In Kevin McCarthy’s California district, discontent brews on his right

In Washington, Kevin McCarthy is the party’s ultimate Republican, one of former President Trump’s most loyal foot soldiers in Congress and the leader of the GOP in its quest to regain control of the House of Representatives in November.

But back in his district, Cora Shipley is skeptical.

“I don’t think he’s a real conservative,” said Shipley, 78, owner of an ice cream shop in Clovis that moved last year to the new 20th congressional district, where McCarthy is seeking re-election.

Shipley’s Shop is a staple of Old Town Clovis, where American flags line antique shops and country music blares from loudspeakers. She said she is waiting to see how McCarthy will lead the GOP should he become Speaker of the House next year.

“He’s been on both sides of a lot of issues,” she said from a table in the back of her store, with photos of Elvis on the walls and a “thin blue line” flag hanging outside.

McCarthy is tasked with introducing himself to more than 200,000 new voters in a district where the GOP’s registration advantage has grown to nearly 20 percentage points, the largest in the state. But even in such a red zone, McCarthy faces distrust from voters on his right flank – including some who have backed him in the past.

“If you hear people talking about the swamp, it’s part of that system,” said Eric Rollins, 57, of Clovis. “He’s a longtime politician.”

The 20th District includes part of California’s San Joaquin Valley, which in its northern half stretches awkwardly west to include Clovis and part of Hanford – both thoroughly red areas new to McCarthy. Much of the district is familiar to the Republican, however: He draws almost a quarter of his population from his hometown of Bakersfield, the largest city in Kern County, where oil siphons bobble alongside the streets and temperatures top 100 degrees many days.

Just two hours north of Los Angeles, Bakersfield is the gateway to Red Island, which some Californians consider the land of flyover. Here, agriculture and oil dominate culture and thus conservative politics. It’s a region that “is more West Texas than Texas,” said Mark Arax, a journalist who has written extensively about it for The Times and others.

McCarthy, 57, is universally popular in Bakersfield, thanks in part to his deep roots in the city: he ran a small sandwich shop after graduating from public high school and his father was an assistant fire chief. Supporters say McCarthy has a strong conservative record in Congress, and many are excited about the possibility of one of Kern County’s own serving as speaker.

Kern County accounts for about 70 percent of California's oil production.

Rep. Kevin McCarthy has represented parts of Kern County in Congress since 2007. The region accounts for about 70% of California’s oil production.

(Alex Horvath / Los Angeles Times)

“I don’t know of any issue that Kevin McCarthy voted on in Congress that a conservative wouldn’t respect,” said Cathy Abernathy, 71, a Republican adviser from Kern County. When she was chief of staff for the then GOP rep. Bill Thomas, she hired McCarthy as an assistant.

Even with a remodeled borough, Abernathy said, “the fundamental issues don’t change — it’s the economy, it’s education, it’s transportation.” Locally, some are hoping McCarthy’s standing in Washington will help slow down environmental regulations that threaten the region’s oil industry, she said.

Others in the area support him because of his good reputation. He’s known as a “first-name guy,” said Jan Scurlock, a 70-year-old former financial adviser who moved here four years ago. She plans to vote for McCarthy in November.

Jan Scurlock, 70, speaks about Congressman Kevin McCarthy. (Alex Horvath / Los Angeles Times)

Jan Scurlock, 70, wants to vote for McCarthy in November.

(Alex Horvath / Los Angeles Times)

But Conservatives’ low level of trust in institutions and government is palpable in the district — and its manifestation isn’t always kind to McCarthy, who has served in Congress since 2006.

“I’m not sure I can trust him to do exactly what he says,” said Ronnie Martinez, a 51-year-old salesman from Bakersfield.

Martinez leads a weekly Bible study outside a mall, where attendees have expressed mixed feelings about the congressman.

“I think he’s kind of a marshmallow,” said Scott Cross, 65, a music teacher. “I used to like him a lot. But he will support this, and if it is unpopular to support this, he will support that. And if it’s unpopular to support it, he will support it.”

McCarthy has emerged as the staunchly conservative leader of the GOP faction in the House of Representatives. Still, some voters remain unsettled by his momentary denunciation of Trump’s involvement in the Jan. 6, 2021 uprising. Others say McCarthy was simply too comfortable in Washington, where the focus is always on the next election. The anger often appears to be fueled by conservative media, and many of McCarthy’s right-wing skeptics are being swayed by misinformation and promoting false theories about fraud in the 2020 election.

