Race Spotlight: California House Toss-up Districts
There is a contest in the U.S. Senate, where Republicans seem likely to hold the Upper Chamber, but the real battle for control is happening in the House of Representatives where Democrats feel poised to win back control in 2018. There are a huge number of Republican-held “toss-up” seats this year, and California wins the award for accumulating the most. If you follow the 2018 House Ratings page, you can see that California has 6 seats with “toss-up” status which could be make or break for either party when it comes to winning or retaining control of the House.
Here is a short breakdown of each race with some background on each district.
CA-10 – Jeff Denham (R) vs. Josh Harder (D)
California’s 10th district encompasses an area of the northern San Joaquin Valley which is roughly 100 miles to the east of San Francisco. The seat has been held by Denham since 2013, but it was was held by Democrats prior to Denham’s win in 2012. In short, this district is tight and can go either way.
According to The Nation, Democrat Josh Harder likely has a pretty good chance despite making some rookie candidate mistakes:
Take Josh Harder, who’s running in the 10th district in the agricultural northern San Joaquin Valley. Harder is trying to unseat Representative Jeff Denham, who talks immigration reform (in both English and Spanish) but is a reliable Republican backbencher when it comes to health care, budgets, and tax cuts. When almost every public official in the 10th district, Democrat or Republican, joined a protest in Sacramento in August against the State Water Board’s “water grab” (a plan to divert more water to environmental priorities and thus away from local agriculture), Harder stayed home. The reason, he told me, was that he wants “to act, not talk.” That may sound like a noble principle, but in the hurly-burly of election campaigns, it was a mistake—a mistake Denham did not ignore.
Nonetheless, Harder could win. Denham is especially vulnerable on taxes and health care. At a big public meeting last year, he vowed to protect the health care of the people in his district, but then voted to repeal the Affordable Care Act a few days later. Harder risked forfeiting that advantage by being too tentative on the water issue, said Mike Lynch, a veteran political consultant in Modesto. Over the summer, Harder promised in an op-ed for The Modesto Bee “to fight for the Valley’s long-term water security. That means fighting to stop the State Water Board from taking our water.” That seemed, more than anything else, to be an effort to catch up.
A bigger problem for Harder is that, as some people in the district told me, “he’s too new” and not intrinsic enough.
Polling for this race is basically nonexistent, but there is at least one partisan poll from August, released by the Harder campaign, which shows the race virtually tied at 48-48. It can be dangerous to trust a poll coming from a campaign, but it must be acknowledged that given the swing nature of CA-10 that either candidate could be standing on the podium a winner on November 6.
CA-25 – Stephen Knight (R) vs. Katie Hill (D)
California’s 25th district, which consists of areas to the northern outskirts of Los Angeles, has been fairly reliable for Republicans since 1992, but that ownership of the seat might come to an end in 2018. Republican Steve Knight has held the seat since 2012 but he’s facing a strong challenge from Democrat Katie Hill, who was motivated to run because of her disdain for President Trump. The Los Angeles Times offers some insight on the race:
This is the sole Republican-held seat in Los Angeles County, in a district that stretches from Simi Valley in Ventura County through the Santa Clarita Valley and into the high desert cities of Lancaster and Palmdale.
Politics here have been changing rapidly as Angelenos flee exorbitant home prices for affordable housing inland. Between 2012 and 2018, voter registration swung from a 5-percentage-point Republican advantage to a 4-percentage-point edge for Democrats.
Knight is a former state legislator and Palmdale city councilman who had a 17-year career as a Los Angeles police officer before running for office. A U.S. Army veteran with a reputation for being tough on crime and illegal immigration, he has enjoyed solid support from the district’s sizable military and law enforcement communities.
Knight has survived tough challenges before, most recently in 2016, but his fundraising has been lackluster this election cycle. He’s running as an advocate for veterans’ issues and small businesses.
Hill is a former executive at PATH, a Los Angeles-based nonprofit providing services to the homeless. While there, she worked for the passage of Measure H, the county sales tax measure that raised money for homelessness initiatives.
Hill grew up in the district, lives with her husband on a farm near Santa Clarita, and isn’t shy about discussing her family’s gun collection. She’s running on a platform supporting affordable healthcare and has cast herself as a defender of the middle class.
