How California factors into the battle for control of Congress

The warmup act is over. On to the main event.

Attention now turns to the general election in November, and over the next five months, California will play a significant role in the battle to control the U.S. House.

For Democrats, winning the most competitive congressional seats here is nothing short of essential in their uphill bid to retain the chamber. Their hope lies in exploiting political mismatches — districts that backed President Biden in 2020 but have a Republican member of Congress — and California offers more of these opportunities than anywhere else in the country.

“It makes the state important for Democrats who are looking for any possible way to maintain their majority,” said Jacob Rubashkin, an analyst with Inside Elections, a nonpartisan campaign tipsheet. “The only way they have any hope of doing so is if they win back all those Biden-carried Republican seats.”

Republicans, who as of now need to net only five seats to capture the House, can afford to not pick up a single district in California and still win the majority. But for GOP leader Kevin McCarthy, the defensive efforts are still consequential — both as a point of pride to guard Republican territory in his home state and to protect those who support his quest to become the next speaker.

Given the stakes for both sides, Californians can expect a rowdy general election. Already, party committees, candidates and allied groups have reserved more than $36 million worth of television ads across the state, according to AdImpact, a media monitoring firm. That number is bound to skyrocket as November approaches.

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

The issues that will shape the national election are magnified here. As gas prices climb across the country, Californians are saddled with the highest average prices. The likely overturn of Roe vs. Wade, meanwhile, may prove especially galvanizing in a state where abortion rights are solidly popular.

Tuesday’s election results elsewhere in the state — the recall of Chesa Boudin, San Francisco’s progressive top prosecutor, and a strong showing in the Los Angeles mayoral race by Rick Caruso, a mega-developer and onetime Republican — have some national Democrats fearing California’s most liberal bastions are tacking rightward.

The result is a state that feels profoundly unsettled, much like the country as a whole, and an election in which conventional political wisdom meets an unpredictably volatile national mood.

In 2018, the state was a mother lode for Democrats, who flipped seven districts, a sizable chunk of the 23 pickups they needed to win the House. (The party ended up well beyond that goal, winning 41 seats overall.) Two years later, the GOP reclaimed four seats, roughly a third of their net gain nationwide.

Now, those four GOP incumbents are bracing for reelection battles.

In northern Los Angeles County, GOP Rep. Mike Garcia faces a rematch with Democrat Christy Smith, a former assemblywoman, after he eked out a 333-vote win over her in 2020. (He also defeated her in a special election earlier that year.)

Republican Rep. David Valadao of Hanford is striving to hold off two challengers to his right in a primary that has not yet been called. If he advances to the general election in his blue-tinted Central Valley district, he’ll bank on voters outside his party to fend off a challenge from Democratic Assemblyman Rudy Salas.

Rep. Michelle Steel, a Republican first-term congresswoman, is competing against Democratic challenger Jay Chen in a district centered on Asian American communities such as Westminster and Artesia, testing both parties’ appeal to that hotly contested voting bloc.

A race farther inland in Orange County has not yet been called. Incumbent Rep. Young Kim spent millions to dispatch an unexpected primary fright from an underfunded opponent; so far, results show her poised to meet Asif Mahmood, a Democrat and physician, in the general election.

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

“For a lot of folks, their districts are radically different than they were before. That introduces an element of mystery,” said Kim Nalder, professor of political science at Sacramento State. “It does look like several districts may have more of a likelihood of leaning Democratic than we had before.”

If voters had not enacted independent redistricting, Nalder said, the state’s districts could be gerrymandered and be even more favorable for Democrats, counterbalancing GOP-led states.

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

A person looks at papers under bright ceiling lights.

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

(Kent Nishimura / Los Angeles Times)

Democrats also took note of a stronger-than-expected performance by Will Rollins, a former federal prosecutor, who will take on incumbent GOP Rep. Ken Calvert in an Inland Empire seat. The district narrowly sided with Trump in 2020, but its voters are more liberal than those Calvert has faced before.

“This is definitely interesting. Everyone was focused on Valadao, Garcia, Steel and Kim. If you can add a fifth seat to really watch, that’s a major boon after redistricting setbacks on the national level,” said a person familiar with House Democrats’ campaign strategy who asked for anonymity to speak candidly.

Republicans have been encouraged by Democrats’ slumping polls and their own strong election performances in 2021, such as Glenn Youngkin’s win in the Virginia governor’s race. In California, they’re now eyeing seats that would normally be considered out of reach.

“Joe Biden’s deep unpopularity across the country is putting a lot of new races into the fold for us this year. A lot of those are in California,” said Calvin Moore, a spokesman for Congressional Leadership Fund, a McCarthy-aligned super PAC.

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

California’s diverse electorate also makes its November elections a matter of national interest. Contests such as the Valadao-Salas race in a majority-Latino district and the Steel-Chen face-off in a district with a large number of Asian Americans take on new resonance after 2020, when there was a notable tack by some voters of color to the Republican Party.

“The big question is, is that Trump-specific or is it just the new normal? ” Rubashkin, the elections analyst, said. “That has implication in a lot of different places around the country — whether the Republican Party can actually make deeper inroads into communities of color, into immigrant communities and open up some new opportunities in places where they haven’t been previously competitive.”

Beyond its own contests, California will play another pivotal — and familiar — role in funding other top races in November.

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

The outsize influence of Golden State donors is already being felt. Democratic Sen. Raphael Warnock of Georgia, perhaps the Senate’s most vulnerable incumbent and the top fundraiser across all federal races this year, scooped up $7.5 million from Californians so far, more than any other state including Georgia. That accounts for one-tenth of his $73-million total haul, according to the most recent campaign finance data available.

Californians also have given Sen. Mark Kelly, a Democrat from Arizona who is in another competitive race, more than $3.6 million out of the $39 million he has raised. And in the House, the respective party leaders — McCarthy and Democratic House Speaker Nancy Pelosi — both count California as their top donor state, largesse that then spreads to key races throughout the country.

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