Since House Republicans unanimously elected Louisiana Rep. Mike Johnson as speaker last week, the GOP has sought to portray itself as an emboldened party willing to battle President Biden and the Democratic-controlled Senate.
But for California Republicans, Johnson’s election presents a host of potential problems that could make trying to survive in a deep-blue state even harder than it already was.
Former House Speaker Kevin McCarthy’s ouster is the first of those challenges. McCarthy’s fundraising allies have said they will work with Johnson to ensure the money continues to pour into Republicans’ coffers. But Johnson is relatively unproven as a fundraiser, and McCarthy, who pulled in more than $500 million last election cycle, rose to the top of his party in part because of his ability to rake in dough.
The loss of McCarthy from upper leadership could have especially dire consequences for California’s state Republican party, which has long relied on him to keep money coming into the Golden State, said Mike Madrid, an anti-Trump Republican consultant who’s become a critic of the party.
“Kevin McCarthy was the last card holding up the house that we call the California Republican Party,” Madrid said. “He was the last reason any money — any serious money — was actually moving through the operation.”
Now that McCarthy is out as speaker, “that money is going to dry up very very quickly,” Madrid added. “The state party is going to have a very difficult time keeping its head above water while it’s already sinking.”
Even before his first election to Congress in 2006, McCarthy demonstrated his value by raising money and sending funds to fellow candidates and the National Republican Congressional Committee. As he rose the ranks in party leadership, donors were more eager to hand over their cash. This was a godsend to the state party, which had struggled to raise enough money to field competitive candidates in safer Democratic districts.
Madrid said it’s very unlikely that candidates in California’s most competitive districts will see their bank accounts dry up. Donors in and outside the state will continue giving to protect the five Republicans who hold districts President Biden won in 2020 — Young Kim of Anaheim Hills, David Valadao of Hanford, Mike Garcia of Santa Clarita, Michelle Steel of Seal Beach and John Duarte of Modesto.
If donors don’t deliver for those members, the GOP could lose its House majority.
But, Madrid said, for Republicans in safe districts, donors are unlikely to want to invest since they are unlikely to see anything change.
Even if the money keeps flowing, California Republicans have another problem: Democrats are eager to tie them to the deeply archconservative Louisiana Republican they’ve elevated to the post second in line for the presidency.
“Johnson is as extreme as they come. He led the plot to overthrow the 2020 election. He’s a Trump loyalist. Above all, he’s a MAGA extremist,” a new ad from the Congressional Integrity Project, a Democratic aligned nonprofit, warns California voters. “This is who John Duarte voted for. Tell him to stop putting MAGA over the American people.”
The nonpartisan Cook Political Report changed its rating of Valadao’s race from “lean Republican” to “toss-up” on Tuesday. The fight over the speakership “supercharged House Democrats’ confidence that they can flip the five seats they need to reclaim the chamber by convincing swing voters that ‘dysfunctional’ Republicans can’t be trusted with the keys to power,” wrote Dave Wasserman, a senior editor and elections analyst at Cook.
“Californians are eager to reject the extremism that [Valadao]’s been enabling,” Dan Gottlieb, a spokesman for Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, said in a news release.
That sort of attack may have some resonance in California. Although McCarthy may have been unpopular with Democrats, he was a Californian. The differences between his home of Bakersfield and the rest of the state are not as vast as the differences between California and the Deep South.
Though McCarthy declined to certify some of the 2020 presidential election results, Johnson went a step further and rallied more than 100 Republicans to back his brief endorsing a lawsuit to overturn the election. Johnson has repeatedly backed measures to ban abortion nationwide and worked for a nonprofit, labeled an anti-LGBTQ hate group by the Southern Poverty Law Center, that defended the state-sanctioned sterilization of transgender people. These are viewpoints at odds with many voters in swing districts.
But Jon Fleischman, former executive director of California’s Republican Party, doesn’t think connecting vulnerable California Republicans to Johnson will go far with voters.
“I don’t think the ideological views of the speaker really matter at all,” Fleischman said. “It’s not clear to me that the positions on the issues of the new speaker are really any different than the positions of the issues of the old speaker.”
Thirty-eight percent of Republicans surveyed in an October Economist/YouGov poll said they wanted House members to back the candidate supported by the majority of the caucus, even if they disagree with the nominee, while 33% of Republicans said they should not.
“I don’t think they’re going to judge their member of Congress based on who their party put forward as speaker,” Fleischman said. “If there’s any potential for impact, it’s not going to be the views of the congressman from Louisiana on the issues with the day.”
Democratic groups may have an easier time tying the lawmakers to former President Trump, Fleischman argued.
Trump is the likely GOP presidential nominee, is very popular among the GOP base but still deeply unpopular among swing voters. “These incumbents are going to have to run under the banner of Trump for president,” Fleischman said.
Still, Republicans and their allies will seek to localize races and focus on specific issues to make clear the role their candidates could play in Washington.
“Californians demand relief from the surging cost of living, gas prices and violent crime fueled by extreme left-wing policies in D.C. and Sacramento,” Ben Petersen, a spokesperson for the National Republican Congressional Committee, said in a statement.
“Voters want solutions to those issues and trust Republicans to fight for them, which is why they’ll send them back to Congress in 2024.”