The long-expected retirement announcement of Rep. Bill Thomas (R.-Calif.) came this morning. With the chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee leaving Congress after nearly 28 years, the stage is set in his Bakersfield-based 22nd District for a shootout between disparate factions of the Republican Party.
As expected, State Assemblyman Kevin McCarthy and State Sen. Roy Ashburn both signaled they will try to succeed the 65-year-old Thomas in the all-important June primary. McCarthy, now minority leader of the California Assembly, is considered a high-profile leader in the middle-of-the-road faction of the Golden State GOP. Of the two candidates, he is considered closer to Thomas, for whom he worked as director of his district office.
Ashburn, who has been Kern County (Bakersfield) Commissioner, state assemblyman and state senator, is easily the more conservative of the two contenders. Two years ago, Ashburn moved to the neighboring 20th District to run for the open 20th District. In going up against Democrat and fellow State Sen. Jim Costa, stalwart conservative Ashburn vividly trumpeted his record on key issues—from opposition to same-sex marriage and to fighting tax increases of former Democratic Gov. Gray Davis—with that of the liberal Costa. Ashburn also took an unabashedly pro-life stand. In one of the closest races for a seat vacated by a Democrat House Member [Rep. Cal Dooley] in ’04, Costa won by a margin of 53% to 47% of the vote.
One of the worst-kept secrets of the campaign was that Thomas, who takes an active role in the California Republican scene, let his feelings be known that the 20th District was unwinnable by a Republican. Ashburn, in turn, charged Thomas and other moderates in his party with “sabotaging” his campaign.
Where McCarthy is a protégé of Thomas, Ashburn’s political mentor and early influence was a Republican considered a hero on the right in the 1970’s: Bill Ketchum, a fiery conservative who held the 29th District from 1972 until his death in 1978 (when he was succeeded by Thomas). Ashburn got his first taste of politics campaigning for Ketchum, one of ten Republican House Members to support Ronald Reagan for president over Gerald Ford in 1976.