When Senate Democrats were looking for money to trim from the highway bill earlier this year, they cast their eyes on $431 million that had been earmarked for Bakersfield's roads and highways. Those funds represented the balance of the $630 million that former Rep. Bill Thomas had secured to help build a modern-era roads system in an underserved but booming city. That money might have been snatched out from under us if it weren't for Rep. Kevin McCarthy, who went out on a political limb to defend the earmarked funding that his district so badly needed.

Could Terry Phillips, who has mounted a credible independent challenge for McCarthy's seat, have pulled that off?

Not likely.

McCarthy is the No. 3 ranking Republican in the House of Representatives. He commands wide respect and when it counts he can come through for his constituents in big ways. Phillips, by contrast, belongs to no political party and would arrive in the nation's capital with little political clout. He would have no team to join, since he says he wouldn't caucus with either party. That may be a good summation of what's wrong with our two-party political system, but electing Phillips won't change American politics overnight. Where would that leave Kern County? While Phillips says he would spend his time in Congress focused not on politics but on such laudable goals as elevating local education levels, cleaning the air and improving health, he'd be doing so from a disadvantaged position. McCarthy wouldn't.

One thing Phillips' candidacy has effectively highlighted is how McCarthy has used his influence in Washington. As an unabashed partisan, the congressman has taken an increasingly active role in bringing his party's ideas to fruition in the federal government. As he told us in a recent editorial board meeting: "Yeah, I wish Washington would all get along. But you know what? That's not always going to happen. I have my principles and I'm not going to change them. But I'm going to fight for them." He's been reasonably successful in that effort.

McCarthy's office provides excellent constituent service, helping ordinary folks navigate the tangled federal bureaucracy. It's that area in between -- using his position in Congress to address problems prevalent throughout the district he represents -- that many feel McCarthy could spend more time on.

We rarely hear McCarthy talking about Kern County's most serious problems. Kern ranks lowest in the state for educational attainment, health outcomes and teen pregnancy. Bakersfield recently ranked fourth on a list of poorest U.S. cities. McCarthy prefers to talk about the local oil industry and aerospace advances in the desert. With all due respect, Congressman, those industries are doing just fine, all things considered. It's time to focus on some of the broader issues facing the district.

Though he stands little chance of unseating McCarthy, Phillips has brought value to the race. Everyone benefits when a decent challenger steps into the ring, because it forces the incumbent to come out of the bushes and answer tough questions -- and not just questions posed by fans and supporters.

But the bottom line is this: In the context of our political system, McCarthy is good at what he does. He is driven and he is accessible. We believe he is deserving of another term.