What to expect in Tuesday’s California election to replace Kevin McCarthy in Congress

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Voters in former Rep. Kevin McCarthy’s district have through Tuesday to select his replacement.

The winner will serve in Congress for the next seven months and get the incumbency advantage for the Nov. 5 general election. He could be sworn in anytime from within a week to over a month from now.

Will California’s 20th Congressional District pick Vince Fong, the hometown Bakersfield Assemblyman who followed in his former bosses’ footsteps? Or the likable sheriff, Mike Boudreaux, who has spent his whole career in Tulare County law enforcement?

Both Fong and Boudreaux are Republicans touting heightened border security, no new taxes, and stronger local water supply and energy production. Fong, a McCarthy protege who was once a top congressional aide, is considered a strong favorite.

“I don’t know of very many — I mean, if any — sort of policies that they differ from one another on by anything material,” said Tal Eslick, a San Joaquin Valley consultant who knows Fong from their time working for different Republican congressmen.

The difference comes in experiences and McCarthy’s influence. Fong has a large advantage in lineage, base and finances. That should be particularly pronounced in what is expected to be a low turnout election.

“It’s a Republican-on-Republican race, obviously. So I think it benefits who has had the resources to actually aggressively communicate with voters,” Eslick said. “And that’s Vince.”

McCarthy’s chosen successor

Fong, R-Bakersfield, is McCarthy’s chosen successor in the area that has been represented by powerful GOP congressmen for more than four decades.

McCarthy left Congress in December two months after his ouster as Speaker of the House, a role he long coveted and held for nine months.

McCarthy got the seat in 2007 upon the retirement of his former boss, Rep. Bill Thomas, then chairman of the powerful House Ways and Means Committee, which writes legislation on tax policy, trade, Social Security and other big issues.

Fong, 44, worked for both. He served as McCarthy’s district director for almost a decade and began his political career as an aide to Thomas, who was first elected to Congress in 1978.

“Vince — although personality wise very different than Kevin, certainly very different than Bill Thomas — is super effective in his own respect,” Eslick said.

“And he has a long history both as an elected official, which is always helpful when you’re continuing that role,” he added, “but I would say he’s distinguished from others in that he was a staff member for a member of Congress for a number of years.”

Kern County base

Fong has campaign support from McCarthy fundraisers, consultants and affiliated PACs. He secured former President Donald Trump’s endorsement close to each primary election — a valuable commodity in California’s 20th, the state’s most heavily GOP congressional district where 47% of registered voters are Republican and 27% are Democrats.

The 20th covers parts of Kern, Kings, Fresno and Tulare counties.

Fong led in both the March 5 and March 19 primaries. He led in Kern and Fresno counties while Boudreaux, 57, led in Tulare and Kings.

Boudreaux has been Tulare County Sheriff for over a decade, having started in law enforcement there as a cadet at age 19. He is currently president of the California State Sheriffs’ Association.

Fong has represented the area that’s now the 32nd Assembly District since 2016 and is the top Republican on the powerful budget committee. He must resign his Assembly seat to be a member of Congress.

Born and raised in Bakersfield, Fong has his home base in Kern County, giving him an edge where most of the district’s voters live.

More than half of vote-by-mail ballots in the May 21 runoff were issued to people who live in Kern County, according to the California secretary of state’s office. Fresno County houses a little over a quarter of the district’s voters. Tulare and Kings counties combined have 21%.

Fundraising advantage

Fong raised nearly $1.48 million to Boudreaux’s over $423,000 this election cycle, according to reports filed with the Federal Election Commission May 9. The Assemblyman spent about $1.44 million to the sheriff’s $370,000.

An independent expenditure organization fueled by McCarthy allies, the Central Valley Values PAC, spent over $650,000 on mailers, text messages and digital advertisements ahead of the March primaries to boost Fong, bash Boudreaux and elevate a Democratic challenger.

It has spent almost $160,000 supporting Fong for the May runoff, FEC reports as of May 18 show.

A Democratic challenger in the May runoff and November election would have handed Fong a win more easily in the deep-red district. But Boudreaux survived both primaries.

The two Republicans are expected to face each other again in the Nov. 5 general election for a two-year term to begin in January 2025.

Low-turnout election

Fatigue for those who typically vote and scant interest in this off-season election for those who are less engaged suggest low turnout.

By last Thursday, five days before Election Day, about 12% of mail-in ballots had been returned, according to Weber’s office.

Eslick said that the March 5 and March 19 ballots being sent around the same time likely helped turnout for the special primary election. Now that it’s closer to summer, interest has waned.

“I think this will be a shockingly low turnout,” Eslick said.

Polls open at 7 a.m. Pacific Time on May 21 and close at 8 p.m. Ballot drop boxes also close at 8 p.m. Mail-in ballots postmarked and sent on or before Election Day that are delivered by May 28 will be counted.

The canvass period begins May 23 and ends June 20. Weber must certify election results by or on June 28.

If a victor is clear earlier, even as soon as Election Night, he can be declared the official winner well before then. For example, former Republican Rep. Connie Conway was the clear winner to finish Rep. Devin Nunes’ term on the night of the 2022 special election. The election was June 7; she was sworn into Congress on June 14.

Getting the winner sworn in will be a priority for House Speaker Mike Johnson, R-La., given he has a razor-thin majority that gives renegade Republicans outsize impact. The House has 217 Republicans, 213 Democrats and five vacancies.

No matter who wins the May runoff, the winner will boost the GOP delegation.