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House Speaker Kevin McCarthy oversaw his first State of the Union address

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Television viewers last night could see Kevin McCarthy in the frame. He was sitting behind President Biden, presiding over his first State of the Union speech as speaker of the House. This high-profile role puts him in charge of a fractured Republican Party. But what do his constituents in California think of his performance so far? Here's Joshua Yeager of KVPR in California's San Joaquin Valley.

JOSHUA YEAGER, BYLINE: To better understand what motivates Speaker McCarthy, it's best to take a step back from the State of the Union to the state of the county - Kern County, to be exact. McCarthy's hometown, Bakersfield, is here. It's the population center of his central California district, where oil and agriculture reigns supreme.

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KEVIN MCCARTHY: For generations, Kern County has been an innovator in energy, agriculture and aerospace.

YEAGER: County leaders held an annual address at the Kern fairgrounds last week. McCarthy couldn't attend, but he delivered a pre-recorded message to big applause from a crowd of hundreds. Seated front and center was Cathy Abernathy, a longtime Republican operator and McCarthy's biggest booster locally.

CATHY ABERNATHY: Kevin McCarthy has been active in this county for 25 years.

YEAGER: Abernathy's consulting firm helped McCarthy get elected first to the local community college district, then to the state assembly and finally to Congress.

ABERNATHY: I tell people Kevin McCarthy is an optimist. I think that's the best way to understand him. He knows that there is a way to find a solution to most any problem.

YEAGER: Voters in this ruby-red district, though, have begun to question McCarthy's conservative bona fides.

JUDE HUPP: Oh, he could be a little more conservative.

YEAGER: That's Jude Hupp. The retired fuel salesman spreads aged blue cheese across freshly baked bread at Luigi's, a century-old Italian deli and Bakersfield institution.

HUPP: McCarthy is not our ideal person to have there, but for what we're doing right now, yeah, it'll work.

YEAGER: Hupp reveled in seeing McCarthy struggle for the speaker's gavel.

HUPP: And I'm kind of glad that they stood off and got what they wanted before they went ahead and voted for him. That's just the way business works.

YEAGER: Across the restaurant, oil-field worker Coby Hannah agrees.

COBY HANNAH: They didn't make him sweat.

YEAGER: He says the region's declining oil industry has taken a financial toll. Still, Hannah supports McCarthy for now.

HANNAH: I've supported him. I voted for him every single time that he's ran. But we got to change what's going on, period.

YEAGER: If the first month is any sign of his speakership over the next two years, McCarthy may have a tough road ahead. But McCarthy may not get relief at home, or voters will also keep the pressure on.

For NPR News, I'm Joshua Yeager in Bakersfield. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Joshua Yeager