California has lost two towering figures in the US House of Representatives in the past two years, first with the decision by then House speaker, Nancy Pelosi, to step back followed by Kevin McCarthy’s announcement he would be resigning from Congress altogether after being ejected from leadership by his own party.
The two represent diametrically opposed politics. But in their home state, their exit from top congressional leadership has had ripple effects, upsetting a political infrastructure that they had each spent decades building up.
After the recent death of Dianne Feinstein – one of the most senior members of the Senate – and the upcoming departures of a number of senior California representatives, the most populous US state, with a historically oversized influence on national policy, has found itself somewhat in a political morass.
“It’s pretty uncommon to have back-to-back speakers from the same state,” said Marc Sandalow, associate director of the University of California Washington Center. “And then to lose two speakers in succession – that’s a huge turnover.”
The upcoming retirements of the veteran representatives Anna Eshoo, Tony Cárdenas and Grace Napolitano have compounded the state’s losses. Moreover, three California representatives – Katie Porter, Barbara Lee and Adam Schiff – are vying for the Senate seat left vacant by the late Dianne Feinstein, contributing to a power vacuum in the House. Overall, the Californians leaving Congress have decades of seniority in the House, Sandalow noted. (However, with the former California senator Kamala Harris in the vice-president’s office, the state is still represented at the highest levels of the US government.)
Both parties will probably see their fundraising efforts affected. But particularly for Republicans, McCarthy’s departure will leave a huge gap.
“Kevin McCarthy was the last pulse pulsating in the body that is the California Republican party,” said Mike Madrid, a longtime California Republican political consultant. In a state that overall leans Democratic, but with sizable conservative and moderate pockets, McCarthy’s sway for years helped boost his party’s candidates.
“Kevin at least had the power of the speakership and the influence of national donors,” Madrid said. “And now that’s gone.” Perhaps gone too, he added, is the political goodwill and influence McCarthy spent decades building up in his home state.
McCarthy, 58, has vowed “to support the next generation of leaders”, promising to elevate a new generation of Republicans in an opinion essay for the Wall Street Journal. But his spectacular ouster, and uneasy alliance with far-right members of his party who ultimately ran him out, has diminished his influence, said Madrid. “Kevin’s legacy has taken an extraordinarily big hit. His reputation during the Trump years dramatically lost a lot of lustre.”
Such is not the case for Pelosi, 83, who stepped away from House leadership on good terms. She announced in September that she will be seeking re-election in 2024, and has been spending the past year continuing to fundraise for fellow Democrats while growing her own political war chest.
“She still has an immense amount of clout, but she’s now an important voice in the room, as opposed to the voice in the room,” said Dan Schnur, a lecturer at the UC Berkeley Institute for Governmental Studies and a veteran Republican consultant. “Still, we’re seeing a generational shift with her stepping back.”
It remains unclear who will step up. Along with Feinstein, Pelosi was part of a generation of Bay Area leaders that helped define Democratic politics and policy for decades. They have also been kingmakers, pulling up many state leaders, including California’s governor, Gavin Newsom.
“And they have very much been part of the political establishment,” said Sandalow, “Their departure opens the door to potentially far more progressive candidates to emerge.”
Still, at least until she retires, Pelosi is likely to remain a powerful influence. “Pelosi is probably the top fundraiser in the history of the US Congress,” said Sandalow, a longtime Washington correspondent for the San Francisco Chronicle who has written a biography of the former speaker.
Both she and McCarthy, he added, “knew how to tap California’s deep pockets, and then distribute money to their candidates around the country to buy influence”.