California primaries: key to shaping Congress now in focus

California contests that will shape control of Congress came into the picture Tuesday night during the midterm primaries, which saw one of the most threatened Republican incumbents, Rep. Mike Garcia, advanced to take on former councilor Christy Smith in north Los Angeles Angeles County for the third time.

GOP Rep. Michelle Steel will continue an increasingly personal battle with Democrat Jay Chen, a Navy Reserve intelligence officer, in a competitive Orange County district with a large number of Asian-American voters. And Democratic Rep. Katie Porter, also drawn to a cramped district in the same county, will be pitted against a former GOP state legislator.

These are three of several congressional contests in the state that are being closely watched by political observers across the country as Republicans try to retake control of Congress.

“California will be the only reason Democrats have any chance of holding the House,” said Smith’s campaign manager Brandon Zavala in two 2020 races. “Obviously there’s no way we can keep the House or even keep a small minority if we can’t get some of these California seats.”

Several other competitive races had not been called late Tuesday night.

In the top federal contest on the ballot, Senator Alex Padilla, who was appointed to the post after Kamala Harris became vice president, easily won a spot on November’s ballot.

“I am honored to have received the support of so many California voters from all parts of the state in my Senate campaign. I thank every voter who voted in this election and every election officer who helped organize another successful election,” the Porter Ranch Democrat, a former Los Angeles and state official, said in a statement Tuesday evening. “I am humbled and excited to continue delivering for California and once again earn the support of California voters in November.”

Padilla was on the ballot twice — once in a special election to fill the remainder of Harris’s term through early 2023 and in the primary for a full six-year term. He received his doctorate in both before the November general election. Republican attorney Mark Meuser, who overwhelmingly defeated Padilla in the 2018 Secretary of State race, also advanced to the general election in both contests.

Meuser said he was confident his message would resonate with Californians of all sides.

“It’s been ten years since a Republican candidate made it to November’s election in the US Senate race. That was really important for me to actually run a campaign on day one to make sure I got the Republican vote consolidated,” Meuser said. “Now that we’ve done that, it’s important to reach out to all California voters by talking about the important issues of inflation, energy and what’s going on in our schools and what’s going on with crime.”

California’s congressional matchups in November could herald some changes in the state’s 52-member House delegation, the largest in the country. The races will reverberate nationally as Democrats look to the state as a buffer against expected congressional losses and Republicans try to fill their margins if they successfully capture the House.

Under California’s primary system, the top two voters advance to November’s general election, regardless of party. The vote count could take weeks to decide closed races, with ballots mailed out Tuesday and accepted until June 14. There are several contests that political observers across the country are keeping a close eye on, in part because of the once-per-decade redraw of congressional districts following the census.

Democrats — facing headwinds due to President Biden’s low approval ratings, inflation and historic voter trends — consider three GOP seats in the state to be one of their best picks nationwide.

Republican Garcia, a former fighter pilot, defeated Smith in a 2020 special election and then defeated her again, by 333 votes, in the regular election later that year. The former Conservative district had become more liberal in recent years as demographics changed, and after a realignment, Democrats now have a voter registration advantage of nearly 12 percentage points. Democrat John Quaye Quartey, a war veteran and aspiring politician who is a newcomer to the district, had tried to take second place in the general.

The results are still awaiting a Congressional race in Central Valley. Democrats have a significant registration advantage in the district of GOP Rep. David Valadao, but he has trod the political terrain before. This year, however, Hanford’s Republican faced two competitors from the right, reflecting the anger in the GOP base over his vote to impeach former President Trump.

Trump has not publicly spoken out against Valadao, which sets the congressman apart from the nine other House Republicans who voted to impeach. That made it difficult for his GOP challengers – Chris Mathys and Adam Medeiros – to consolidate support. A belated attempt by a Democratic outside group attempted to elevate Mathys, prompting a super PAC aligned with House Republican leader Kevin McCarthy to respond with assault ads against him. Democratic councilor Rudy Salas of Bakersfield got enough votes from the more liberal voters in the district to advance to the second round.

