- For decades, a key group of bipartisan leaders has ensured that California is heard on Capitol Hill.
- But the influence the state has long enjoyed could hit choppy waters after last year.
- The upcoming election will also test the long-standing political influence of the San Francisco Bay Area.
For decades, California has maintained the equivalent of run-of house politics that is the envy of lawmakers on Capitol Hill.
Nancy Pelosi, who has led the House Democratic Caucus for 20 years—with eight of those years as speaker—is the party’s top fundraiser and one of the most skilled political tacticians to lead the lower house. Kevin McCarthy, who grew up in Bakersfield and rose through the ranks to become speaker, will be one of the top GOP fundraisers in the country.
And Dianne Feinstein, the famous female politician who cut her teeth in local government in San Francisco and became chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, has for years been one of the most respected voices on intelligence matters.
But McCarthy was removed as speaker last week in a surprise vote. Pelosi remains in Congress but is no longer a member of the leadership team. And after Feinstein’s death, the two state senators now consider themselves the most senior members of the body.
What will this massive political upheaval mean for California?
A Different World
Both parties have had to adjust to the sea change in statewide politics in recent decades.
Republicans, who in the 1990s and early 2000s still contested major races, haven’t won a statewide contest since 2006, when Arnold Schwarzenegger was reelected governor and Steve Poizner won the insurance commissioner race.
That’s why McCarthy’s prominence as a California Republican in leadership on Capitol Hill has been a tremendous asset for the party, as he has led efforts to recruit members from across the political spectrum while also cultivating major conservative donors.
While McCarthy said last week that he would work to increase the party’s narrow 221-212 majority, the new speaker—whether it’s a figure like Majority Leader Steve Scalise of Louisiana or Rep. Jim Jordan in Ohio—still has to do the heavy lifting.
Minority Leader Hakeem Jeffries of New York, Pelosi’s successor, is seeking to gain the seats needed to return the Democrats to the majority, which will include improving ties with California. But Pelosi’s California connections run deep, from Gov. Gavin Newsom and later Sen. Feinstein to the party’s strong congressional delegation and local leaders across the state.
With a great chance that the majority of the House will go to California, the 2024 races present a great test for both parties.
Bay Area Blues?
For generations, the center of gravity of California politics has been in the San Francisco Bay Area.
Vice President Kamala Harris is a former San Francisco District Attorney. Newsom served as mayor of San Francisco from 2004 to 2011. And prominent people such as former Governor Jerry Brown (former mayor of Oakland), former Senator Barbara Boxer, and the late Rep. Ron Dellums (former mayor of Oakland) all rooted their political careers in the region.
Pelosi has represented her San Francisco-based House district since 1987. And Feinstein, a former San Francisco mayor, served in the Senate from 1992 until her death last month.
So while the Bay Area continues to play a major role in shaping state politics, much of the power has shifted to Southern California.
Senator Alex Padilla, who succeeded Harris in the Senate in 2021, is from Los Angeles.
Newly appointed Senator Laphonza Butler has ties to Newsom and Harris but has not held elective office before. And while it’s unclear whether Butler will run for a full Senate term next year, two of the leading Democratic candidates in the race—Reps. Katie Porter and Adam Schiff—represent Southern California districts.
Rep. Barbara Lee is the only Democratic officeholder from the Bay Area currently in the race.
And next year’s most competitive state House races will be mostly in Los Angeles and Orange counties—in Southern California.
While both Harris and Newsom are major power players in the party, with both potentially running for president in 2028, next year’s election could shake up longstanding regional trends in the state.