4 candidates debated over replacing Kevin McCarthy in Congress. Here are 4 takeaways

Four candidates debated Thursday night over who should succeed Rep. Kevin McCarthy in California’s 20th Congressional District, a San Joaquin Valley Republican stronghold.

Two Republicans — Assemblyman Vince Fong and Tulare County Sheriff Mike Boudreaux — faced Democrats Marisa Wood, a teacher, and Andy Morales. The candidates spoke about the border, abortion rights, homelessness, crime, water, high-speed rail and more in an hour-long debate moderated by KGET and KGPE in Bakersfield Thursday night.

McCarthy’s choice is Fong, R-Bakersfield, the frontrunner whose candidacy faces a legal challenge by California’s secretary of state.

Fong was well ahead in a January Emerson College Polling survey, gathering support from more than a quarter of likely voters, however over a third of respondents were still undecided. Boudreaux and Wood were tied at 11%, followed by Morales, a security guard, at 8%.

The March 5 primary is for a full two-year term to begin in January 2025. The top two vote-getters regardless of party advance to the Nov. 5 general election; this is the race in which Fong faces a challenge from California Secretary of State Shirley Weber.

A March 19 special election is to finish the remainder of McCarthy’s term, which ends next January. If a candidate get a majority of the votes in the primary, they win. If not, the top two go to a May 21 runoff.

Fong, Boudreaux and Wood are running in both contests. Morales is only seeking the full term.

Four takeaways from California’s 20th Congressional District debate:

  • Questions began with a national focus then homed in on the San Joaquin Valley. Moderators queried about a border and foreign aid deal, the Israel-Hamas war in Gaza, presidential candidates’ ages and an Alabama Supreme Court ruling that says frozen embryos can be considered children. Later, questions centered around addressing local homelessness, fentanyl abuse, crime, agricultural water access and the high-speed rail project.

  • It did not take long for former President Donald Trump’s endorsement of Fong to come up, with the candidate bringing it up within the first 30 seconds of speaking. A second round of questions concerned how the former president’s endorsement of Fong came to be and why Boudreaux, who scored the nod of influential local Trump supporters, did not seek it.

    “Mr. McCarthy pulled a political favor so that he could have the endorsement of Mr. Trump coming into the election,” Boudreaux said. “Right after our endorsements is when this came with the endorsement of Mr. Trump.” (Fong did not say whether McCarthy helped get Trump’s endorsement, responding “I hope so” when asked directly if the former congressman did.) In closing, Fong mentioned Trump’s endorsement again when talking about his experience legislating on the border, economy, water and energy: “That’s why I’ve been endorsed by President Trump. I’ve been endorsed by Congressman Kevin McCarthy.”

  • Neither Trump nor President Joe Biden is too old to be president, candidates said. All pushed for competency over age, though Boudreaux quipped 100 might be too old to run for the nation’s highest office. “I believe that President Biden is 100% competent in leading this country,” Wood said. Boudreaux countered, “You have to be able to be in front of an audience, to be able to speak clearly about your messaging. Donald Trump absolutely is able to do so. Biden completely fails in putting together complete sentences and quite frankly, needs to be removed from office.”

  • Other than the accusation of McCarthy pulling strings, candidates didn’t really go after each other. Boudreaux chastised the heavily-Democrat Legislature’s policies concerning crime, as did Fong. Actually, there was the ever-so-often gentle nod of agreement, even bipartisan ones.