It takes faith to go up against a dominant incumbent in a district where registration numbers alone point to another landslide. Schoolteacher Marisa Wood says she has that faith.
"I think sometimes we take for granted what's right in front of us," the Democrat challenging Rep. Kevin McCarthy for California's 20th Congressional District seat said. "We are unable to see that what is possible can and will happen, even in the face of what's probable. And I believe in that firmly."
Probable wasn't McCarthy's word for it. Even as the eight-term congressman strengthens his position as House minority leader by traveling the country to raise money and support for other GOP congressional candidates in the Nov. 8 election, he said he will continue to campaign locally, meeting and listening to his constituents and getting the vote out.
"I never take anything for granted," he said.
Wood's trust in belief, and McCarthy's dual focus, say a lot about the race for the newly redistricted 20th District.
In a field of five candidates, three of them Republican, McCarthy won 61.3 percent of the vote to Wood's 24 percent in the June primary.
If he wins next month, and if midterm history repeats itself as national concerns such as inflation allow Republicans to flip enough congressional seats, the Bakersfield Republican stands to become speaker of the House, second in line to the presidency.
University of Southern California political scientist Christian Grose sees McCarthy, with what should be an easy win at home, as focused on Republican wins around the U.S. The opposition party usually does better in midterm elections like this one, he said, leaving McCarthy to worry only that a "pro-Trump election-denier" might outflank him on the right to claim the speakership.
McCarthy's more than 37-point advantage over Wood is what Ivy Cargile called a "big differential." The associate professor of political science at Cal State Bakersfield noted redistricting has given the incumbent an even greater advantage than he had in the former 23rd District: At the last count, voter registrations in the 20th District were 46.5 percent Republican to 27 percent Democratic; 18.4 percent stated no preference.
Cargile said she wonders whether the latter category even know who Wood is, while McCarthy seems to have the "wiggle room" he may need if Trump loyalists remain upset about a recording of the minority leader saying he planned to tell Trump to resign after the Jan. 6, 2021, riots.
"(McCarthy)'s a solid incumbent and he knows it," she said.
The president of the Democratic Women of Kern, Robin Walters, takes a hopeful but realistic view of the race, saying her party's work of gradually reducing local support for McCarthy remains a work in progress.
She praised the challenger's simple messaging and accused the incumbent of moving toward extremism after presenting himself to voters as a moderate.
"I'm pretty confident we'll gain some points in (the election)," Walters said. "It's how many."
Kern County Republican Party Chairman Ken Weir, predicting another win, expressed confidence McCarthy fully aligns with local priorities by supporting the local economy, specifically oil, ag and the two military bases in eastern Kern.
Wood, a first-time candidate, said people she hears from are ready for change amid a worsening climate of partisanship, McCarthy's failure to push back against reckless statements by Trump and other GOP members of Congress, and rising crime and poverty rates on her opponent's watch.
His work on other candidates' behalf betrays a "blind ambition," Wood said.
"How has that helped folks here in the district?" she asked.
McCarthy, for his part, said Republicans need to retake the House if they are to accomplish the goals, emphasizing that as minority leader, he puts local issues on the national stage.
He pointed to progress he has made on public investment in water infrastructure, such as repairs to Isabella Dam, and his work focusing resources on military veterans, valley fever and earthquake repairs to Naval Air Weapons Station China Lake. He promised continued effort in the areas of fighting inflation, promoting energy independence and ensuring water flows to the Central Valley.
He criticized President Joe Biden for using the word "semi-fascism" to describe tens of millions of Americans, and for failing to bring down inflation while allowing Chinese-made fentanyl to flow north from the U.S.-Mexico border. Putting Republicans back in control will reduce crime and homelessness, he said, while putting in place checks and balances so that government agencies can be held accountable for mismanagement.
"I believe that message could win the majority," he said, "and I think it will."
McCarthy denied Wood's accusation his relationship with Trump has compromised the congressman's integrity. He did so while insisting, in a phone interview Friday, that the former president acted to call off the Jan. 6 mob as soon as he learned of violence at the U.S. Capitol — despite testimony before the House committee investigating the violence that Trump was watching television coverage of the attack while ignoring pleas that he tell the rioters to disperse.
"I don't know if he was watching TV," McCarthy said.
The congressman has previously acknowledged having a heated conversation with Trump that day and pleading with him to tell the rioters to leave. When asked about that on Friday, McCarthy said, "everybody I talked to was heated that day."
McCarthy said his opponent's "liberal philosophy" won't play well in the Central Valley.
"That's not valley issues," he said. "That's not what voters care about."
Editor's note: This story has been changed to clarify Weir's statement about his expectations for the outcome of the McCarthy-Wood race.