Kingmaker California? US House control could hinge on district battles in famously liberal state

California is again emerging as a critical battleground in the fight to control the U.S. House

Michael R. Blood
Thursday 06 July 2023 05:18 BST
Branding Bidenomics
Branding Bidenomics

In 2024, control of the U.S. House could hinge on congressional districts in one famously liberal state: California.

Command of the narrowly divided chamber will again be in play next year, and leaders in both parties agree on this much: The outcome in a string of contested California districts will be critical in determining the balance of power, after the state played a pivotal role in securing the gavel for Republicans in 2022 and installing Rep. Kevin McCarthy of Bakersfield as speaker.

The decisive fight for the House “will run through California,” predicts Rep. Pete Aguilar, the third-ranking Democrat in the chamber, who lives in Redlands, east of Los Angeles. North Carolina Rep. Richard Hudson, who heads the House Republican campaign arm, is bullish about gaining ground, even in a state known as a Democratic monolith.

“I think we can actually pick up seats in California,” said Hudson, chair of the National Republican Congressional Committee.

The 10 competitive House districts belie California’s reputation as a liberal protectorate — Democrats hold every statewide office, dominate the Legislature and congressional delegation and outnumber registered Republicans statewide by a staggering 2-to-1 margin.

Still, Republicans retain pockets of political clout in the Southern California suburbs and the state's vast rural stretches, including the Central Valley farm belt, sometimes called America's salad bowl for its bountiful agricultural production.

With the chamber divided 222-212, with one vacancy, only a handful of seats separate the two parties.

Though the state's March primary election is months away, the narrative from both parties has taken shape. Democrats are warning about threats to abortion rights, immigration and unchecked gun violence, while Republicans are faulting the party that dominates state politics for high taxes, inflation, vexing crime rates and an out-of-control homeless crisis.

Also on the ballot will be California itself.

A national debate is underway — fanned by Democratic Gov. Gavin Newsom in California, and Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis in Florida — in which the state is alternately depicted as an ascendant progressive nation-state or a testament to the ravages of liberal excess.

Recent polling has found that two out of three voters foresee bad economic times over the next year, and its once-booming population that neared 40 million is now in decline.

“A lot will depend on the economy. The problem for Democrats is wages did not keep up with inflation. That may be changing, but if people have less money to spend next year, that will be a big problem up and down the Democratic ticket,” said Claremont McKenna College political scientist Jack Pitney.

A string of California House districts has proved volatile in recent elections, spotlighting their importance to both parties as they look to control the chamber. Democrats snatched seven seats from Republicans in 2018, then Republicans seized four from Democrats in 2020.

In the 2022 elections, Republicans gained one seat, from 11 to 12, while Democrats dropped to 40 seats from 42, after California lost a House seat in reapportionment after the 2020 census. Overall, the state dropped to 52 districts from 53.

Aguilar’s top targets are five districts Biden won in 2020 that are now held by Republicans. “We are going to win back the House,” Aguilar told reporters on a recent stop in Los Angeles.

Hudson said the GOP’s top target is a closely divided coastal district in the one-time Republican stronghold of Orange County, being vacated by Democratic Rep. Katie Porter, a prolific fundraiser who is running to replace Democratic U.S. Sen. Dianne Feinstein.

Porter's seat, Hudson said, is “probably our best pickup opportunity in the country.” Former legislator Scott Baugh, who narrowly lost to Porter in 2022 after she spent a stunning $28 million to defend the seat, is the leading Republican in the race.

Hudson sees other ripe targets in the Central Valley and the 49th District that straddles Orange and San Diego counties, where Democratic Rep. Mike Levin got a last-minute stopover from Biden in 2022 to help him hold the seat.

Levin expects another close race. But he thinks Democrats have been focusing on issues of concern to his constituents — including infrastructure projects and protecting reproductive rights. He said Republicans, meanwhile, have been engaged in issues irrelevant to voters, including the recent censure on a party-line vote of California Democratic Rep. Adam Schiff for comments he made several years ago about investigations into Donald Trump’s ties to Russia.

“This is a competitive political environment,” Levin said. “We don't take anything for granted.”

The House contests will be shadowed by the presidential campaign, but to what degree it influences the races isn’t yet clear.

Aguilar sees former President Donald Trump as an asset for Democratic candidates, should he win the GOP nomination.

“I don’t think there could be a more extreme person running on the Republican side than Donald Trump,” Aguilar said. “I think that’s going to turn off moderate, independent voters, and I think that’s going to lead to better Democratic turnout.”

President Joe Biden remains popular in California given its Democratic tilt, even as his national approval rating sits at a lackluster 41%, according to polling from The Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research. And Democratic turnout typically surges in presidential election years.

Hudson said it’s difficult at this point to predict the influence of the presidential race on individual House contests. He noted that the GOP has attracted larger numbers of Latino and working-class voters, who tend to turn out robustly in presidential election years.

“Regardless of what happens at the top of the ticket, I think what you’ll see is higher turnout,” he said.

In the first major election since the Supreme Court overturned the landmark Roe v. Wade decision, the abortion debate helped Democrats largely fend off an expected Republican wave in the 2022 midterm elections, when the party in power in the White House typically loses seats in Congress.

This time, Biden has sought to energize Democrats by warning that Republicans are seeking a nationwide abortion ban. That threat needs to be reinforced with California voters, Aguilar said, in a state where abortion rights are protected.

Hudson was dubious.

“I think voters are more concerned about ... inflation, the economy, public safety,” he said.

Both parties are vowing to invest millions of dollars to sway races and recruit candidates that fit the political complexion of districts. The GOP picked up seats in 2020 with a slate of candidates that was strikingly diverse for a party that remains predominantly white: two South Korean immigrants, both women, and two men who are sons of immigrant parents from Mexico and Portugal.

Those four districts remain targets for Democrats: Reps. Young Kim and Michelle Steel, anchored in Orange County, Rep. Mike Garcia in a district north of Los Angeles and Rep. David Valadao in the Central Valley.

Democrats also want to pick off GOP Rep. John Duarte in the farm belt, who prevailed by fewer than 600 votes in 2022.

Hudson also is eyeing Democratic Rep. Josh Harder in the farm belt as another potential gain — a district Newsom lost in his 2022 reelection.

“We know how to win Central Valley seats,” Hudson said.

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