For decades, a key group of bipartisan leaders ensured that California was heard on Capitol Hill.
But the influence that the state has long enjoyed may be hitting choppy waters after the past year.
The upcoming elections will also test the longstanding political sway of the San Francisco Bay Area.
For decades, California maintained the equivalent of a political home run that was the envy of lawmakers on Capitol Hill.
Nancy Pelosi, who led the House Democratic Caucus for 20 years — with eight of those years as speaker — was the party’s preeminent fundraiser and one of the most skilled political tacticians to lead the lower chamber. Kevin McCarthy, who grew up in Bakersfield and rose up the ranks to become speaker, would become one of most prolific GOP fundraisers in the country.
And Dianne Feinstein — the trailblazing female politician who cut her teeth in local government in San Francisco and went on to become the chair of the Senate Intelligence Committee — was for years one of the most respected voices on intelligence matters.
But McCarthy was removed as speaker last week in a stunning vote. Pelosi remains in Congress, but is no longer a member of the leadership team. And after Feinstein’s death, the state’s two senators now count themselves among the body’s most junior members.
What will this huge political upheaval mean for California?
Both parties have had to adjust to the sea change in statewide politics in recent decades.
Republicans, who in the 1990s and early 2000s were still competitive in major races, have not won a statewide contest since 2006 — when Arnold Schwarzenegger was reelected as governor and Steve Poizner won the insurance commissioner race.
So McCarthy’s prominence as a California Republican in leadership on Capitol Hill was an even greater asset for the party, as he led recruitment efforts to elect members from across the political spectrum while also cultivating major conservative donors.
While McCarthy said last week that he’ll work to boost the party’s narrow 221-212 majority, the new speaker — whether it be a figure like Majority Leader Steve Scalise of Louisiana or Rep. Jim Jordan of Ohio — will still have to do the heavy lifting.
Minority Leader Hakeem Jeffries of New York, Pelosi’s successor, is aiming to pick up the seats needed to vault Democrats back into the majority, which will include developing relationships in California. But Pelosi’s California connections ran deep, from Gov. Gavin Newsom and the late Sen. Feinstein to the party’s robust congressional delegation and local leaders across the state.
With a sizable chance that the House majority could come down to California, the 2024 races present a huge test for both parties.
Bay Area Blues?
For generations, the center of political gravity in California 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 figures like former Gov. Jerry Brown (an ex-Oakland mayor), former Sen. Barbara Boxer, and the late Rep. Ron Dellums (who was also a former Oakland mayor) all had their political careers rooted 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 the state’s politics, much of the power has shifted to Southern California.
Sen. Alex Padilla, who succeeded Harris in the Senate in 2021, is from Los Angeles.
Newly appointed Sen. Laphonza Butler has ties to both Newsom and Harris, but she has not held elective office in the past. And while it is unclear if Butler will run for a full term in the Senate next year, two of the leading Democratic candidates in the race — Reps. Katie Porter and Adam Schiff — represent districts in Southern California.
Rep. Barbara Lee is the sole Democratic officeholder from the Bay Area currently in the race.
And the most competitive House races in the state next year will mostly be 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 elections may shake up longstanding regional norms in the state.