Monday, March 4, 2013

California House Races 2014

2012 was a fantastic year for Democrats in California. Obama won 60% of the vote here, Democrats won 2/3 majorities in the State Assembly and State Senate and Democrats gained four U.S. House seats (from 2002-10, they gained only one.) Democrats overperformed expectations by winning all the tossup House seats and winning Assembly seats such as one in formerly Republican leaning Lancaster. Democrats have even more opportunities in 2014 though and can gain three more U.S. House seats if everything goes right. Having everything go right does not happen often but in 2012, most projections showed Democrats gaining two House seats in California but they gained four, winning CA-36 and CA-7 which were previously thought to be Republican leaning tossups. They also performed well in CA-26 and CA-52, two districts with many upscale white voters. These districts voted for Obama in both 2008 and 2012 but in 2010, voted for Whitman in the Gubernatorial so Democrats need to prevent the upscale voters from reverting back to the Republicans in 2014. Also, Democrats need to retain those seats because the base will have lower turnout in 2014 and midterms always have a more conservative electorate. With more resources in 2014 devoted to House races than in 2012 though, Democrats stand a strong chance to retain their wins in 2012 and expand on their 38-15 seat majority of California's Congressional delegation.
Map of California's congressional districts. Source:

Here is an interactive map of California's current congressional districts:

Republican held seats:

Tossup/Tilt Democratic (1 seat)

CA-31 Rep. Gary Miller (R) Redlands, San Bernadino, Rancho Cucamonga
Partisan Stats: Obama 57%, Romney 41% (2012 Presidential results by district for California are here)
Obama 56%, McCain 41%
Brown 49%, Whitman 44%
(2008 and 2010 district by district results + demographics are here)

The 31st district has a strong Democratic lean (even Whitman could not win it,) and it was one of the few districts where the President performed better in 2012 than he did in 2008. It is trending Democratic quickly too with a 49% Hispanic population so why does a Republican represent it? California's top two primary system is the answer. The top two vote receivers regardless of party run for the seat and in the 2012 primary, the top two vote receivers were Republicans. The Democratic field was split and Pete Aguilar (D), the Redlands Mayor was the top Democrat in that race. Democrats are working to convince him to run again and this time, two Republicans will not be the top two vote receivers. Miller does not even have a looming primary challenge. The district's lean should be enough to put Aguilar over the top in the general election if he runs although as Democrats learned in 2012, they can take nothing for granted in this district.

Lean Republican

CA-10 Jeff Denham (R) Modesto, Tracy
Partisan stats: Obama 51%, Romney 47%
Obama 50%, McCain 47%
Brown 43%, Whitman 49%

Democrats nominated Astronaut Jose Hernandez (D) in 2012 and Hernandez lost by only 5 points. Hernandez may run again for this seat but it is difficult to see how 2014 should be more favorable to him than 2012 was. President Obama won the district in 2012 but Denham is popular here and convinced enough voters to ticket split even while Hernandez had strong ads, a strong backstory and strong fundraising. Voters have ticket split for Denham in the past when he represented a State Senate seat that Obama won with 59% in 2008 and even Kerry carried in 2004 so it was not a major surprise. It shows how difficult it will be to defeat  Denham though but since the demographics of the district are changing, Democrats should win here eventually.

CA-21 David Valadao (R) Bakersfield, Kings County
Partisan Stats: Obama 55%, Romney 44%
Obama 51%, McCain 46%
Brown 47%, Whitman 44%

The 21st district is 70% Hispanic, the Hispanic population is growing quickly and the district is trending Democratic. Why does a Republican represent this district? The Hispanic turnout here is very low and the Hispanics in the Central Valley are more likely to ticket split than Hispanics in Los Angeles and Democrats nominated John Hernandez (D) who received little help from the DCCC. The Democratic preferred candidate Michael Rubio (D) declined running due to family concerns. He also resigned the State Assembly where he served in 2012 to become a lobbyist for Chevron, taking him out of consideration in 2014. For 2014 though, Democrats need to nominate a better fundraiser than Hernandez and a possible candidate is Fresno City Councilman Blong Xiong (D) who lost the 2012 primary to Hernandez. Other possible candidates include Fran Florez (D). Democrats have been attacking Valadao early seeing an opportunity in this district. The problem for Democrats is that Hispanic turnout in California tends to drop in midterms so whoever they nominate has to turnout Hispanics and prevent Valadao from winning them.