“He’s a snake,” said Greg Williams, 65, a retired California Highway Patrol officer from Bakersfield, who quickly notes that it’s less of a McCarthy issue and more of a Washington issue. “I don’t trust any politician,” he said.

At a shady table in front of a Starbucks in a Bakersfield mall where Williams meets with a few mostly retired friends each afternoon, his colleagues agree.

“I just wish someone else would fight him,” said Richard Tidwell, 68, a retired veteran. “Everyone in there is corrupt.”

Back in Clovis, Shipley awaits the final verdict.

“I want him to tell the truth and I want him to get behind the conservative wing of the Republican Party,” she said.

Greg Williams, 65, speaks about Congressman Kevin McCarthy on June 28, 2022. (Alex Horvath / Los Angeles Times)

Retired California Highway Patrol officer Greg Williams, 65, says he doesn’t trust politicians, including McCarthy.

(Alex Horvath / Los Angeles Times)

McCarthy can count on the support of most of those who distrust him – if only because they have nowhere else to go.

“Look at the alternative,” Tidwell said, referring to the Democrats.

For years, the county’s dark red makeup has protected McCarthy from serious political threats — a trend that almost certainly won’t change in November when he takes on Democrat Marisa Wood, a public school teacher. He easily fended off the first challenges, including in June when he received 59% of the vote.

His response to the 2020 election has edged out some moderate voters, but even they recognize the bloc isn’t big enough to be politically significant.

Dale Pitstick, 60, a lifelong Republican whom Trump turned into an independent, winced when asked if he’d voted for McCarthy in the past. “A mistake,” he said.

In Bakersfield, “people are still anchored in the Trump world,” said Pitstick, who works for an insurance company.

For him, McCarthy’s continued hugging of Trump after the Jan. 6 attack “revealed who Kevin McCarthy really was.”

“He’s a power-hungry individual who’s after himself,” Pitstick said, “not the citizens.”

Dale Pitstick, 60, speaks about Congressman Kevin McCarthy. (Alex Horvath / Los Angeles Times)

Dale Pitstick, 60, says former President Trump pushed him out of the Republican Party. He no longer supports McCarthy.

(Alex Horvath / Los Angeles Times)

Thomas, the former Bakersfield congressman who mentored McCarthy, also slammed his successor after Jan. 6, saying on a local radio show he had “put politics ahead of the country” and perpetuated lies about voter fraud.

McCarthy, whose campaign did not respond to interview requests, backed a failed legal effort that would have overturned the 2020 election and later voted against certifying results from two states. After the Jan. 6 riot, he condemned Trump’s behavior, saying he “takes responsibility” for the attack and acknowledging Joe Biden as the winner.

McCarthy was featured prominently in hearings of the House of Representatives committee investigating that day’s events. In a prime-time hearing on Thursday, the panel Play previously leaked audio recordings in which McCarthy said Trump should resign.

But he has continued to hug Trump ever since, refusing to answer a question last month about whether Biden was the legitimate winner of the election.

McCarthy’s California district has seen major demographic shifts over the past few decades — more than a quarter are Latino now — but that hasn’t been a problem for him.

David A. Torres’ mother always said that being born Latino guarantees several things in life: “You were a Democrat and you were a Catholic” — and you stood up for the Oakland Raiders.

“Things have changed significantly since then,” said Torres, a 61-year-old defense attorney from Bakersfield who once considered running against McCarthy as a Democrat. “Just because you’re Latino doesn’t guarantee you’ll become a Democrat.”

The GOP’s efforts to label Democrats as “socialists” and “communists” have been successful with many Latino voters, he said, and abortion remains a sticking point for some.

But for Rollins, a grassroots political activist in the Clovis area who hosts a talk show on AM radio, those terms aren’t just Republican mantras.

“I really think there’s a rise in authoritarianism,” he said. “You can call it socialism; you can call it communism – but it is a rise of authoritarianism. You think the state should tell you what to do.”

Rollins said he would be inclined to support a Conservative challenger to McCarthy should a viable candidate emerge.

His main topics: economics, “protecting 1st and 2nd amendment rights” and immigration. The 2nd Amendment, he said, “is a backup in case politicians decide we no longer have rights.”

Does it matter

“We’re not there yet — it might be,” he said. “I hope not.”

https://www.latimes.com/politics/story/2022-07-24/kevin-mccarthys-california-district-grows-more-conservative-discontent-brews-on-his-right In Kevin McCarthy’s California district, discontent brews on his right

Alley Einstein

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