Thomas Out, GOP Shootout In

The long-expected retirement announcement by Rep. Bill Thomas (R.-Calif.) came last week. 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 June primary shootout between the disparate factions of the state 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. 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 district office director.
Ashburn, who has been a 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 House seat left open by the retirement of Democratic Rep. Cal Dooley. In going up against Democratic fellow State Sen. Jim Costa, stalwart conservative Ashburn proudly contrasted his record on key issues — from opposition to same-sex marriage to fighting the 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 in ’04, Costa won by a 53%-to-47% margin.

One of the worst-kept secrets of the campaign was that Thomas, who takes an active role on the California Republican scene, was telling people that he believed that the 20th District was unwinnable by a Republican. Ashburn, in turn, charged Thomas and other moderates in the GOP with "sabotaging" his campaign.

While McCarthy is a protégé of Thomas, Ashburn’s political mentor and early influence was a Republican considered a hero on the right in the 1970s: Bill Ketchum, a fiery conservative who held the 22nd 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 only 10 Republican House members to support Ronald Reagan for President over Gerald Ford in 1976.