The recent death of Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) and this week’s ouster of Rep. Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) from the Speakership has deprived California of a wide swath of legislative and political clout, leaving the state looking to up-and-comers in Congress to fill big shoes.
The loss of the two, coupled with Rep. Nancy Pelosi’s (D-Calif.) own exit from the Speakership late last year, has shaken up the state — and put it in an unfamiliar position. It has long relied on top members, especially Feinstein, to bring dollars and projects home; Feinstein served in the Senate from 1992 until her death last month.
“She set a tremendous standard for what it means for a United States senator to represent California,” Sen. Alex Padilla (D-Calif.) told The Hill. “And to serve here in the Senate, I can only pray that I come anywhere close to live up to the standard that she set.”
“It is impossible to overstate the impact she’s had on California,” Padilla also told reporters Wednesday, adding that Feinstein was “the one that we turned to for leadership and for comfort, whether it was in times of conflict or crisis” back home.
That role now falls to a new crowd on the Democratic side, including Padilla, who is in his first full term, and Sen. Laphonza Butler (D-Calif.), Feinstein’s newly minted replacement, as well as a rising group in the House headlined by Rep. Pete Aguilar (D-Calif.), the No. 3 House Democrat.
A number of veterans remain in the mix, including Pelosi as Speaker emerita, with Vice President Harris also leading the charge in the administration.
However, filling the hole left behind Feinstein will be difficult. Feinstein was a longtime appropriator and led the charge for the state on a number of items, including wildfires, clean energy and water issues, among more. She was also a national leader on gun violence, women’s issues and gay rights, including having authored the Respect for Marriage Act that passed last year.
Bill Whalen, who served as a top aide to former California Gov. Pete Wilson (R), noted that Feinstein was the consummate workhorse and the one to seek out if anyone needed something for the state.
“Most times [Wilson and I] went to Washington, there was time on the calendar to meet with Sen. Feinstein, because you turned to her for California matters,” said Whalen, a fellow at the Hoover Institution at the University of Stanford.
McCarthy hailed the late senator and specifically noted their joint work on the Water Infrastructure Improvements for the Nation Act, a law passed in 2016 that authorizes a number of federal programs to boost water infrastructure for rivers and harbors.
“I remember the hours and the nights that we would have to work to try to work through and the challenges,” McCarthy said at a press conference shortly after her death. “We come from different parties, we have different philosophies, but we put our state first.”
McCarthy, on top of his GOP leadership work and efforts on water legislation, was also a leading proponent of boosting commercial space competitiveness, a key issue in his Bakersfield-based district. The former Speaker authored the SPACE Act in 2015, which was subsequently signed into law by then-President Obama.
McCarthy’s political work from atop the House GOP conference — before he was removed from the Speakership on Tuesday — also benefited the state. His work on recruiting and strategy helped Republicans nab or keep a number of seats in the state last cycle to clinch the narrow majority, including on behalf of Reps. Young Kim, Michelle Steel, Mike Garcia and David Valadao, one of his good friends and top allies.
“A lot of people don’t realize that the House majority really ran through California, and that was the product of McCarthy recruiting good candidates, backing and supporting them to make sure they had the resources,” said Lanhee Chen, who ran for California controller on the GOP ticket in 2022 and is also a Hoover Institution fellow. Chen added that McCarthy helped put some seats within reach “that had no business being competitive.”
The ex-GOP leader also helms one of the most extensive fundraising operations within the GOP, and questions surround the future of that apparatus and how McCarthy plans to wield it. Some political operatives and analysts still believe he will try to help California-based candidates, though he may not have the clout he once did.
Speaking to reporters after announcing he would not seek the top spot again, McCarthy added that he will continue to help candidates, but that he can be more selective now that he’s a “free agent.”
“It’s going to be a massive hit if he’s no longer doing this, because a lot of folks depend on him. … There’s so many people who gave to Kevin because they trusted him,” said one GOP operative involved in House contests. “It takes time for that, to build up that trust.”
“There’s going to be a lot of folks who say, ‘I want to give, and I want to help the GOP, but [are House races] the best place to spend my money?’” the operative added.