Three people — two Democrats and a Republican who was a Democrat until Friday — think House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy’s stance on health care and his loyalty to President Donald Trump have made him vulnerable.
They think they can unseat him.
All three have announced plans to run against McCarthy, R-Bakersfield, for his 23rd Congressional District seat in 2018.
They face a monumental task. McCarthy is one of the national Republican Party’s most successful fundraisers. He’s his party’s second most powerful member of the House of Representatives.
And he represents a staunchly GOP district centered in Kern County.
The cast of challengers is diverse.
Wendy Reed is a Democrat from Quartz Hill near Lancaster who ran against McCarthy in November.
She said she didn’t plan to run again until she heard from someone who had crunched the numbers on her last race.
“The singular reason that I decided to run a second time is that a data analyst told me I should,” she said.
From a numbers point-of-view, there’s some indication Reed did well against McCarthy in 2016. But “well” is a relative word.
She did better against McCarthy than any of his other congressional opponents, including those in his first race in 2006.
And she pulled in 1 percent more votes than Democrats have registered to vote in the 23rd District.
But McCarthy beat her by more than 38.4 percentage points in 2016 — a presidential election year.
It’s true that Reed’s 30.8 percent was four percentage points better than independent Terry Phillip’s showing in 2014.
But to beat McCarthy in 2018 — without a presidential race on the ballot — Reed would have to pull nearly 20 percent of the vote away from McCarthy. That would mean tapping into either the 23rd District’s independent voter pool or McCarthy’s Republican base.
Reed, 60, said she understands the numbers. But she believes the lack of a presidential race actually helps her.
The Democratic Party centered in Bakersfield was distracted with a city council race, a contest in the 21st Congressional District and a library sales tax measure, Reed said.
“I carried a dysfunctional Democratic Party with me,” Reed said. “In 2018 I have become more knowledgeable, more comfortable in my own skin. I’m in many ways happier to run this campaign. I feel much better about it.”
But Reed won’t be the only Democrat in the race, says lawyer Robert Owen.
Owen, a former Tulare County deputy district attorney and Marine veteran, has also announced he will run for the 23rd seat.
He said the Trump presidency and McCarthy’s close ties to the new president — as well as his vote to replace the Obama-era Affordable Care Act with the American Health Care Act — make McCarthy vulnerable.
“Yes, it’s a heavily conservative Republican district,” he said. “It’s winnable because, Republican or Democrat, people don’t feel they’re being represented by McCarthy.”
Owen, 43, said McCarthy could pay the price for his vote on the American Health Care Act.
“It would be devastating to a lot of people in the 23rd District. It’s not a partisan question — it’s a health care question. Men, women and children who have disabilities could lose their health care,” Owen said. “That is scary and people are very cognizant of what’s going on.”
He expects people who are worried they will lose their health care to get engaged in the fight.
“People are afraid. Now they are becoming activists,” he said.
But Owen doesn’t have the greatest record in the political arena.
The Democrat ran for Kern County supervisor against Republican incumbent David Couch in the heavily Republican 4th District.
And Owen got only 25 percent of the vote in June 2016 after running an anemic, part-time campaign.
“I had a lot of irons in the fire so I didn’t really have the time to commit to the campaign,” he said.
This time will be different, Owen promised.
“I’ve left the Tulare County District Attorney’s office,” he said.
He’s on the campaign trail full-time.
And then there is the third challenger.
Joe Aleman, 41, is a photographer with a bachelor’s degree in theology who said he was a Republican when he announced his candidacy even though he was registered as a Democrat.
According to the Kern County elections office, he registered as a Republican online Friday after learning from reporters Thursday that he was technically a Democrat.
Aleman said he didn’t know he registered as a Democrat — elections officials say he registered in 1998 — and that he had never voted until November.
“The only reason I voted in the last election was because of Donald Trump,” he said.
Aleman said his politics are to the right of McCarthy’s and he was inspired to run by the defeat of previous House Majority Leader Eric Cantor by a poorly funded, little-known Tea Party candidate.
Aleman is a Latino but he supports tough immigration policy and has ideas about creating a cell-phone application that would allow people to report meth labs or people in the country illegally and collect a bounty.
But he, too, has called McCarthy’s American Health Care Act vote immoral.
Aleman said the 23rd District is economically challenged — behind in education and jobs with people who live paycheck to paycheck.
They need help, he said, and they’re not getting it from McCarthy.
He’d like to see students in first grade choose a specialty in robotics, programming or vocational education and get extra training in that so they are prepared for a career by time they clear high school.
So do these candidates have McCarthy sweating yet?
He said he’s glad to welcome them into the race.
“Love ’em all,” McCarthy said when asked to size up the field.
“I believe it’s very healthy and it’s democracy at its best and I encourage it,” McCarthy said of people running for office and challenging their leaders.
“It’s better when we talk about ideas.”
McCarthy, who has argued the Affordable Care Act is broken and must be fixed to ensure people actually have access to affordable care, highlighted the work he’s been doing for the 23rd District.
That includes bringing more water to the valley through the Water Infrastructure Improvement for the Nation Act; generating more federal attention and money to the fight against valley fever; and directing more federal dollars and other help to military bases and schools in east Kern.
He expects that history will prove his worth to his constituents.
“I believe running on my record — continuing to work for the things I’ve worked for in the community — we will be successful.”