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California Helped Turn Congress Blue in 2018. Can These Democrats Hold On in 2020?

March 10, 2020by Kate Irby, McClatchy Washington Bureau (TNS)
Rep. Duncan Hunter Jr. leaves the courthouse complex after he appeared in Federal Court in San Diego on Monday, Sept. 24 for a status hearing on his case. (John Gibbins/The San Diego Union-Tribune/TNS)

WASHINGTON — California has at least half a dozen races to watch in this year’s battle for control of the House of Representatives, and voters have a little more clarity on their choices following last week’s primary election.

Democrats flipped seven GOP-held California districts in 2018, delivering a knockout punch that year to Republicans. Now, Democrats are fighting to hold onto those seats in traditional GOP turf like the San Joaquin Valley and Orange County.

While some Republicans outperformed their Democratic opponents in early primary election results, Democratic strategists expect higher turnout in November, when President Donald Trump will be up for reelection.

That’s what happened in 2018, when California Democrats won Republican districts with help from especially high Latino voter turnout.

“All of Republicans’ congressional nominees in California will be stained by the (Donald) Trump presidency” in the general election, said Bob Mulholland, a senior adviser to the California Democratic Party. “Trump is going to go all out appealing to his base in other states, which will hurt him in California.”

Here’s where the contested California races stand after Super Tuesday.

WHERE DEMOCRATS FEEL STRONG

— Rep. Katie Hill’s vacant seat

Thirteen candidates were on the ballot for the Los Angeles-area district seat vacated by Hill, who resigned in October amid allegations that she had inappropriate relationships with staff. Hers was one of the districts Democrats took from Republicans two years ago.

As of Friday, Chirsty Smith, a Democratic state assemblywoman, is ahead. Two Republicans follow her: the district’s former congressman, Steve Knight, and Navy veteran Mike Garcia. Garcia was about 5 percentage points ahead of Knight as of Friday evening.

Veteran Republican strategist Rob Stutzman said he thinks Garcia is “arguably” a better candidate than Knight to retake the seat for the GOP. However, he had praise for Smith as well and thought she was a better candidate in 2018 than Hill was.

“She will win,” Mulholland said. “She has the full support of everybody. Good luck to Republicans in this race saying they don’t agree with Trump on this issue or that issue.”

— Rep. Josh Harder

Harder, D-Turlock, is a freshman Democrat who flipped a Republican district in 2018. Republicans Ted Howze, a former Turlock city councilman, and Bob Elliott, a San Joaquin County supervisor, are trying to unseat Harder. Harder was leading the total vote by a percentage point over Howze Friday night, and Elliott was trailing Howze by more than 20 points.

Stutzman, who is based in Sacramento, said he thought this would be one of the toughest races for this GOP to win back.

“Harder has worked very hard to build ties in that seat and has avoided being a liberal lightning rod on issues,” Stutzman said. “Trump will lose that district, so it’s tough to see a GOP take back.”

WHERE REPUBLICANS THINK THEY CAN WIN

— Rep. TJ Cox

Cox, D-Fresno, narrowly unseated Republican Rep. David Valadao, R-Hanford, in 2018. Valadao is back on the ballot, and on track to challenge Cox in November. Valadao was up over Cox by more than 15 points Wednesday afternoon.

Cox won the race by less than a thousand votes in 2018, and it took months for an official call on the winner. Stutzman argued the seat was the best chance for Republicans in 2020.

Both candidates are running with financial baggage. Cox is an entrepreneur who in January was hit with a new IRS lien. He has also failed to identify all of his business interests on congressional disclosure forms. Valadao has had other issues, including having to file for bankruptcy protection.

— Rep. Gil Cisneros

Cox isn’t the only one facing a rematch. Democrat Rep. Gil Cisneros will face his 2018 adversary Young Kim again in the Orange County coastal seat. Kim was up six points over Cisneros as of Friday night. Stutzman said Kim was the most likely candidate to win in the Orange County races.

WHERE REPUBLICANS LOOK STRONG

— Duncan Hunter’s vacant seat

Rep. Duncan Hunter, R-San Diego, resigned from Congress in January after pleading guilty to a felony campaign finance crime. The contest to succeed Hunter in the San Diego district is led by Democrat Ammar Campa-Najjar, followed by former GOP Congressman Darrell Issa and Republican activist Carl DeMaio. Only two can advance to November, and DeMaio trailed Issa by about four percentage points late Friday.

Hunter narrowly won his red district in 2018 when he was being investigated for misusing the funds. Now that he’s out and Republican voters can choose someone not mired in scandal, the race is a harder target for Democrats, Stutzman said.

“The Hunter seat is safe for the GOP without Hunter as the candidate,” Stutzman said. “Particularly if it’s Issa, which looks likely.”

Mulholland said he thought Democrats’ chances here were unlikely.

— Rep. Devin Nunes

Rep. Devin Nunes captured the majority of the vote in the primary for his Fresno-based seat. Two Democrats hoping to unseat him, small businessman Phil Arballo and Bobby Bliatout, who came in third in the primary for the seat in 2018. Arballo leads Bliatout by 12 percentage points Wednesday afternoon.

Nunes, R-Tulare, has a national reputation as one of President Trump’s allies and he expects to face a well-funded opponent in November. In 2018, Democrat Andrew Janz raised $9 million in an unsuccessful effort to unseat Nunes.

Stutzman said the seat is “safe” for the GOP, and that 2018 was the closest Democrats would have gotten to defeating him. Nunes won by his narrowest margin that year, by about five percentage points over Janz, a Fresno prosecutor.

“This seat would be very, very hard, unless Trump is in a huge scandal and Republicans stay home,” Mulholland said of Democrats’ chances on Nunes’ seat.

———

©2020 McClatchy Washington Bureau

Visit the McClatchy Washington Bureau at www.mcclatchydc.com

Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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