How Kevin McCarthy is influencing this congressional race — without being on the ballot

Left, Tulare County Sheriff Mike Boudreaux. Right, Assemblyman Vince Fong.
Tulare County Sheriff Mike Boudreaux, left, is running against Assemblymember Vince Fong for the 20th Congressional District seat recently vacated by former House Speaker Kevin McCarthy. (Associated Press)

As he stood on a sun-dappled patio overlooking the Visalia Country Club, Tulare County Sheriff Mike Boudreaux didn't mince words about his chances in his run for Congress.

"I am the underdog," Boudreaux told a crowd of supporters. "I am pushing back against a machine that is so powerful that it's very challenging, to say the least."

The power behind the machine is former Rep. Kevin McCarthy (R-Bakersfield), who resigned from Congress last year after being voted out as House speaker. His name is not on the ballot, but McCarthy's political influence and campaign funds are still major factors in the fight over who will serve out the remainder of his term in Congress.

Voters in the 20th Congressional District, the most conservative in California, will choose Tuesday between two Republican candidates: Boudreaux, a sheriff from the northern half of the district; and Assemblymember Vince Fong, a lawmaker who represents Bakersfield in Sacramento and previously worked for McCarthy.

The special election is expected to be a relatively low-key, low-turnout affair. But the stakes are high: Whoever wins the special election will be the incumbent on the November ballot, a significant advantage in the race for the full two-year term.

"Boudreaux is the outsider, the David versus the Goliath," said Mark Salvaggio, a Bakersfield political commentator and former member of the City Council. "Fong is McCarthy's heir apparent, and the scales are tilted in his favor."

Read more: McCarthy’s constituents ‘don’t blame him,’ but worry about losing their voice in Congress

Fong and Boudreaux are aligned on most major policy issues: opposing abortion, reducing illegal immigration at the U.S.-Mexico border and securing better water and energy policies for the agricultural Central Valley.

Boudreaux, 57, has been the sheriff of Tulare County for more than a decade and serves as the head of the California State Sheriffs' Assn.

"I've been on the streets, on patrol, enforcing issues of immigration and crime resulting from bad legislation," Boudreaux said. "I have 38 years of real life experiences that I can take to the Hill."

Fong, 44, began his career working for McCarthy's predecessor, then-Rep. Bill Thomas, then worked for nearly a decade as McCarthy's district director before winning a seat in the state Assembly in 2016.

Fong considers McCarthy a friend and mentor, but said he has spent years building his own track record in Sacramento, where he is the vice chair of the Assembly's budget committee. He said he has fought for "fiscal sanity" and worked on bills to help the Central Valley address fentanyl, wildfires, supply chain shortages and water storage.

"We need the most experienced and effective voice possible," Fong said. "We have enough people in Congress that want to be social influencers, but we need more people who are going to be focused on making good policy."

Fong finished first in the March primary elections for the full two-year term and the remainder of McCarthy's term. In fundraising he enjoys a wide lead, too.

Boudreaux raised about $425,000 by May 1, according to federal filings. Fong raised almost $1.5 million in the same period.

Fong's campaign is running ads across the San Joaquin Valley and has hired a fundraiser who has worked for McCarthy, former Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger and the California Republican Party.

Two white men in suits wave in front of a crowd.
McCarthy and Donald Trump attend a rally with farmers in Bakersfield in 2020. Both have wielded influence in the 20th District contest. (David McNew / Getty Images)

A political action committee called Central Valley Values has reported raising an additional $950,000 to support Fong, according to federal filings. Of that, about $450,000 came through McCarthy's Majority Committee PAC. The other $500,000 came from a new PAC funded by major Republican donors, including Barbara Grimm-Marshall of Bakersfield's Grimmway Farms, the world's largest carrot grower.

So far this year, Central Valley Values has spent nearly $400,000 on social media advertising, direct mail and text messages to support Fong, and more than $170,000 to oppose Boudreaux, federal filings show.

"The McCarthy machine is huge," Boudreaux said. Running against it, he said, is "daunting, to say the least."

