Biden's aid programs help buttress McCarthy's district despite GOP leader's complaints about 'socialist' spending

House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., introduces Rep. Elise Stefanik, R-N.Y., on May 14, 2021, moments after she was elected chair of the House Republican Conference, replacing Rep. Liz Cheney, R-Wyo.
House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., introduces Rep. Elise Stefanik, R-N.Y., on May 14, 2021, moments after she was elected chair of the House Republican Conference, replacing Rep. Liz Cheney, R-Wyo.Washington Post photo by Jabin Botsford.

BAKERSFIELD, Calif. - House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., has spent months accusing President Joe Biden of pushing excessive government spending, denouncing it as "socialism." But a Washington Post analysis finds that McCarthy's constituents are among those who have benefited most from the very programs he's decried, with high poverty levels and a younger population creating acute needs for individual and family aid.

An unusually large share of children in McCarthy's district stand to benefit from the expanded child tax credit included in the American Rescue Plan he opposed - more than 93%, the seventh-highest proportion in California, according to figures reviewed by The Post.

Even as McCarthy has railed against the extension of enhanced unemployment benefits in the law, his region has been among the slowest in the state to recover from the pandemic-induced economic crisis. The unemployment rate in his region was still at double digits in March, while it had fallen into the single digits in California and the nation as a whole, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

With high levels of poverty in the district, McCarthy's constituents have also relied heavily on stimulus checks sent out under the American Rescue Plan and earlier coronavirus relief bills. Census Bureau income data indicates that a significantly higher-than-average share of families in McCarthy's district were probably eligible to receive stimulus checks. In 2019, the most recent year for which data is available, the poverty rate of 15.6% in McCarthy's district was well above California's 11.8% rate and the national rate of 12.3%.

"I think it's very unfortunate that McCarthy continues to reject these proposals that can help millions of people here in his backyard here in the Central Valley," said state Assemblyman Rudy Salas, a Democrat whose district overlaps with McCarthy's around Bakersfield. "I would plead to Congressman McCarthy to not forget his constituents, not forget California families, Central Valley families, when looking at these proposals."

The figures highlight the tension between McCarthy's rhetoric in Washington and the realities on the ground in the 23rd Congressional District, which sits at the southern end of California's Central Valley. The district is home to large numbers of immigrant farmworkers, many of them undocumented, a population uniquely vulnerable to the health and economic forces of the pandemic. As the coronavirus swept through the area last year, food bank lines grew markedly as many essential workers faced difficult choices about whether to keep working under risky conditions or stay home to protect themselves and care for their children.

McCarthy has represented his district since 2007. Encompassing the city of Bakersfield and much of Kern County, the region is a major source of energy and agriculture production for California. McCarthy has sold himself as a former small-business owner, having briefly run a deli in his early 20s, but he gained his political chops as an aide to former House Ways and Means Committee chairman Bill Thomas, the district's previous representative. Thomas remains a larger-than-life figure in the area, and the hundreds of millions of dollars he helped secure in a major highway bill passed in 2005 still help the region.

McCarthy's political approach has been much different. He has tried to remain close to former president Donald Trump and establish himself as a national party leader, since he could become speaker of the House in 2023 if Republicans make gains in next year's midterm elections. His district, though, is at a crossroads.

Even as neighboring Los Angeles County climbs out of the pandemic, vaccinations in Kern County are lagging, and needs remain high. Some of McCarthy's constituents, as well as leaders of advocacy groups and state and local Democrats representing the area, voiced frustration over his stance against the federal assistance that they view as critical for their region's recovery.

But McCarthy disputes the suggestion that he has disregarded his district's needs in voting against Biden's American Rescue Plan, or in opposing infrastructure proposals and additional federal spending that local leaders say is desperately needed in their region.

"My constituents are my top priority, and with every vote I take, I vote my conscience and for my district," McCarthy said in a statement.

He pointed to his support of Republican-backed tax cuts in 2017 that included an expanded child tax credit - albeit significantly less generous than the provision in Biden's rescue law - and said the Biden plan was "never about getting Americans back to work, but about creating more government involvement in our lives."

Asked why he voted against legislation containing benefits that flowed disproportionately to his district, McCarthy said the bill was "all about growing the size of government - not defeating the virus and restoring our way of life."

In Washington, McCarthy recently met with Biden to discuss infrastructure, even as he's attacked Democrats' proposals and focused on ousting Rep. Liz Cheney, R-Wyo., from her role in House GOP leadership after her opposition to Trump made her an outcast. After briefly criticizing the former president in the aftermath of the Jan. 6 attack on the Capitol, McCarthy has returned to form as a Trump apologist and booster, a stance he appears to consider necessary to retain his leadership role in the GOP. McCarthy is already one of the most powerful Republican politicians in the country; elevation to House speaker would place him second in the line of succession to the presidency.

