California's Central Valley is voting, again, to replace Kevin McCarthy in Congress

Two weeks after narrowing the field of candidates to represent them in Congress starting next year, voters in the San Joaquin Valley are voting again.

On Tuesday, Central Valley voters will cast ballots in a separate special election to complete the remainder of former Rep. Kevin McCarthy’s term in the House of Representatives. The Bakersfield Republican left Congress at the end of 2023, with a year left in his term, after his own party ousted him as speaker of the House.

The fight to succeed McCarthy has pitted Republicans against Republicans in the 20th Congressional District, which includes Fresno, Kern, Kings and Tulare counties. The front-runners include McCarthy’s handpicked successor, Assemblymember Vince Fong; and Tulare County Sheriff Mike Boudreaux, a law-and-order conservative.

If either Fong or Bourdreaux wins the special election, he will head into the regular November election as the incumbent member of Congress, a significant advantage in the race to represent the San Joaquin Valley district in Congress in 2025 and 2026.

Being the incumbent on the November ballot would help “enormously,” said Republican consultant Rob Stutzman, who is not working for either candidate. “It’s a huge boost.”

Stutzman said voters probably wouldn’t want to back a different candidate months after sending someone to Washington. And, he said, being sworn into Congress after the special election would unlock support from the National Republican Congressional Committee, which spends to support incumbents in their reelection fights.

There are nine candidates on the special election ballot. Two are Democrats, including Marisa Wood, a middle school teacher who ran against McCarthy in 2022. Four are Republicans, including Fong, Boudreaux and Fresno casino owner Kyle Kirkland, who loaned his campaign $485,000, federal records show. Three candidates are running with no party preference.

If no candidate receives more than 50% of the vote in Tuesday’s special election, the race will go to a runoff on May 21.

Much of the Republican establishment has lined up behind Fong, who started his career as McCarthy’s district director before being elected to represent Bakersfield in the state Assembly.

Two super PACs, one funded by McCarthy’s political action committee, spent more than $670,000 to boost Fong through digital ads, text messages and mailers, federal filings show. One group called Central Valley Values sent ads about Wood to Democrats in the district, apparently in an attempt to help her advance to the general election. In a deep-red district, Fong would have an easy path to election in both races if he faced a Democrat.

Rep. Adam B. Schiff of Burbank and his allies used a similar strategy in the California Senate race, boosting Republican Steve Garvey in an effort to keep Rep. Katie Porter, a fierce liberal competitor, out of the November election.

The strategy didn’t work in the Central Valley, where primary election results for the full two-year term show Fong with about 42% of the primary vote, Boudreaux with 24% and Wood with about 21%.

Fong also snagged an endorsement from former President Trump, a huge advantage in one of the most Republican congressional districts in California. Trump wrote last month on his social network, Truth Social, that Fong would work in Congress to “grow the economy, lower your taxes, cut burdensome regulations, champion American energy, and protect and defend the 2nd Amendment, which is under siege by the radical left.”

Fong said in a statement that the Central Valley is “ready to once again have leaders in DC, like President Trump, that will fight for our interests and values.”

Trump’s endorsement of Fong, Stutzman said, “really cuts the legs out from under any type of insurgency from the right.”

Boudreaux has cast himself as an alternative to the Central Valley’s establishment Republican politics. He has been endorsed by state Sen. Shannon Grove (R-Bakersfield) and David Giglio, the self-described “America First” candidate who dropped out of the congressional race last month.

The Central Valley is “demanding leadership in Washington with real experience confronting our biggest issues: safety and our open border,” Boudreaux said after the Associated Press said he would advance to the November ballot. Boudreaux advanced despite being “outspent 10-to-1 by swampy D.C. special interests and super PACs seeking to protect the status quo,” his campaign manager said in a statement.

The election got off to a rocky start, with legal confusion over whether Fong, who had initially filed to run for reelection in the 32nd Assembly District, is eligible to run for Congress. Fong changed his mind, filed to run for Congress and was barred from the ballot by California Secretary of State Shirley Weber, a Democrat, who said that state law prohibits candidates from running for two offices in one election.

Fong sued, arguing that the law Weber cited has not been applicable since 2010, when California voters scrapped the state’s party nomination system and created a new system in which the two candidates who receive the most votes advance to the general election regardless of their party affiliation. A Sacramento County judge sided with Fong in late December, ruling that he could appear on the ballot after all.

Weber’s office appealed the decision in late January and asked the 3rd District Court of Appeal to rule on the question of Fong’s eligibility by April 12, the deadline for Weber to certify the primary election results.

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