Democratic held seats:

Tossup/Tilt Democratic

CA-36 Raul Ruiz (D) Coachella, Palm Springs
Obama 51%, Romney 48%
Obama 50%, McCain 47%
Brown 43%, Whitman 49%

This seat barely supported President Obama in 2012, Ruiz is a freshman Congressman, this district has a large Hispanic population and the Hispanic turnout should be lower in 2014 so Republicans should be ready to target this seat. They should not underestimate Ruiz though because he overperformed President Obama not against a far right candidate in the mold of Michelle Bachmann but Mary Bono Mack (R), a moderate candidate who had represented the district since the 90s. This indicates that if even Bono Mack cannot hold this seat, how could a far right tea party candidate win it back? (and it is unlikely any moderate candidate can win a Republican primary in this climate and Bono Mack does not seem interested in running.) Also, with the Hispanic population here growing very quickly, Republicans will be unable to hold this seat long even if they win in 2014.

(Lean Democratic)

CA-07 Ami Bera (D) Sacramento suburbs
Obama 51%, Romney 47%
Obama 51%, McCain 46%
Brown 49%, Whitman 44%

In the 2006 edition of the Almanac of American Politics, a similar configuration to this district was called "safely Republican." In 2012, Dr. Ami Bera won this district against former Rep. Dan Lungren (R), defeating a man who had served as CA Attorney General in the 1990s and had 18 years of experience in the U.S. House. Bera won not only by his strong fundraising skills, he won by courting the new voters in the Sacramento suburbs in a district that was >70% white in 2000 but in 2010 was close to 60% White. Even in the 2010 midterms, this district voted for Gov. Jerry Brown (D). This district is listed at Lean Democratic for now due to the close nature of this district even though no strong Republican has stepped up to challenge Bera. Potential candidates Republicans may consider courting could be vocal Prop 8 supporter Andy Pugno (R) who ran for State Assembly in 2010 or State Assemblywoman Beth Gaines (R). The issue for Republicans though is that their bench has weakened recently in the Sacramento suburbs because they lost their State Assembly districts there in the late 2000s. One  possibility is 2012 Senate candidate Elizabeth Emken who expressed interest in running. Emken ran for office twice, first for U.S. House and came in last place in the Republican primary and ran for Senate in 2012, losing by 24 points. She may not be a major threat.

CA-26 Julia Brownley (D) Ventura, Oxnard, Thousand Oaks
Obama 54%, Romney 43%
Obama 56%, McCain 41%
Brown 46%, Whitman 47%

This was one of the most interesting races of 2012 where State Senator Tony Strickland (R) (who I met on January 23rd actually at a panel discussing President Obama's 2nd term,) Ventura County Supervisor Linda Parks (I) and State Assemblywoman Julia Brownley (D) faced each other in the top two primary. Brownley and Strickland went to the general election and Brownley won by showing Strickland's extremist views on women's rights. Brownley should probably win reelection because she is a good fit for the district and Strickland was an extremely difficult candidate to beat, proving Brownley can handle tough opponents. This race may move into the likely Democratic column soon.

CA-52 Scott Peters (D) northern San Diego
Obama 52%, Romney 46%
Obama 55%, McCain 43%
Brown 43%, Whitman 50%

Peters fought a hard battle to win this seat against Rep. Brian Bilbray (R) even though Bilbray is moderate and well respected in the San Diego area. Also, this district is trending Democratic which should help Peters but the issue for him is that San Diego votes more Republican during midterm races (Bilbray won easily in 2010 and Whitman performed well too.) Republicans however are working hard to beat Peters and potential candidates include San Diego City Councilman Kevin Faulconer (R) and former councilman Carl DeMaio (R). DeMaio ran for mayor in 2012. While he lost the mayor's race by 5 points, he carried the portion of San Diego in CA-52 56%-43% so he is popular here.

Overall, how does the 2014 cycle look in California 20 months until Election Day? Both parties have opportunities with Democrats hoping to gain Republican held seats where they ran poor campaigns in 2012  and Republicans are hoping to win back seats they lost in 2012 due to changing demographics and poor candidates. What Republicans must worry about though is that even if they prevent Democrats from turning out in 2014 and gain a few seats, California's changing demographics and the Republicans' inability to win over the new demographics mean that in 2016, Republicans could lose those seats again and lose more seats they thought were safely Republican. In 2012, Republicans lost an Assembly seat in Palmdale with a fast growing Hispanic population, despite even Democratic pundits predicting Republicans would hold that seat. In 2016, Rep. Buck McKeon (R) representing Palmdale may face a very close race too, he won only 54% in 2012 against an underfunded challenger despite nearly no pundits predicting a single digit margin for him. Even running Hispanic candidates is not always a solution, Republicans ran Hispanic Abel Maldonado (R) in the 24th district which was a near tie between Brown and Whitman. Maldonado was moderate and well known throughout the district yet he lost by ten points. Another plus for the Democrats is that Organizing for Action, the President's campaign arm which helped him win in 2012 but focused little on the House races will be devoting more energy to the House races in 2014 and will be extremely helpful in districts such as California's by helping Democrats register and turnout the new demographics moving into California.

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