Donald Trump endorses Vince Fong to replace Kevin McCarthy. Will it affect California race?

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Several surprising endorsements — and the departure of a couple of candidates from the race — are shaking up the election to replace retired Rep. Kevin McCarthy.

Former President Donald Trump entered the fray Tuesday with an endorsement of Assemblyman Vince Fong, R-Bakersfield, in California’s 20th Congressional District, further boosting the Republican Assemblyman who has been the frontrunner in the race. Fong, 44, has also been endorsed by McCarthy, who retired in 2023 following his ousting as House Speaker.

Fong served as McCarthy’s district director for nearly a decade before joining the Legislature. But his congressional candidacy faces a legal challenge from California’s secretary of state.

Trump wrote on Truth Social, his social media site, that “now is the time to unite around Vince Fong and elect a true Republican to this seat.”

The endorsement comes after two high-profile figures in Kern County, where Bakersfield and Fong’s home base is, instead threw their support behind Tulare County Sheriff Mike Boudreaux. Two candidates on the March 5 primary ballot have also recently dropped out and endorsed Boudreaux, a Republican who has been in law enforcement in Tulare County for almost four decades.

Though it is too late for their names to be removed, “America First” businessman David Giglio and no-party-preference businessman T.J. Esposito said last week that they would no longer run for the seat.

“Despite initially expressing some concerns regarding Sheriff Boudreaux’s motives for entering this race, I can now say with complete certainty that he is a good man and is in this race for the right reasons,” Giglio said in a statement.

Another candidate for the 20th, Kern County entrepreneur Stan Ellis, endorsed Fong in December.

The thinning out of the race comes after Kern County’s Sheriff Donny Youngblood and State Sen. Shannon Grove, R-Bakersfield, backed Boudreaux, 56, over Fong in a surprise twist. Kern County, where Youngblood and Grove are based, is Fong’s home. Grove also worked with Fong in the Legislature, and Fong had initially left the door open for her to run, only announcing his bid for Congress after she had said she would not.

The legal challenge against Fong

The race is complicated by a legal challenge to Fong’s candidacy by California Secretary of State Shirley Weber that could end his bid.

In December, before filing under an extended deadline as a candidate in California’s 20th, Fong qualified to run for re-election to the Assembly. Weber said Fong could neither remove himself from the Assembly race nor be on the ballot for different seats under the elections code. She said he could not run in the 20th.

A Sacramento County Superior Court disagreed with the secretary of state’s decision and granted Fong’s request to run for Congress while remaining on the ballot for the Assembly. The secretary of state, up against a deadline, included Fong’s name on the list of candidates for both California’s 20th and the 32nd Assembly district, which he currently represents.

Weber asked an appeals court last month to erase the Sacramento judge’s ruling and drop Fong as a congressional candidate for the November general election by April 12. If that request is granted, Weber would block Fong from the November ballot.

Who is leading the polls to replace McCarthy?

Results of an Emerson College Polling survey released at the end of January had 27% of respondents voting for Fong. Boudreaux and Democrat Marisa Wood, a Bakersfield school teacher, each had 11% — but 35% of respondents said they were undecided.

The 20th, California’s most Republican district, takes parts of Kern, Kings, Tulare and Fresno counties.

There are two elections for California’s 20th. The March 5 primary is for a full two-year term that starts in January 2025. Another primary on March 19 is for the remainder of McCarthy’s current term, which ends in January 2025.

The secretary of state’s challenge to Fong’s candidacy only applies to the March 5 election.

Republicans Fong, Boudreaux and Fresno casino owner Kyle Kirkland are running in both, as are Democrat Wood and no-party-preference candidate Ben Dewell.

Republicans only listed for the March 5 primary are Giglio, Ellis, California City Mayor Kelly Kulikoff and former fighter pilot Matt Stoll. Democrat Andy Morales, a security guard, and Esposito, who is now running as a write-in candidate for the 32nd Assembly district, are also on the ballot for the full term.

Candidates listed for only the special election are Republican Anna Zoe Cohen, a high school employee, Democrat Harmesh Kumar, a clinical psychologist and businessman, and no-party-preference candidates James V. Cardoza, a real estate photographer, and David J. Fluhart, a cannabis grower.

Fong, Boudreaux, Wood and Morales will debate at KGET TV studios in Bakersfield on Thursday night from 7 to 8 p.m.