California’s nonpartisan redistricting commission bucked the national trend last year by creating a new congressional map with at least eight competitive seats, offering pickup opportunities to both Democrats and Republicans vying for control of the US House.
Tuesday’s House primaries in California will serve as an early test of strength for both parties as the GOP seeks a net gain of five seats to win the majority.
While Democrats were originally bullish about their chances this year in congressional races across the Golden State, those ambitions have been tempered by the difficult election climate they face. Many California voters are reeling from the highest gas prices in the nation and frustrations over the state’s ongoing homelessness crisis as well as rising crime at a time when all of the top officeholders in the state are Democrats.
Those dynamics have been thrust to the fore in Tuesday’s effort to recall progressive San Francisco District Attorney Chesa Boudin, a leader in the national criminal justice movement. City residents angling for his removal have said they do not feel safe amid a surge in burglaries and car thefts and unease about Boudin’s progressive policies at a time when violent crime has spiked nationally.
The top-of-the-ticket races in California are less dramatic this cycle. Democratic Gov. Gavin Newsom appears to be gliding toward reelection after the failed effort to recall him last year. Democratic Sen. Alex Padilla, who was appointed last year by Newsom to the seat vacated by Vice President Kamala Harris, appears twice on the ballot Tuesday: He is competing in a special election to fill the remainder of Harris’ term – which ends in January – and for a full six-year term.
Most of Tuesday’s real action will be in the House races and several local contests, including the contest to replace term-limited Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti. Under California’s “top two” primary system, the top two vote-getters in each congressional race, regardless of party, will advance to the November ballot. Turnout so far looks low, even though every voter in California received a ballot in the mail.
Here is a look at the most interesting House contests to watch.
State Assemblyman Kevin Kiley ran for governor last year as a fiery disrupter, as GOP voters attempted to recall Newsom. His effort drew the notice of former President Donald Trump, who endorsed him in this new GOP-leaning district that encompasses Sacramento suburbs as well as areas surrounding Lake Tahoe and the mountainous communities of the Eastern Sierras. Kiley and Sacramento County Sheriff Scott Jones, who invokes Trump’s name in one of his ads, are the two most prominent GOP candidates. Kiley has led a series of recent attempts in the state Assembly to suspend California’s gas tax, which is the highest in the nation.
The most formidable Democratic candidate is Kermit Jones, who served as a flight surgeon with the US Navy and deployed to Iraq. He later became a White House fellow during the Obama administration, where he worked with the Health and Human Services Department on improving care for veterans. Focusing on Kiley, Jones has framed the race as a choice between “a partisan politician who supports January 6th insurrectionists and a public servant who always puts country above party.”
Democratic Rep. Jerry McNerney’s decision to retire prompted another Democrat, Rep. Josh Harder, to swap his Modesto-area district for this more Democratic-leaning seat anchored in Stockton. With $6.8 million in cash on hand as of mid-May, Harder appears well-positioned for November.
Republican Tom Patti, a member of the San Joaquin County Board of Supervisors and a crane company owner, is viewed as Harder’s stiffest competition and promises to bring a national focus to homelessness. Patti’s biography notes that he was a “five-time state and Golden Gloves boxing champion” who trained under boxing coach Cus D’Amato, which led to his friendship with Mike Tyson. Tyson has said he nudged Patti into politics, and he headlined a fundraiser for Patti last fall when the candidate was exploring a run for Congress. Harder, a former venture capitalist, has touted his advocacy for expanding health care and for “commonsense gun reforms.”
Though this open seat in the Central Valley leans Democratic and a majority of its voters are Latinos, Republicans see an opportunity because of the anger over inflation, the continuing struggle with water issues and the unyielding rise in gas prices.
State Assemblyman Adam Gray, who has focused on expanding the water supply in this heavily agricultural region during his tenure in the statehouse, is viewed as the front-runner among the Democrats in the race. A self-described “radical centrist,” he is backed by the Blue Dog PAC, the campaign arm of the Blue Dog Coalition of moderate House Democrats. Gray won the endorsement of the California Democratic Party earlier this year by a 2-to-1 margin over Phil Arballo, who unsuccessfully challenged former GOP Rep. Devin Nunes in 2020.
Business owner John Duarte, who owns a crops nursery in Stanislaus County, won the coveted designation as a “Young Gun” from the National Republican Congressional Committee. Duarte gained national attention from conservatives during his long-running fight with the Obama administration – he was charged with harming wetlands in violation of the Clean Water Act after plowing a field to plant wheat on his farm. He was fined nearly $2.8 million dollars and ultimately settled the case. Duarte’s tagline: “Send a farmer to Congress.”
GOP Rep. David Valadao has often defied the odds in his predominantly Latino, Democratic-leaning Central Valley district – with the notable exception of the 2018 cycle when he narrowly lost to Democrat TJ Cox and then won the seat back two years later. But California’s redistricting commission dealt Valadao, whose family owns two dairies as well as farmland in Kings County, an even more difficult hand this cycle by excising some of the more Republican areas of Valadao’s current district.
Democrats landed a top recruit in state Assemblyman Rudy Salas, who is endorsed by the Blue Dog PAC and is already being bolstered with a six-figure ad buy from House Majority PAC, the super PAC tied to House Democratic leadership.
