, but did not answer questions about whether Newsom plans to do so.
“We will have more to share once we have specifics from McCarthy about his planned departure,” said Erin Mellon, the spokesperson.
In the March primary and November general election, voters in the district will choose their next representative to serve starting in January 2025.
The counties covered by McCarthy’s 20th Congressional District have recent familiarity with this process when Nunes departed at the end of 2021. Connie Conway was elected in June 2022 to fill out the remaining six months of Nunes’ term and served as a caretaker uninterested in re-election.
Here are some of the potential candidates who could mount a campaign to replace McCarthy, and their pluses and minuses:
Longtime GOP member of Congress who left his seat in late 2020 to take over as chief executive of Truth Social, Trump’s social media venture
Why it could happen: Nunes has a mile-long list of political bonafides: national name recognition, an $11 million campaign war chest, and a bridge to the powerful MAGA wing of the Republican Party. He previously represented many of the Fresno-area voters who now make up a sizable chunk of McCarthy’s district. He hasn’t disappeared from the local political scene and frequently is a guest on local conservative talk radio. Election to a GOP stronghold district could be a more secure job than Truth Social’s shaky prospects.
Why it won’t: Nunes, who over nearly two decades in Congress had risen up the House ranks to lead the influential intelligence committee, would start over as a backbencher. Many speculate the chamber’s current thin GOP majority will be wiped out after the 2024 election, making for a miserable life as a Republican first-termer. He’s also branched out into various unrelated interests after joining Truth Social. He recently started his own winery with such vintages as Patriot Cabernet Sauvignon.
Republican Assemblymember who represents Bakersfield
Why it could happen: At 44, Fong could serve for decades and move into leadership. The Princeton graduate has long been a favorite of McCarthy and served as his district director prior to his election to the Assembly 2016. He was a former staffer for Republican Rep. Bill Thomas. He’s been a leader in the failed Republican efforts to suspend California’s gas tax. A lifetime NRA member, he’s pushed back against the Democratic majority on gun control.
Why it won’t happen: Fong is unknown in the wealthy Fresno suburbs that are an important part of McCarthy’s district. He has no local government experience.
Republican state senator who currently represents a district that overlaps much of McCarthy’s congressional seat
Why it could happen: Grove has built a well-known and popular political brand in Bakersfield, which makes up the bulk of her Senate district. She’s a strong supporter of Trump but has charted a relatively more pragmatic political profile. She won a high-profile victory over Democrats in the Legislature to reclassify human trafficking of a minor as a felony, a bill that Newsom signed. Redistricting brought her north to the wealthy and more conservative areas of Fresno and Clovis.
Why it won’t happen: Grove still is a relative unknown to a chunk of McCarthy’s district. She’d have to fundraise at a level she hasn’t achieved in the past. Her MAGA ties could turn off more middle-of-the-road voters in the Fresno suburbs.
Republican who currently represents the 22nd Congressional District
Why it could happen: The Republican from Hanford long has been held up as a political miracle — a Republican who gets elected in Democratic-majority districts. It’s a streak he kept alive for multiple terms until the 2018 blue wave, only to regain his seat in 2020. He’s now staring down a rematch with Salas in a year with Trump on the ballot. Hopscotching one district over could make political life much easier. It wouldn’t be the first time a member of Congress moves districts for greener political pastures. Democrat Josh Harder declined to run for re-election in his Modesto-centered district in 2022, opting instead to run in a safer Democratic district centered in Stockton.
Why it won’t happen: Valadao would be viewed as a political carpetbagger. Moving over to McCarthy’s district would leave his current one wide-open for Salas and the Democrats. His vote to impeach Trump in early 2021 turns off the powerful MAGA bloc.
Fresno County supervisor
Why it could happen: Magsig, also a former Clovis mayor and councilmember, mounted a primary challenge in 2022 to incumbent Rep. Tom McClintock in the newly-drawn 5th Congressional District. He has a history of taking on conservative causes and made waves when he led a majority of Fresno supervisors to sue the state over the renaming of the unincorporated community Squaw Valley to eliminate the Native American slur.
Why it won’t happen: Magsig’s 2022 McClintock challenge went poorly and angered many Republicans. He has no name recognition in Bakersfield. He opted out of a logical next step to replace termed-out Assemblymember Jim Patterson, a Fresno Republican, and seems content to stay closer to home. There are no term limits for Fresno County supervisors.
Former state Assemblymember and member of Congress
Why it could happen: Conway won a special election in 2022 to fill out the remainder of Nunes’ term. Her long history in the state Legislature gives her all-important name recognition.
Why it won’t happen: The former Assembly minority leader showed no interest in making Congress a permanent home.
CalMatters Capitol reporter Alexei Koseff contributed to this story.