When the redistricting house of Rep. Steel’s Seal Beach to the Democratic Rep. Katie Porter moved, the Republican chose not to face the miraculous fundraiser. Steel, a Korean-American immigrant, instead walked in a new district that is less favorable to Republicans but contains many Asian-American voters. She and Democrat Chen, the son of Taiwanese immigrants, will continue their heated battle into November.

In Porter’s newly-drawn district, which encompasses much of the Orange County coast, Democrats now have just a 1 percentage point lead over voter registration. Biden won by 11% among voters in the new district in 2020, and they also opposed Governor Gavin Newsom’s recall last year. Porter, an Irvine lawyer and law professor who has become a national favorite among Democrats, is much better known than her likely GOP rival.

Porter will face off against attorney Scott Baugh, a former state councilor and chairman of the Orange County GOP. Though Porter has inundated Baugh with fundraising efforts, he has raised seven figures due to his longstanding ties to the county’s wealthy donors.

Two-term Democratic delegate Mike Levin won a spot in November’s vote and waits to see which of several Republican challengers he will face in November. The district spanning Orange and San Diego counties has a Democratic advantage of 2 percentage points, making it a potential pick-me-up option for the GOP. But that could still be a reach for Republicans; voters in the district supported Biden in the 2020 election by 11 percentage points above Trump. Leading GOP candidates include former Mayor of San Juan Capistrano Brian Maryott, Orange County Supervisor Lisa Bartlett and Oceanside City Councilman Christopher Rodriguez.

Republican Rep. Young Kim seemed to have a solid political position in her new, redder district, located largely in the interior of Orange County. But she and her allies ended up spending more than $2 million to fend off the wrath of fellow Republican Greg Raths, a Mission Viejo city councilman who campaigned for her.

Asif Mahmood, a physician and former insurance commissioner candidate, is the only Democrat on the ballot. The race has not yet been declared. If Kim and Mahmood advance to the general election, it will probably be easier for Republicans to keep the district. In fact, in the primaries, Mahmood advertised Raths in an effort to raise his profile.

The musical chairs that followed reclassification, retirements, and elected officials seeking other opportunities created a number of free seats.

Two incumbent officials decided not to run for re-election after they were both drawn to a new, predominantly Democratic, Latino-majority district stretching from Southeast LA’s cities to Long Beach.

Long Beach Mayor Robert Garcia and Councilman Cristina Garcia are the key Democrats representing this area. Robert Garcia had a significant lead in fundraising and support. His campaign seemed to try to raise the primary profile of Republican John Briscoe, a school district trustee and perennial candidate.

In Los Angeles, Representative Karen Bass decided to run for mayor rather than seek reelection in one of California’s three congressional districts represented by black politicians. Secretary of State Sydney Kamlager and former Los Angeles City Councilor Jan Perry are among the candidates vying to replace her. The race has not yet been declared, but the district, which includes South Los Angeles, Leimert Park, Ladera Heights and part of Culver City, will almost certainly remain in Democratic hands; the party has a voter registration advantage of 59 percentage points in the district.

In the Central Valley, former GOP legislative leader Connie Conway defeated Lourin Hubbard, a Democratic water manager, in a special round of elections to replace the remainder of former Rep. Devin Nunes to fill. (Nunes left Congress to head Trump’s new social media company.)

In a sprawling Republican-leaning open district that includes South Lake Tahoe and Death Valley, Democrat Kermit Jones, a physician and Navy veteran, will appear on November’s ballot. It is unclear whether he will meet Republican MP Kevin Kiley or Sacramento County Sheriff Scott Jones in November. Kiley, who finished sixth among Republicans who defeated Gov. Gavin Newsom in the failed recall was backed by Trump.

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