House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi could have their political careers defined by what happens Nov. 6 in their home state of California.
Since early last year both McCarthy, 53, and Pelosi, 78, realized that their state would host the largest number of contested House races, dedicating a large amount of time and resources to California, particularly a cluster of districts around Los Angeles and San Diego that sided with Hillary Clinton over Donald Trump in 2016. Ever since House Speaker Paul D. Ryan (R-Wis.) announced in April that he would retire, the McCarthy-Pelosi jousting in California has resulted in something akin to a shadow boxing match with a chance to make history.
If Republicans hold the majority and McCarthy moves up, he would be the first GOP speaker from west of Iowa and would give President Trump a trusted ally in the post. If Democrats win the majority and Pelosi gets the votes, she would become the first speaker to win, lose and reclaim the gavel since Sam Rayburn (D-Tex.) in 1955.
And if the two of them end up leading their respective caucuses next year, they would be the first pair from the same state to serve concurrently as speaker and minority leader.
Much of the outcome will depend on their home turf. Pelosi’s Democrats need a national gain of just 23 seats, and they are well on their way to winning seven East Coast seats that are being vacated by moderate Republicans. A big night in California, picking up five or more seats, would put the Democrats in prime shape to win back the majority.
That’s why Pelosi went all-in ahead of the state’s June 5 primary, working behind the scenes to get Democratic incumbents to endorse the candidates most likely to win in the November general election. It wasn’t a popular move, as it sometimes meant that veteran lawmakers with strong liberal credentials were angering their activist allies, but Pelosi deflected the criticism with a wave of her hand.
“They may be subjected to criticism for that, but I’d rather be criticized for winning than criticized for losing,” Pelosi told reporters before the primary.
In almost every case, Democrats got the preferred candidate onto the November ballot, and they avoided getting shut out of any big races. The state’s unique primary system puts candidates from both parties in the same vote, and the top two advance to the general election.
But Republicans looked at the results in some key districts — take Rep. Steve Knight (R) from north of Los Angeles and the collection of GOP candidates running to succeed Rep. Edward R. Royce (R) in Orange County — and saw their side clear more than 50 percent of primary voters.
“They didn’t play very well in the primary,” McCarthy said in a recent interview, contending that Democrats “should rethink their political” strategy.
Democrats now hold 39 House seats in California, Republicans just 14. That’s a massive shift from the nearly even split in the delegation 16 years ago, so McCarthy is fighting to keep the GOP from being driven into near-extinction there.
Back in October, McCarthy hosted Vice President Pence for fundraisers in Los Angeles and Bakersfield, the GOP leader’s hometown, and netted $5 million that was distributed to the seven California Republicans in districts that Clinton won. He and Pence considered those events so successful that the two formed a joint fundraising effort to benefit a couple of dozen GOP incumbents throughout the nation.
But McCarthy still realized that Republicans had a top-of-the-ticket problem: No serious Republican ran for the nomination against Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D) and they were in danger of also being shut out of the governor’s race.
A few weeks out he threw his support behind John Cox, then nudged Trump to endorse him, and the Republican advanced to the November general election for governor. In addition, McCarthy transferred $300,000 into the effort to get a ballot initiative to repeal a gas tax, putting that proposal on the November ballot.
California Republicans view the gas initiative as a potent draw and test-ran their campaign in a successful recall in the June primary against a state senator who voted for the 12-cent tax. “We just recalled the state senator, and we’ve got a state initiative on the ballot,” McCarthy said.
Still, these moves were playing catch-up to what Pelosi and the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee (DCCC) had done in California. They placed staff on the ground in Southern California early last year to begin rallying voters against House Republicans and also surveying the landscape for up-and-coming candidates.
By May 2017, California Republicans faced ad campaigns from the DCCC targeting their votes to repeal the Affordable Care Act. Late last year, Royce and Rep. Darrell Issa, also representing California, joined the dozens of Republicans deciding to retire.
McCarthy and Pelosi have let their personal rivalry slip in public a few times. “I kind of like Pelosi staying around. As long as she’s there, I think we stay in the majority,” McCarthy told reporters after the 2016 elections, mocking her decision to remain leader despite high unfavorable ratings.
In November 2014, after a drubbing that put Democrats in their deepest hole since the late 1940s, Pelosi still made fun of McCarthy for failing to make a dent in California.
“We have a new leader on the Republican side who’s going to take back some of these seats,” Pelosi told reporters back then, noting that it was his first election as House majority leader. “We not only won all the seats, we picked up a seat.”
If she wants the gavel back, Pelosi needs to pick up a few more California seats this time.