LOS ANGELES — Democratic hopes to retake control of the House will rise or fall in California, where the party is pursuing a string of Republican-held seats in Tuesday’s primary election.
Republican Rep. Mimi Walters easily advanced to the November election in her Orange County, California, district that has been targeted by Democrats. The second spot for November in the 45th District remained up for grabs in a race featuring several Democrats, including lawyers Dave Min and Katie Porter.
In early returns, Repulican Rep. Dana Rohrabacher in the 48th District was out ahead of a large field with about 30 percent of the vote.
Democrats need to gain 23 districts nationally to take the gavel in the House, and a key part of that strategy is expanding their 39-14 advantage in the home state of Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi. The key battlegrounds are seven districts, mostly in Southern California, where Hillary Clinton defeated then-candidate Donald Trump in the 2016 presidential race, making them targets this year.
Republicans, including Rohrabacher and Walters in Orange County and Jeff Denham in Modesto, are among GOP incumbents on the defensive in a year when Trump could energize Democratic voters who loathe him, though Republican voters may show up eager to keep their party in charge in Washington.
The uncertainty is heightened by the state’s top-two primary system, in which all candidates appear on a single ballot but only the top two vote-getters regardless of party advance to a November runoff. In crowded, closely matched races, it’s possible that only two Republicans advance to the runoff in some districts, or two Democrats.
A breakdown of mail-in ballots in key Orange County congressional districts compiled by nonpartisan Political Data Inc. showed the vote dominated by older, white voters, a vital demographic for the GOP.
Republicans are hoping a proposed gas-tax repeal and anger over illegal immigration will galvanize their voters.
THE WILD WEST
The retirements of long-serving Republican Reps. Ed Royce and Darrell Issa brought on a stampede of candidates, and no one knows what will happen in their Southern California districts. Seventeen names are on the ballot in Royce’s district, the 39th, which includes parts of Orange, Los Angeles and San Bernardino counties. Registration is closely divided, and Clinton carried the district by 9 points, making it an obvious pickup opportunity for Democrats. But the party’s ambitions have been complicated by infighting among candidates.
There are 16 names on the ballot in Issa’s neighboring 49th District, which includes parts of San Diego and Orange counties. Democrats nearly seized the seat in 2016, when Issa survived by a mere 1,600 votes. The coastal district has been growing more diverse and Democratic, although Republicans retain an edge in voter registration. Independents — who here tend to cast ballots like Democrats — make up one-quarter of the voters.
PROTECT THE HOMELAND
Orange County has long been synonymous with Republican prestige and power, but that’s changing. Hillary Clinton carried the county in the 2016 presidential race, along with four Republican-held House districts that are completely or partly within it. Rohrabacher, seeking his 16th term in the 48th District, and Walters, seeking her third in the 45th, are contending with multiple Democratic challengers in districts that favor the GOP. In Rohrabacher’s case, he’s also competing with a strong challenge from a former protege, Scott Baugh, who led the county’s Republican Party for a decade.
Republican Reps. Jeff Denham and David Valadao have been Democratic targets before, and survived. Denham, whose farm-belt 10th District includes Modesto, managed to hang on by a few percentage points in 2016, in a year when Clinton carried the district by 3 points.
Valadao has prospered in his San Joaquin Valley district, the 21st, despite a strong Democratic registration edge. Clinton carried the district by a wide margin in 2016, but so did he. Unlike other crowded races in the state, he’s facing a single rival, Democrat TJ Cox.
DEALING WITH TRUMP: BEARHUG OR STIFF-ARM?
The president’s poor approval ratings in California pose potential problems for some Republicans, but he could prove an asset for others in pockets where conservatives hold sway.
The 25th District that runs through northern Los Angeles County and a thin strip of Ventura County has a Democratic registration edge but a Republican congressman, Rep. Steve Knight. Not surprisingly in a swing district, he’s occasionally created distance with the Republican president. Last year, for example, he criticized the president’s proposed cuts to education. Clinton carried the district by 7 points in 2016, but Knight, a former state legislator, was re-elected with a 6-point margin. Several Democrats on the ballot will be dividing the party’s vote, including lawyer Bryan Caforio, Knight’s 2016 rival.
In the 22nd District, House Intelligence Committee Chairman Devin Nunes has gained national attention as an ardent Trump supporter eager to discredit special counsel Robert Mueller’s Russia investigation. He carried the district, where Republicans hold a comfortable registration edge, by an impressive 35 points in 2016, when Trump also prevailed.
MEET THE NEXT SPEAKER
It’s possible, even likely, that the next House speaker will call California home, regardless of who controls the chamber. House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy, a Republican from Bakersfield, and House Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi of San Francisco, are each expected to coast to re-election.