The Congressional Races — We have Winners

Tony Quinn
Editor, California Target Book

Thanks to Tuesday’s primary, the outlook for California’s congressional races is now much clearer.  Democrats have targeted up to 10 Republican-held House seats.  But the primary suggests that four GOP seats are in real danger of flipping to the Democrats, while the incumbents look stronger than expected in the other contests.

Two seats were always long shots:  Rep. Tom McClintock (R-Elk Grove) and Rep. Devin Nunes (R-Tulare).  Despite well funded Democrats in both districts, these congressmen received more than 50 percent of the vote in the primary; McClintock in the low 50s; Nunes in the upper 50s. 

Because our primaries (which are not even real primary elections) feature all voters casting the same ballot, the June election is quite predictive of what to expect in November.  An incumbent who receives more than 50 percent in the primary election is rarely in trouble in the general election.

This rule is good news for three of the “Clinton Seven”: those GOP districts that Hillary Clinton carried over Donald Trump in 2016.  Rep. David Valadao (R-Kings) represents the most pro-Clinton district of any Republican, but he received over 60 percent of the two party primary vote against a little known Democrat who did not even live in the district.  He would seem a pretty sure bet for re-election.

Two other Clinton district Republicans look reasonably safe.  Rep Steve Knight (R-Antelope Valley) is running just over 50 percent despite facing four Democratic challengers.  He will face off against non-profit director Katie Hill who narrowly won the second spot.  This is Knight’s best showing in a primary and although Hill will be well funded, she begins well behind.  Knight is clearly favored.

The same is true of Orange County’s Rep. Mimi Walters, who represents a part of the county that no Democrat other than Clinton has ever won.  Despite facing four well funded Democrats, Walters also won over 50 percent in the primary.  She will face university professor Katie Porter, a favorite of progressive Democrats who barely prevailed over a more moderate challenger.  Given that Porter is probably too far to the left for this district, it is hard to believe Walters is in any real danger.

That is not, however, the case with the other four of the “Clinton Seven.”  In the Central Valley, Rep. Jeff Denham (R-Modesto) received only 38 percent against one other Republican and 10 Democrats.  This is nine percent behind his 2016 primary total.  He will face venture capitalist Josh Harder, who defeated Michael Eggman, Denham’s 2014 and 2016 opponent.  Harder looks to be a much tougher opponent for Denham, who won with only 52 percent in 2016.  Denham starts the fall campaign definitely behind.  

The three other endangered Republican districts contain parts of Orange County.  In the northern Orange County district being vacated by Rep. Ed Royce, former GOP Assemblywoman Young Kim ran first with Democrat Gil Cisneros, a multi-millionaire lottery winner, a close second.  The district is undergoing rapid change with the Republican registration edge nearly wiped out, and Kim, who could not hold onto her Assembly district in 2016, starts out at no better than even.  This race is a toss-up but Cisneros showed considerable strength as a first time candidate.

The other two seats seem more likely to switch parties.  Thirty year GOP incumbent Dana Rohrabacher could only manage 30 percent of the primary vote in his coastal Orange County district.  He was attacked from both sides, as former Republican Assemblyman Scott Baugh went after him for his supposed support for Russia’s Putin.  Eight Democrats also contested the seat, with businessman Harley Rouda and scientist Hans Keirstead tied for second.  It may take some weeks to determine who will face Rohrabacher in the fall, but the Democrat should be favored to win the seat given Rohrabacher’s obvious weakness in the primary.

To the south, in Dana Point and northern San Diego County, where Rep. Darrel Issa is giving up the seat he nearly lost in 2016, GOP Board of Equalization member Diane Harkey ran first and will face environmental Democrat Mike Levin who emerged from a well funded pack of Democratic hopefuls to grab second place.

This is a district that is poised to flip; it was safely Republican just four years ago but in this year’s primary Democratic candidates outpolled Republicans; and the Democrats worked overtime to make sure Harkey led the primary.  Initial polling had shown San Diego GOP Assemblyman Rocky Chavez, who represented most of the congressional district in the legislature, as the front runner.

Chavez has shown crossover appeal in past campaigns.  That led Democrats to spendmore than $2 million against Chavez accusing him of not being a true Republican.  Chavez himself raised little money for his own campaign and ended up far back in the pack.  His ownAssembly district is sure to flip parties as two Democrats made the runoff. Harkey is definitely the underdog in the fall runoff.

Finally there is the very bizarre situation in the very Republican suburban San Diego district represented by Rep. Duncan Hunter.  It was thought Hunter’s legal problems – he is under federal investigation for a number of supposed ethic violations – would sink his re-election.  

But he ran away with the primary, and now will face second place Democrat AmmarCampa Naijar, whose claim to fame may well be that he is the grandson of Muhammad Yusef al-Naijar, the terrorist who masterminded the murder of 11 Israeli athletes and coaches at the 1972 Munich Olympics.  Israelis assassinated al-Naijar two years later.  It would seem likely this would become of interest to voters if the Hunter seat really comes into play.

But the realistic outlook now is the possible to probable pick-up of four GOP-held House seats in California, if the Democrats can put together compelling campaigns for a Democratic House of Representatives.

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