In the past few weeks United States Congressman Howard “Buck” McKeon (CA-26), Chairman of the powerful House Armed Services Committee, has been talking with prominent political leaders in his district, informing them that he may be retiring at the end of his current term. I’ve personally spoken to several of the folks who spoke with McKeon, who confirmed for me that they had spoken with the senior Republican who was first elected in 1992, and is currently serving in his 11th term in the House.
I spoke with Congressman McKeon last evening in advance of publishing this story, and the Congressman would only say on the record that he has not yet made a decision about whether he would seek re-election in 2014.
Because of “committee term limits” within the House Republican Conference, the 74-year-old McKeon is in his last two year stint as Chairman of the House Armed Services Committee. McKeon is the senior member of the House Education and the Workforce Committee, and has served on top GOP spot on that committee for a term, but would be allowed, if chosen to do so, to serve two more terms as Chairman.
Last year McKeon handily won election in the newly-drawn 26th district [map] centered in northern Los Angeles County, but also including a small portion of Ventura County. The four largest cities in the district include Palmdale, Lancaster, Santa Clarita and Simi Valley. When drawn, the district, which is quite favorable to a Republican, was 41.13% GOP, 35.57% Dem, and 18.26% DTS. Fiorina beat Boxer by 17 points here, Whitman out-polled Brown by 13 points, and Prop. 8 passed in this district by an 18 point margin.
McKeon’s private chats about his own future have started to fuel speculation about what the Republican field would look like to replace him. Because there are no term limits on House members, seats like this only really come open once in a generation.
The Field of Likely Candidates
There are a good number of prominent GOPers in this Republican-rich district, the highest profile of whom is current Board of Equalization Member and former State Senator George Runner. I caught up with Runner, who said that absent and official statements from Congressman McKeon, its too early to speculate. Although it was my distinct impression, from talking to him, that he has thought about this quite a bit. A big challenge for the BOE Member is that he would have to make a decision to either run for Congress or for re-election to the BOE — he can’t do both. Perhaps Runner would be hoping that if McKeon leaves the seat a little early, there could be a special election which would allow him to run without risking his BOE seat…
Popular State Senator Steve Knight, unlike Runner, has a “free ride” in 2014 as he was just elected to the Senate last year. Knight, a retired LAPD officer, is the youngest son of an area legend — former Col. Pete Knight, a famed test pilot for the United States Air Force, who also served in the state legislature. Knight’s State Senate seat overlaps an overwhelming percentage of McKeon’s House seat. Politically Knight and Runner are very close — it is unlikely that both would run for this seat.
Of course the highest profile GOP intra-party battle that has taken place in that area in a long time was last year’s Assembly race between Scott Wilk and Congressman McKeon’s wife, Patricia. That said, Wilk very much came out on top in that showdown. His 38th Assembly District is almost completely nested within the 25th House seat (the other half of the House district is represented in the Assembly by a Democrat). Wilk was the top performer on the ballot, and having known him for a quarter century, I recall that he originally hails from the Antelope Valley (Lancaster/Palmdale area). He would be a formidable contender, but he would have to give up his Assembly seat to make there run, and under the new state legislative term limits, Wilk can serve in Sacramento for five more terms.
Also hailing from this district is former Assemblyman Cameron Smyth. Like McKeon, he is a former mayor of Santa Clarita who served three terms in the state house, retiring last year. Curiously, in this final term in office, Smyth took a leftward turn, going up on some major tax increase bills, which was controversial and placed him squarely at odds with conservatives and tax fighters in his district and in Sacramento. That having been said, Smyth has a lot of friends and would make a formidable contender. A big challenge for Smyth — he has not been on the ballot (and then with a nominal opponent) since 2010.
Finally, there is the Chairman of the Ventura County Board of Supervisors, Peter Foy. Foy is one of the state’s leading conservative voices as the Chairman of Americans for Prosperity, California. Foy has had numerous successful businesses, and dropped a considerable amount of his own personal wealth into his races for Supervisor in 2008 and 2012. While’s Foy’s business background and conservative work is a big plus, his challenge is that he hails from Simi Valley, and his Supervisorial seat overlaps only a small portions of the 25th District. If Foy were to enter the race, he would be formidable for sure.
In addition to speaking with Runner, I also caught up with Knight, Wilk and Foy. Predictably none felt comfortable really discussing the hypothetical vacancy at this point. None of them, however, definatively ruled out a run.
Tony Strickland Running In The Highly Competitive Neighboring 26th District
It is worth mentioning that former Republican State Senator Tony Strickland just finished up a grueling battle against his legislative colleague Julia Brownley in the very competitive neighboring 26th Congressional District, in Ventura County. It was a race that attracted national attention, and when the dust settled Brownley bested Strickland by about a mere 5%. It was recently reported that Strickland has opened up a campaign committee and is actively raising funds for a rematch against Brownley. Without Obama at the top of the ticket to help Brownley, Strickland once again becomes a top target for the National Republican Congressional Committee. I mention Strickland because it would not be entirely out of realm of possibility that he carpetbags into McKeon’s seat (McKeon and Strickland are close — in the 2012 Assembly primary between Scott Wilk and Patricia McKeon, Strickland who had endorsed Wilk, first pulled that endorsements, and then endorsed McKeon, no doubt endearing himself to the Congressman).
Clearly, to the extent that Strickland would consider running for the McKeon seat, he’s in a bit of a quandary. There is a lot of money for Strickland to raise as the GOP candidate in a target district, working to take out Brownley. But obviously it would be awkward at best, and as a practical matter almost politically impossible for Strickland to raise a boatload of cash to face off against Brownley, and then shift it all into a run in a safe-GOP seat, leaving Republicans no only with suddenly no candidate against Brownley. On the other hand, with McKeon only having quiet back room chats right now, and not making an official announcement, Strickland can’t easily forsake his redux against Brownley in the near future. It’s very possible that by the time such an announcement is made, Strickland wouldn’t be able to pivot too easily. Still, as I said above, House seats come open once in a generation so Strickland may not be able to resist.
In closing, I believe is only a matter of time before McKeon makes his announcement formally, and when he does, there will be a very healthy (and entertaining) GOP dust-up.
** Note – An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated that Congressman McKeon had served three terms as Chairman of the House Education and Workforce Committee.