Valadao’s opponents believe he may be more vulnerable to erosion within the GOP base this year because he voted to impeach Trump after the January 6, 2021, insurrection at the US Capitol, even though the former President has not intervened in the race. Valadao is being challenged on the right by former Fresno City Councilmember Chris Mathys, who has criticized the incumbent’s impeachment vote and sued the state after it rejected his request to be identified as a “Trump Conservative/Businessman” on the ballot. But Valadao is leaning into his image as an independent voice for the Central Valley as he advocates a state gas tax suspension and promises to be a bulwark against the “radical left.” The GOP hopes the unfavorable political climate facing Democrats this year will get him across the finish line even though Democrats hold a clear registration advantage in the newly drawn 22nd District.
The race for this northern Los Angeles County seat looked like it was headed for a rematch between GOP Rep. Mike Garcia, a former fighter pilot and Democratic former state Assemblywoman Christy Smith, who lost to Garcia twice in 2020 (first in a special election to replace Democratic Rep. Katie Hill and then in the November election by about 300 votes). But Democrat Quaye Quartey, a former intelligence officer in the Navy, has marshaled a strong challenge for the likely Democratic slot, as he argues that his military experience and background growing up as the son of an immigrant father from Ghana would make him a more formidable contender to face Garcia in November. Quartey has nearly matched Smith’s fundraising and notched the endorsements of key Democratic influencers in California, including Reps. Katie Porter and Barbara Lee.
In the redrawing of the district, Garcia lost Republican areas in the Simi Valley – making it easier for Democrats to turn this into a highly partisan contrast of ideals in November as they try to boost turnout by highlighting Garcia’s loyalty to Trump and his vote against certifying the 2020 election results from Arizona and Pennsylvania.
Republican Rep. Young Kim, who flipped her current Biden-won Orange County seat in 2020, initially looked as though she would have an easier race when she decided to run in the newly drawn 40th District, which is far more favorable to the GOP.
But she is new to many voters in the new district – encompassing parts of Orange, Riverside and San Bernardino counties – and is fending off an unexpectedly strong primary challenge from her right from Marine veteran Greg Raths, a member of the Mission Viejo City Council. Raths has made previous bids for Congress, including losing to Porter in 2020 by 7 points. The Congressional Leadership Fund, a GOP super PAC aligned with House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, has come to Kim’s defense with an ad that calls Raths a liberal and Kim “the conservative choice for Congress.”
Meanwhile, Democrat Asif Mahmood, a physician who ran unsuccessfully for state insurance commissioner in 2018, has outperformed fundraising expectations for a bid that looked like a long shot for his party. His first ad contrasts his support for abortion rights with Raths’ opposition – widely viewed as a ploy to elevate Raths and make this first phase of the contest more difficult for Kim.
The contest between GOP Rep. Michelle Steel and Democrat Jay Chen in California’s new 45th District, which was drawn to maximize the political power of its Asian American voters, has gotten surprisingly ugly – with accusations of racism flying from both sides. More than a third of the eligible voters in this Orange County district are Asian American, and redistricting commissioners centered it around Little Saigon, attempting to amplify the influence of an area with a high concentration of Vietnamese American voters.
Steel, who was one of the first Korean American women elected to Congress (alongside Kim), and Chen, the son of immigrants from Taiwan, had both intended to run in other districts. But the redrawing of district lines created a pronounced musical chairs effect. Many of the coastal areas of Orange County that Steel currently represents ended up in the more Democratic-leaning 47th District, where Porter is now running.
Controversy erupted between Chen and Steel this spring after he described Steel’s remarks at one of her town halls by saying: “It’s tough. We’ve transcribed it. You kind of need an interpreter to figure out exactly what she’s saying.” Her campaign accused him of mocking her accent. He wrote an op-ed in the Orange County Register stating that the charge was false and that he was referring to “a written transcript of Steel’s record of flip-flopping and feeding constituents convoluted talking points. … Not any kind of audible accent.” Chen has accused his opponent of continually choosing “the radicals in her party over the good of her district,” including by voting against the bipartisan infrastructure bill. It will likely be one of the closest races in California in November.
Porter’s fundraising prowess has scared off potential challengers before as her star has risen within the Democratic Party through her forceful interrogations of corporate and oil executives, as well as Trump administration officials, in congressional hearings. Despite the new 47th District’s Democratic lean, this year’s unpredictable political climate has made Porter a GOP target. While the new district includes Porter’s hometown of Irvine, she is having to introduce herself to voters in many other parts of the district.
Scott Baugh, the former GOP leader of the State Assembly and a former chairman of the Orange County Republican Party, is challenging Porter, highlighting the toll of rising crime and higher gas and grocery prices. His campaign portrays Porter as a “leftist” who supported spending programs that are “hurting working class families.” Baugh is backed by McCarthy and was named one of the NRCC’s “Young Guns.” But Democrats are likely to once again highlight his past violations of the state’s Political Reform Act after he agreed to pay fines for those infractions while serving in the Assembly.
Democratic Rep. Mike Levin is trying to win reelection this fall in a district that now stretches from the southern Orange County coast into northern San Diego County. One of his former challengers is seeking a rematch: Republican Brian Maryott, a certified financial planner and former mayor of San Juan Capistrano, whom Levin defeated by 6 points in 2020. Like other GOP challengers across the state this year, Maryott asserts that President Joe Biden’s pandemic-era spending policies, supported by Levin, have worsened inflation and that Democrats should pay at the polls in November.
GOP observers, though, are also keeping an eye on Oceanside City Councilmember Christopher Rodriguez, who served two combat tours in Iraq as a Marine. Maryott has institutional party support and has led in fundraising on the GOP side. But the American Patriots PAC – a super PAC that supports conservative veterans and is funded by GOP megadonors such as Ken Griffin and Paul Singer – has interceded with some late spending for Rodriguez and against Maryott.