By Dan Walters | CALmatters Columnist
Will the second time be the charm for Bakersfield Congressman Kevin McCarthy?
The three years ago, McCarthy’s bid to become speaker of the Republican-controlled House of Representatives failed due to opposition from a conservative House bloc, calling itself the Freedom Caucus, that saw him as too centrist.
McCarthy continued in the No. 2 leadership position as Paul Ryan became speaker, and a year later, Donald Trump unexpectedly won the presidency, which threw everything into turmoil.
McCarthy, oddly enough, became the mercurial Trump’s favorite congressman, acting as a vital go-between in the on-again, off-again relationship between the White House and Capitol Hill.
Last week, opportunity again knocked as Ryan, tired of Washington intrigue, announced that he would not seek re-election from his Wisconsin district this year. Immediately, political oddsmakers pegged McCarthy and the No. 3 GOP leader, whip Steve Scalise of Louisiana, as the two contenders for the top position.
“Everyone is talking about this,” the Washington Post quoted a “veteran Republican House member,” who added, “We’re sizing them up, seeing who would be a better fit. It’s the prism that we look at them through now.”
McCarthy’s close relationship with Trump, and also Vice President Mike Spence, is a major factor in his chances of succeeding Ryan. But there’s also a big question mark hanging over the Capitol.
Will there be a speakership for McCarthy or Scalise to fill, or will Democrats retake control of the House by capitalizing on Trump’s unpopularity and the manic enmity he generates among Democratic voters?
It’s evident that the GOP will lose some seats this year. It’s even possible, oddsmakers believe, that Ryan’s own district will switch. But will Democrats gain the 24 seats they need to return to power?
As it happens, McCarthy’s home state is one key to the outcome. There are only 14 Republican members in California’s 53-person congressional delegation and Trump lost to Hillary Clinton in seven of those GOP districts, mostly in Southern California.
Democrats hope to flip three or four of them and many believe, unless they succeed in California, they have little chance of re-capturing the House.
However, it’s very uncertain whether they can grab more than one, thanks to the dynamics of California’s top-two primary system. There are so many Democrats running in some of those districts for the June 5 primary that the GOP could wind up finishing 1-2 and freezing Democratic candidates off the November ballot.
Therefore, McCarthy’s chances of becoming speaker not only hinge on winning the support of a majority of his fellow Republicans in the House, but how well his party defends its small contingent in his home state.
That fact heightens another aspect of McCarthy’s chances of becoming speaker. As he defends those vulnerable California House seats, San Francisco Congresswoman Nancy Pelosi, the minority leader in the House, will be trying to take them away and if her Democratic Party is successful enough in California and other states, she will again be occupying the speaker’s ornate Capitol office.
If nothing else, it means that chances are pretty high that the next speaker will be from California, albeit from very different corners of this very diverse state.
CALmatters is a public interest journalism venture committed to explaining how California’s state Capitol works and why it matters. For more stories by Dan Walters, go to calmatters.org/commentary