How California factors into the battle for control of Congress

The warm-up act is over. On to the main event.

Attention now turns to November’s general election, and over the next five months, California will play a significant role in the fight for control of the US House of Representatives.

For Democrats, winning the hottest congressional seats here is almost essential in their bid to retain the chamber. Their hope lies in exploiting political mismatches — districts that supported President Biden in 2020 but have a Republican congressman — and California offers more of those opportunities than anywhere else in the country.

“That makes the state important to Democrats looking for any means of retaining their majority,” said Jacob Rubashkin, an analyst at Inside Elections, a nonpartisan campaign tip. “The only way they can do that is if they win back all those Biden-held Republican seats.”

Republicans, who now need just five seats to win the House of Representatives, can afford not to win a single district in California and still win a majority. But for GOP leader Kevin McCarthy, the defense efforts are still consistent — both as a show of pride in protecting Republican territory in his home state and to protect those who support his quest to become the next speaker.

Given the stakes on both sides, Californians can expect a rough general election. According to AdImpact, a media monitoring firm, party committees, candidates and allied groups have already reserved over $36 million worth of television advertising statewide. This number will skyrocket as November approaches.

Midterm elections have historically been unfriendly to the party that controls the White House. The outlook for Democrats looks particularly bleak as Biden’s approval ratings continue to fall and Americans are uneasy about public safety and inflation.

The issues that will shape the national elections are magnified here. As gas prices soar across the country, Californians are being saddled with the highest average prices. The likely fall of Roe vs. Wade, meanwhile, could prove particularly exciting in a state where abortion rights are hugely popular.

Tuesday’s election results elsewhere in the state — the removal from office of Chesa Boudin, San Francisco’s progressive chief attorney, and a strong performance by Rick Caruso, a mega-developer and former Republican, in the Los Angeles mayoral race — have some national Democrats worried before the most liberal of California, bastions have turned to the right.

The result is a state deeply insecure like the country as a whole, and an election where conventional political wisdom meets an unpredictably volatile national sentiment.

In 2018, the state was a mainline for Democrats, who flipped seven districts, a sizeable chunk of the 23 pickups they needed to win the House. (The party far exceeded that goal, winning a total of 41 seats.) Two years later, the GOP recaptured four seats, about a third of its national net gain.

Now these four GOP incumbents are gearing up for re-election campaigns.

In northern Los Angeles County, GOP Rep. Mike Garcia is facing a rematch with Democrat Christy Smith, a former congressman, after clinching a 333-vote win over her in 2020. (He also defeated her in a special election earlier this year.)

Republican Rep. David Valadao of Hanford is scrambling to fend off two challengers to his right in an undeclared primary. As he advances to the general election in his blue-tinted Central Valley district, He is counting on voters outside his party to fend off a challenge from Democratic Rep. Rudy Salas.

Rep. Michelle Steel, a first-term Republican congresswoman, takes on Democratic challenger Jay Chen in a district focused on Asian-American communities like Westminster and Artesia, testing both parties’ appeal for this hotly contested voting bloc.

A race further inland in Orange County has not yet been declared. Incumbent MP Young Kim spent millions removing an unexpected primary scare from an underfunded opponent; So far the results show that she is ready to meet Asif Mahmood, a Democrat and doctor, in the general election.

Of the four, Kim would face the easiest path, courting a more conservative electorate after new county lines were drawn last year. The others have steeper climbs in districts that have fewer Republicans than those they won in 2020.

“For a lot of people, their districts are radically different than they used to be. There’s an element of mystery to that,” said Kim Nalder, a professor of political science at Sacramento State. “It looks like several districts are more likely to gravitate toward Democrats than before.”

If voters hadn’t enacted an independent redistribution of districts, Nalder said the state’s districts could be gerrymandered and even more favorable to Democrats, counterbalancing the GOP-run states.

“Good for democracy,” she said. “Not good for the Democratic Party.”

A person looks at papers under bright overhead lighting.

Speaker Nancy Pelosi is looking to her home state of California to help Democrats in their arduous effort to keep the House.

(Kent Nishimura / Los Angeles Times)

Democrats also noted a stronger-than-expected performance from Will Rollins, a former federal attorney who will take on incumbent GOP Rep. Ken Calvert for a seat in the Inland Empire. The district narrowly sided with Trump in 2020, but its constituents are more liberal than those Calvert previously faced.

“It’s definitely interesting. All focused on Valadao, Garcia, Steel and Kim. If you can add a fifth seat to really watch, that’s a huge boon after the redistribution of backlash nationally,” said a person familiar with House Democrats’ campaign strategy, who asked for anonymity to speak candidly.

Republicans have been heartened by plummeting Democratic poll numbers and their own strong election performances in 2021, such as Glenn Youngkin’s victory in the Virginia gubernatorial race. In California, they are now eyeing seats that would normally be considered out of reach.

“The deep unpopularity of Joe Biden across the country brings us many new races in the house this year. Many of these are in California,” said Calvin Moore, a spokesman for the Congressional Leadership Fund, a super PAC hosted by McCarthy.

Possibilities include Democratic Rep. Katie Porter’s Irvine-centric district, which Biden won by nearly 11 percentage points, and Rep. Mike Levin’s district in the coastal counties of Orange and San Diego, who backed Biden by a similar margin.

California’s diverse electorate also makes November’s election a matter of national interest. Contests like the Valadao-Salas race in a Latino-majority district and the Steel-Chen duel in a district with a large population of Asian Americans are getting new resonance after 2020, when some voters of color made a notable turn toward the Republican Party.

“The big question is, is this Trump specific or is it just the new normal? ‘ Rubashkin, the election analyst, said. “It’s having implications in many different places across the country — whether the Republican Party can actually penetrate deeper into communities of color and immigrant communities and open up some new opportunities in places where they’ve been uncompetitive.”

Aside from its own competitions, California will play another pivotal – and familiar – role in funding other top races in November.

“California is as powerful as a money machine. Tens of millions will come out of California, for both parties, but especially for the Democrats,” said Mike Murphy, GOP strategist and co-director of the USC Dornsife Center for the Political Future.

The outsize influence of the Golden State’s financiers is already being felt. Democratic Senator Raphael Warnock of Georgia, perhaps the most vulnerable Senate incumbent and the top fundraiser of any state this year, has raised $7.5 million from Californians so far, more than any other state including Georgia. That accounts for a tenth of his total revenue of $73 million, according to the latest available campaign finance data.

The Californians also gave Sen. Mark Kelly, an Arizona Democrat who is in another competitive race, more than $3.6 million of the $39 million he raised. And in the House of Representatives, respective party leaders — McCarthy and Democratic House Speaker Nancy Pelosi — both count California as their top donor state, a generosity that then spreads to major races across the country. How California factors into the battle for control of Congress

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