31st Congressional District Is Petri Dish for Reforms

Douglas Jeffe
Communications and Public Affairs Strategist

Two “reforms” –the top-two primary and redistricting by commission–have created a whole new ballgame for legislative and Congressional district elections in California.  Proponents of these electoral changes were aiming to make races more competitive and to provide more opportunity for centrist candidates.   It will probably take another four or five election cycles to begin to really determine how well these reforms work and what their unintended consequences are.  Remember that term limits, for many, seemed like a good idea at the time, but, in practice, they have been a major contributor to dysfunction in Sacramento.

For an early clue as to how the new reforms may work out,  the newly drawn 31st Congressional District  in the Inland Empire is worth watching.  The district was supposed to be a swing district–leaning Democratic.  President Obama and Governor Brown had both won the district handily. But the June Primary has already produced a big surprise there; two Republicans emerged as the top- two vote-getters and are now contestants in the General election.

Despite a 6% Democratic registration advantage in the 31st CD and a population that is almost 50% Latino, the top-two vote getters in the Primary were Republican Congressman Gary Miller and GOP State Senator Bob Dutton,  who recently stepped down as Republican State Senate Leader.   Redlands Councilman Pete Aguilar, a Democrat,  was the presumptive front runner and was expected to face off against either Miller or Dutton, but House Democratic leadership took their eye off the ball and didn’t push three other Democrats off the ballot or fund a full scale Primary effort.   As a result,  the 31st CD moved from “leans Democratic” to “safe Republican” on the prognosticators’ charts.

So, this November  voters will be choosing between two traditional GOP conservatives, each of  whom must find a way to win over Democratic and independent voters.  Senator Dutton  is the hometown favorite, having represented much of the district in the Legislature, while Congressman Miller moved into the new district when his old seat was wiped out by reapportionment.

A cursory look at the two candidates’ websites reflects their dilemma–neither candidate is  taking the kind  of hardcore conservative stands that could turn off voters who don’t share their ideology.  Although both candidates say tax increases would be a bad idea, neither cites the Grover Norquist tax pledge or states emphatically that he would never vote for a tax increase.  There is a lot of warm and fuzzy stuff about education and jobs, but no real red meat.  It is interesting that Senator Dutton’s endorsement list includes Democrat Tom Torlakson, the State Superintendant of Instruction, and Democratic State Senator Lou Correa from Orange County–two of his long-time legislative colleagues.  The winner in this contest is likely to be the candidate who does the best job of appealing to voters outside their comfort zone.

Even more interesting than who prevails in November will be how the winner operates in Washington.  Demographics don’t work in Republicans’ favor in the 31st CD, which is likely to become more Democratic over time.  Undoubtedly, this district will be a big target for the Democrats in 2014.  Assuming Republicans hold their house majority,  Dutton or Miller may have to choose between bucking  their party leadership and the Tea Party caucus or alienating a good chunk of their constituents.  Infrastructure, Medicare, abortion rights and immigration are all issues that can cut both ways with their electorate.

If the new Congressman from the 31st CD charts a more moderate course, then the new reforms will have begun to do their job.

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