Yet McCarthy's position as House GOP leader does not appear to have translated into dramatic economic changes for his district.

Republican aides point to a long list of accomplishments on behalf of his district, including securing federal funding for water infrastructure projects as California faces severe drought; helping pass legislation on behalf of veterans; directing money toward hospitals in underserved areas; and gathering federal support to address Valley fever, an infection that disproportionately affects farmworkers since it's caused by a fungus in the soil.

But even as California's strong tech sector has softened the economic blow of the pandemic in other parts of the state, much of the Central Valley has remained mired in poverty, with immigrant farmworkers struggling to make ends meet, blighted buildings and tumbledown lots lining the highways into and out of Bakersfield, and boarded-up storefronts dotting a downtown business district that still retains some charm from the city's past, including as a country music hub in the 1950s.

Economic inequality in Kern County has risen steadily for the past decade, with a notable increase from 2017 to 2019. In that time, Kern jumped 10 spots in the rankings and is now the 12th-most-unequal county of the 41 in California for which the Census Bureau has comparable data. Infrastructure needs are acute, but McCarthy opposes Biden's proposed $2 trillion in infrastructure spending, objecting to proposed tax increases and arguing that much of the proposal does not qualify as infrastructure. Nonpartisan officials in his district, meanwhile, are making the case for larger investments.

"We have huge needs," said Ahron Hakimi, executive director of the Kern Council of Governments, the regional transportation planning organization.

Many of the region's wants are connected to families and children, as the district's above-average household size and relatively young population create greater pressures for parents. The median age in the district is 35.1, compared with 38.5 nationally. Kern County also has the third-highest teen birthrate in California, according to a County Health Rankings analysis of data from the National Center for Health Statistics collected between 2013 and 2019.

The Post's analysis of the proportion of children in McCarthy's district who would benefit from the new expanded child tax credit - more than 93% - is based on population estimates from the Census Bureau and data released by the office of Rep. Rosa DeLauro, D-Conn., and compiled by Co-Equal, a nonpartisan nonprofit group that seeks to help Congress conduct more rigorous oversight.

Jeremy Tobias, head of the Community Action Partnership of Kern, which administers a wide variety of programs including child education and food distribution on a massive scale, said that he considers McCarthy a friend to the agency and that the congressman's staff is always accessible. But given the area's young and immigrant families, he views programs aimed at helping families as critical. The new child tax credit is one such benefit; Biden has also proposed free preschool that could be key in helping families in McCarthy's district - part of another spending package the congressman opposes.

"Anything that can raise these families up to a level of stability and stabilize their situation is going to impact society greatly," Tobias said. "My wish would be for all of our electeds - not just McCarthy - to push bipartisanship and find the common ground that we all hope for as constituents."

McCarthy has been reelected easily in his district, which has remained strongly Republican even as a growing Latino population foreshadows a political shift that could change the area's voter makeup over time. His winning percentages have crept down over the years but remain above 60%. Although Democrats complain he is not around much in his district - a claim the congressman's staff disputes - McCarthy's strong base of support and alliance with Trump suggest there is little chance he could suffer the fate of Eric Cantor, his predecessor as House GOP leader, who was ousted from his Virginia district in 2014 by an insurgent from the right.

"The political position that he is in is of such high stakes, and at a time when the country is in such a profound cultural shift, I think he is in a real tough spot," said Leticia Perez, a Democrat who serves on the nonpartisan Kern County Board of Supervisors. "What's unfortunate is that toeing the party line does not give us a pathway forward as a changing population."

McCarthy is a lifelong Bakersfield resident and commands devoted support from some voters such as Pam Hall, 72, herself a Bakersfield native recently shopping with two longtime friends at the Valley Plaza Mall on the outskirts of McCarthy's district.

"Everyone loves Kevin in Bakersfield that we know," Hall said. "No one calls him anything but Kevin."

Hall's friend Brenda Tate, 71, crossed paths with McCarthy years ago when she worked as a campaign call center manager at a GOP headquarters where McCarthy was sometimes present.

Tate said she found it very helpful to get coronavirus relief payments, including the $1,400 stimulus check that was part of the most recent federal aid package, which McCarthy opposed; she used her stimulus money in part for flooring. She said his opposition didn't bother her because "I don't know how the government afforded it."

Other residents, however, questioned McCarthy's commitment to a district where they don't see their needs reflected by his votes.

"He's for rich people . . . I'm a poor person, he's not for me," said Shirley Stewart, 79, a lifelong resident who said she used to work in the local fields picking cotton. "We need help, and who's going to help us?"