Another sign of McCarthy's involvement was President Trump's endorsement of Fong in March. The endorsement was a blow to Boudreaux and a coup for Fong, who has largely avoided the culture wars that dominate factions of the GOP and is now seeking to win over right-wing Republicans skeptical of the political establishment.

McCarthy has previously helped guide Trump's California endorsements, including persuading him two years ago not to endorse a right-wing challenger to Central Valley Rep. David Valadao (R-Hanford), who voted to impeach Trump after the Jan. 6, 2021, insurrection.

Republicans in the northern part of the district in Kings, Tulare and Fresno counties say the Boudreaux campaign is one way to express their frustration with how often their neighbors to the south call the political shots. Kern County, home to Bakersfield, is the traditional seat of power in the 20th District and is home to more than half the registered voters.

Retired Republican Rep. Connie Conway, who replaced former Rep. Devin Nunes after he resigned from Congress, said at the Boudreaux fundraiser, to laughter, that she had encountered "just a little pressure" not to endorse the sheriff.

"Kern County thinks they're kingmakers," said Boudreaux supporter Mariann Bettencourt, a former chair of the Tulare County Republican Party. "They don't much like it when you run against them."

Fong is well known and popular in Bakersfield. Red, white and blue signs supporting his campaign were visible recently outside homes, offices and businesses like Moo Creamery, a diner known for its homemade ice cream.

Bakersfield resident Marcia Albert, 75, said she had gotten to know Fong's name over the years from hearing him on the radio and reading his name in the newspaper. She didn't know much about Boudreaux.

A Republican who retired from the Monterey County district attorney's office, Albert said she liked that Fong prioritized issues that matter to her, such as small government and immigration, especially the "crisis at the southern border."

"He's a strong conservative," she said. "That's what Washington needs."

Bakersfield resident Brenda Popejoy, 74, said she didn't much like either candidate. The retired government worker voted in the primary for Democrat Marisa Wood, who finished third with 22.6% of the vote. Popejoy said she's voting Tuesday based on who she does know.

"McCarthy endorsed Fong, and I hate Kevin McCarthy," Popejoy said. "So I'm voting for the other guy."

Read more: A California candidate will be on the ballot twice in November. What if he wins both races?

Whether Fong could even enter the race was in question until recently.

Two months after being voted out as speaker of the House, McCarthy announced that he was leaving Congress at the end of 2023.

McCarthy's retirement extended the filing period for the congressional race by five days. Boudreaux said he started getting calls from politicians who wanted him to run. Fong put out a statement saying he wouldn't run, and Boudreaux entered the race.

Fong changed his mind four days later and filed to run for Congress. He told The Times that he had expected other candidates to enter the race, and when they didn't, he had a change of heart after seeing a "massive void in the field, in terms of someone that was going to ensure that our community had an effective voice in Congress."

Fong said that he tried to withdraw from his Assembly seat, but was blocked by Secretary of State Shirley Weber, a Democrat, who argued that the deadline had already passed. She also said that state election law barred candidates from running for two offices at the same time.

Fong's campaign sued Weber, and won in court in Sacramento County and again in the 3rd District Court of Appeal.

Ken Weir, a member of the Bakersfield City Council and the head of the Kern County GOP, ran a write-in campaign for the 32nd District Assembly seat. He finished second in the primary, with about 15.9% of the vote to Fong's 82.4%. Weir will appear as a candidate on the November ballot, alongside Fong.

If Fong is elected to both offices, he would resign from the Assembly and head to D.C., and election officials would hold a special election to fill the Assembly vacancy in 2025, a Fong campaign spokesman said.

With the school year inching toward a close and with summer on the horizon, interest in Tuesday's special election remained faint compared with more day-to-day priorities, including rising costs.

As he played with his two young daughters at a park along the Kern River, Juan Perez, 24, said he had seen signs for Fong's congressional campaign but didn't know when the election was being held.

Perez, a landscaper who said he has voted for Republicans and Democrats, said he and his wife had both started working part time as food delivery drivers to help cover the rising cost of daily necessities such as diapers, groceries and gas.

"It feels like we're falling behind every month," Perez said. "Whoever wins, I don't think it's going to matter for me."

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This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.