Can McCarthy’s latest challenger, nonprofit exec Louis Gill, find vulnerability in incumbent’s case for reelection?

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BAKERSFIELD, Calif. (KGET) — Louis Gill’s entry into the 23rd Congressional District race might have some local Democrats excited — maybe some Republicans too — but history is not on Gill’s side. How does a political newcomer like Gill — how does anybody? — defeat such a well-entrenched national figure as Kevin McCarthy?

The 23rd District campaign battlefield is strewn with the bodies of the vanquished. And there are many from McCarthy’s eight races for Congress. He has never lost an election — 11 straight, not including primaries, two of them for state assembly and some by margins that would make Stalin proud. Among the vanquished: Terry Phillips, Raul Garcia, Wendy Reed and Tatiana Matta.

But since 2014, McCarthy’s margins of victory have been smaller and smaller — if you can call 2020’s margin over Kim Mangone, 62 percent, small.

Why have they all been so decisive? That’s what supporters of the latest slate of McCarthy challengers — Bruno Amato, Marisa Wood and the newly declared, presumptive favorite among those Democrats, Louis Gill — should want to know.

One, plain and simple, McCarthy is popular — Bakersfield born and bred, and consequently well connected. 

But then, so is Gill, a southern Central Valley native and longtime executive director of two local nonprofits, the Bakersfield Homeless Center and the Alliance Against Family Violence and Sexual Assault.

Two, McCarthy usually reads political trends well. As the Republican Party has moved to the right, McCarthy has moved with it — even if it meant abandoning the gravitational pull of his one-time mentor Bill Thomas, the man to whom he probably owes his career. Thomas is a more moderate Republican who was in Congress for the better part of two decades and won all but four of his races by more than 65 percent of the vote —  McCarthyesque domination that probably says as much about Kern County’s reliably red hue as it says about the candidates.

But then, Kern County is trending purple, and Gill clearly recognizes that.

Three, few of his challengers have had meaningful connections with the district’s primary population center – Bakersfield. The last two, Matta and Mangone, were from the small desert communities of Edwards and Quartz Hill, both more than 80 miles away.

Gill has no such obstacle. Like McCarthy, he is Bakersfield born and raised.

Four, and most crucial, campaign spending has been absurdly lopsided.

Mangone raised $1.7 million in her quest to unseat McCarthy last year, more than all of Mccarthy’s previous opponents combined. And that didn’t even qualify as the proverbial drop in the bucket. McCarthy raised $27 million — 16 times Mangone’s haul. 

Why the disparity? Because the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, and other major Democratic donors have largely opted not to waste their money on what they see as an unwinnable race against an entrenched candidate.

But is it unwinnable now? Gill makes a good case that it’s not.

As CSU Bakersfield political science professor Jeanine Kraybill points out, Gill, alone among the latest McCarthy challengers, has some advantages of his own.

“McCarthy is the one with a record to defend,” she said, “and over the last year he has really taken a lot of criticism in his district by both Trump supporters, which I think is interesting, and people that oppose him. 

“So he has a record to really dissect and pick through, where Louis comes in with a name — he has not necessarily the level of McCarthy — but he comes in with a clean slate. And I think what is interesting about Louis Gill is that he’s big tent. He is big tent. I’d be hard pressed to find someone who can tell me something negative about Louis Gill. 

“And when it comes to the key social issues in the district, it’s Louis that’s the boots on the ground. It’s Louis that’s been working, rolling up his sleeves and really working with people that are marginalized in the district. Where do you see Kevin Mccarthy in these marginalized pockets? You simply don’t.”

California has a so-called top-two primary — the top two vote-getters, regardless of party affiliation or margin of victory, advance to the November general. One of the two, barring the bizarre, will be McCarthy. That makes the primary a three-way race for the second spot.

If McCarthy gets less than 60 percent of the total vote, look for the DCCC to actually throw money at this race. And that could well be Gill.

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