Two ex-Thomas staffers may vie to replace him

The campaign to replace Rep. Bill Thomas (R-Calif.) will likely pit two of his former staffers against one another in the GOP primary: one whom Thomas has long backed and another who had a falling out with him years ago.

Republican State Assemblyman Kevin McCarthy announced his candidacy yesterday. The announcement came one day after Thomas, in his 14th term, said that he would not seek another term.

Many Republicans in Thomas’s 22nd District, a patchwork of dairy farms, olive groves and subdivisions north of Los Angeles, have long assumed that McCarthy, the Republican leader in the Assembly, would succeed Thomas.

While Thomas has yet to endorse a successor, he has strong ties to McCarthy. The assemblyman formerly served as Thomas’s district director, and the two share a political consultant, Mark Abernathy.

But McCarthy could face some serious competition in the primary. State Sen. Roy Ashburn, who ran unsuccessfully in 2004 against Democrat Jim Costa for the seat vacated by Rep. Cal Dooley (D), has long indicated that he too would like Thomas’s seat.

A California GOP consultant said that Ashburn, who previously worked for Thomas, was once in the congressman’s camp but that the two had had a falling out. When Ashburn ran for the state Assembly in 1996, the consultant added, he was widely viewed as the congressman’s candidate.

Dan Brennan, a spokesman for Ashburn, said yesterday that the state senator was expected to make an announcement about his plans yesterday or today.

While McCarthy’s entire Assembly district falls inside the borders of Thomas’s House district, Ashburn’s state Senate district is not wholly within the House district.

The GOP consultant called Ashburn a serious contender who would attract the support of conservative activists and other Republicans who have grown disillusioned with Thomas.

“Basically, Bakersfield, Kern County politics, it tends to be Bill Thomas versus everybody else, because it’s really a machine-politics town, and you’ve got the Thomas faction and then you’ve got everybody else who’s on the outs from the Thomas camp,” the consultant said.

Many members of the conservative California Republican Assembly, which earlier sought to strip Schwarzenegger of his GOP endorsement on the grounds that he had abandoned his Republican principles, are likely to consider supporting Ashburn, the consultant said.

Still, most Washington Republicans will likely support McCarthy.

Abernathy, who also is a consultant for Rep. Devin Nunes (R-Calif.), said yesterday that McCarthy enjoys the support of many members of Congress from California and elsewhere.

Abernathy declined to identify those members, saying their names would be made public soon. “Right now, there’s quite a few,” he said of McCarthy’s House backers. “There will be a lot more.”

Nunes and Rep. Buck McKeon (R), in the neighboring 25th District, yesterday said they are backing McCarthy.

“He’s been a close ally of Governor Schwarzenegger, and he’s a very popular incumbent in Kern County, as evidenced by the fact that he’s going to have nearly every single local endorsement,” Nunes said of McCarthy.

A spokesman for McKeon said he was unaware of McKeon’s plans.

The Republican official also speculated that Rep. Jim McCrery (R), a member of the Ways and Means Committee, would back McCarthy. Thomas is the Ways and Means Committee chairman, and McCrery is the front-runner to succeed him in the post.

“I don’t think you’re going to have anyone going against the Ways and Means chairman,” the Republican official said.

In the coming months, Thomas is likely to shepherd through the committee legislation pertaining to healthcare, taxes and trade. He has vowed not to be a lame-duck chairman.

Thomas and McCarthy also worked together unsuccessfully to revamp the state’s redistricting process, with Thomas’s political action committee donating $50,000 to the 2005 ballot initiative and McCarthy leading the charge in Sacramento. Abernathy also played a central role in that effort.

McCarthy did not return a phone call Monday seeking comment.

Thomas has been a fairly consistent fiscal conservative, supporting the president’s tax-cut bills, although he did push the president’s 2003 prescription-drug Medicare benefit, which many conservatives railed against. But on social issues the congressman has upset many on the right; for instance, he has backed stem-cell research.

Abernathy said McCarthy would run a multipronged campaign, including television and radio ads, particularly in the high desert. “Kevin likes to do a lot of walking,” he added. “So he’ll go door to door a lot.”