Published June 10, 2016 in The Moderate Voice
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On Tuesday night, the national attention was on the state of California as Hillary Clinton’s larger than expected victory over Bernie Sanders solidified the inevitable: that the former New York Senator and Secretary of State is now the Democratic Party’s presumptive nominee for President. But the “Golden” State also hosted a number of other contests that could be pivotal to the national environment for the fall. California has a “top two” system where the two highest finishers in the primary advance to the November general election regardless of party. While few analysts think the Democrats can reverse the GOPs dominant 247-188 margin in the House, party officials are looking to grab every last seat. And even with an already dominant 39-14 seat edge in the California delegation, they believe there is still room for expansion.
Donald Trump is one reason and Democrats are overtly hopeful that a lopsided anti-Trump vote will lure voters that traditionally have low turnout rates to the polls. In addition, the fact that Republicans have now been shut out of the U.S. Senate contest – Democrats Kamala Harris and Loretta Sanchez seized both slots to advance to November gives voters even less incentive to split their tickets. That is precisely why Democrats are looking at three and possibly four seats now held by GOP incumbents. Tuesday’s showings offered some hints but, in a year like this, hard data may be late to develop. In fact, it is totally conceivable that it might take til election night before reliable data emerges.
If Democrats have bragging rights after Tuesday night, it’s that their own incumbents have recovered beautifully from the peril of 2014 that, among the delegation, nearly hit the double digits. That year, targeted freshman Raul Ruiz turned back a challenge with unexpected ease but eight other seats were won with 52% or less. But Tuesday, seven of the eight won by unambiguous margins. Julia Brownley, John Garamendi and Scott Peters were near or above 60% while Jim Costa and Jerry McNerney took 54%. Even in the cases of Pete Aguilar’s 43%, the 15% that fell to another Democrat clearly indicates that the seat is well-positioned to remain in party hands come November. An open Santa Barbara seat that Lois Capps is vacating is similarly assured of staying Democratic.
The eighth, sophomore Ami Bera held his seat by just 1,500 votes in ’14, reversing a 3,500 vote deficit on election night. That would seemed to have ended his troubles in an increasingly Democratic district Obama carried but Bera has since been encountered by new turbulence including his father’s indictment for illegally funneling money to his campaign. But a bigger problem was his support of free trade, which not only put him in the distinct minority of his caucus, but earned him the enmity of labor unions who actually endorsed his Republican opponent, Sacramento Sheriff Scott Jones. It was these defections that led some to believe Bera might run behind Jones in the primary. That didn’t happen. In fact, Bera posted a relatively healthy 53% and, while he’s clearly the most vulnerable of the California Democrats facing the voters, his odds of returning to Washington in November just shot up big time.
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<strong>Bera is the sole Democrat from California whose fate is less than safe but this week’s results suggest his hold is stable
The uncertainty for November lies with Republican incumbents. Democrats began the year hoping three seats that have long proven elusive – the tenth and twenty-first districts in the central valley and the twenty-fifth in the desert, held by Jeff Denham, Dave Valadao and Steve Knight respectively. And suddenly, the Northern San Diego based 49th district, while still a long-shot, has emerged as at least a sure-thing to host a competitive race.
Valadao may be the one incumbent who heads into November safer. Not safe but safer. The sophomore has forged strong relations with Latino groups in this San Joaquin Valley and that has benefited him politically throughout his tenure in Congress and the California legislature. He routinely runs ahead of Obama, who took 55%. But a far more important feather in his cap is that the district has among the lowest turnout in the nation. Trump’s candidacy may cause a spike but Valadao’s appeal makes it uncertain how many will vote against him, and frankly, how many will even actually vote down ballot. Add that to the fact that Democrats narrowly awarded their slot to a candidate who raised very little money and who was not the favorite of the national party and the numbers just don’t add up to a Valadao loss.
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<strong>Democrats appear to have narrowly fallen short of nominating the candidate of their choice to take on Valadao</strong>
Denham may be another story but Democratic nominee Mike Eggman will need everything to add up. Denham is another incumbent whose safe district proceeding the 2012 remap was transformed to The partisan primary results mirrored that of two years ago – 57% for the GOP (this year Denham faced another Republican on the ballot) and 43% for Eggman and his foe. Denham went on to take 56% in the general.
This is a Presidential year (along with Valadao) was hurt by switching his vote on an LGBT amendment. The Eggman name is not invisible as the candidate’s sister Susan served in the State Assembly. And Denham had a close race as recently as four years ago as astronaut Jose Hernandez nearly catapulted to victory amid Presidential turnout both parties expect to be higher this time around. And that may only serve to Eggman’s benefit. Denham is a masterful fundraiser who has to be given an edge now but don’t be surprised to see this race at the tossup stage by November.
The Democratic performance in the Modesto district is growing. Obama’s showing went from 50-48% in 2008 to 51-47% in ’12. The President even carried Stanislaus County, the first time in a long time that’s happened. Low turnout is sometimes an issue here as well and Denham certainly has the edge. But if Eggman runs a strong campaign and enough anti-Trump voters fail to split their tickets, a cliffhanger could develop come election night.
The 25th, once as fertilely Republican as the desert grass in this Northern San Fernando Valley district, is rapidly becoming swing territory. Obama actually carried it by about 900 votes in 2008, before taking just 46% four years later. But there are signs the pendulum is swinging back in the other direction.
If Democrats defeat Knight, it certainly won’t be because trial lawyer Bryan Caforio has such overwhelming strengths. In fact, the state party, angered by Caforio’s moving into the district from L.A. to seek the seat, backed Lou Vince and that is an issue Knight – whose family has held a number of offices throughout the district, is sure to remind voters of. But Caforio has been decent with fundraising and may have the campaign chops and the political wind needed to tackle Knight. At the very least, party officials may hope Caforio can emulate Ruiz, a Democrat to the South who stunned Mary Bono Mack in a similar district in 2012.
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<strong>Democrats would like nothing better than to see longtime nemesis Issa lose</strong>
Republicans were also stung by the weak showings of members of delegation. Ken Calvert and Dana Rohrabacher took 56%, not necessarily a danger sign a warning that they might not be able to glide to new terms like in the past. But that was nowhere near as close as Issa. The conservative bogeyman never had to sweat a general election, even as redistricting made his territory about 4% more Democratic. But as Dave Wasserman of the Cook Political Report pointed out, the GOP registration edge in the district has dwindled substantially, from 43-28% in ’12 to 39-31% this year. In anything close to a neutral year, that would be enough of a firewall but as Republicans are painfully aware, this is far from a neutral year. And Issa doesn’t have an ordinary opponent. Doug Applegate is an Iraq War veteran whose resume has drawn attention from national Democrats Issa clearly faces his most difficult general election fight since winning the seat in 2000. But he is seeing the warning signs like everyone else and will not enter the fall unprepared. Plus, conservative groups, grateful for Issa’s many multiple investigations of the Obama administration, will not let him churn in the wind.
Finally, for a fun fact. On Tuesday, Lloyd Bridges won the right to face Democrat Zoe Lofgren for a San Jose based Congressional seat. Bridges is no relation to the deceased actor and that’s just as well, as in this 2-1 Democratic district, voters won’t be saying “You Belong To Me,” or giving him any “Freshman Love.”
Map: by User:(WT-shared) Wrh2, User:(WT-shared) LtPowers, User:(WT-shared) Cacahuate – Based on an original by User:(WT-shared) Wrh2, based on public domain image from NPS, CC BY-SA 1.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=22660865