There is no public polling I could find on the CA-25 race, but given the the fact the Hillary Clinton won the district in 2016 by 6 points, there clearly is opportunity for Hill to flip this reliably red seat into the blue column come November.
CA-39 – Young Kim (R) vs. Gil Cisneros (D)
California’s 39th district encompasses parts of Los Angeles, Orange and San Bernardino counties, as well as a host of other locations in the suburbs east of the City of Angels. Republican Ed Royce has held the seat since 2013, but prior to that it was in Democratic hands from 2003 to 2012. Royce chose to retire rather than run for re-election in 2018, which has setup a contest between Republican Young Kim, and Democrat Gil Cisneros. The 39th will be tough for any Republican, as the LA Times reports:
Voter registration between the two parties is just about evenly split. Hillary Clinton beat Donald Trump here by nearly 9 points in 2016, and Democrats see the district as one of their best pickup opportunities, especially now that 13-term incumbent Ed Royce is retiring.
An immigrant from South Korea with an extensive political background, Kim is running in a district where more than a third of residents are immigrants and about a fifth of registered voters are Asian American. She worked for Royce for two decades before being elected to the state Assembly in 2014. She was unseated in 2016 by the same Democrat she’d previously defeated.
In her congressional campaign, Kim has promised to fight for lower taxes and has criticized California’s “sanctuary state” policy. Kim enjoys the backing of Royce, who is still well regarded among many in the district. But Trump’s immigration policies complicate Kim’s effort to broaden her appeal beyond Republicans. She would be the first Korean American woman elected to Congress.
Cisneros was a manager at Frito-Lay when he and his wife hit a $266-million lottery jackpot in 2010. Since then, the couple has become well-known in Democratic circles for their education-related philanthropy, including funding for a news assignment desk that bears their name at the USC Annenberg newsroom.
Cisneros has campaigned on affordable healthcare, stricter gun laws and passing the DREAM Act. A former Republican who switched parties in 2008, Cisneros has played up his status as a Navy veteran. He has injected more than $4.5 million of his own money into his campaign so far.
Once again, polling is sparse, but there is a poll out from the Cisneros campaign which claims an 11-point lead over Kim. Even if you distrust the partisan leanings of the poll, cutting the lead in half still gives a good advantage to Democrats for a pickup opportunity in the 39th.
CA-45 – Mimi Walters (R) vs. Katie Porter (D)
California’s 45th district consists of several communities in an area located about halfway between Los Angeles and San Diego. The seat has been reliably Republican since the early 1980s, with incumbent Republican Mimi Walters holding the seat since 2014. Walters is running for re-election and will be facing Democrat Katie Porter. CNBC offers some analysis on the race and gives some depth into the issues shaping the contest for the 45th district:
The district sits in historically-conservative Orange County, ancestral bedrock of Reagan-esque conservatism. But growing Asian and Latino communities have swelled the non-white share of the population to nearly half. In 2016, Donald Trump became the first Republican presidential candidate in 80 years to lose Orange County.
I sat down this week with both candidates – Walters in Washington, Porter in Irvine – to discuss major themes of the races. What follows are condensed excerpts of the conversations.
ON THEIR CONTRAST IN PHILOSOPHIES
WALTERS: I come from a conservative district and my opponent identifies herself with many of the liberal policies of Elizabeth Warren. She is an Elizabeth Warren protégé. She was a law student of hers at Harvard.
She is on the same page with Elizabeth Warren as far as wanting universal healthcare. She identifies with Elizabeth Warren as wanting to abolish ICE, open borders. And these are just policies that will not sit well in the district. Universal healthcare is not popular in the district at all.
PORTER: I spent my whole career fighting for families to have a fair shot in the economy, and standing up for them when they when they were cheated by big banks or by predatory lenders. So I think it’s really important to be a champion for a fair economy, an economy that works for all, that gives small business a level playing field against the largest corporations, and an economy that creates opportunity for every American.
What we’ve seen under Mimi Walters is just the opposite. Raising taxes on middle class Orange County families, right here in her own district, not doing anything to address the rising cost of college, the pressures of paying for childcare, and voting to destabilize our health care system by voting to repeal the Affordable Care Act with no plan to protect those with preexisting conditions.
There are few public polls available on the race, but according to Roll Call, a poll from the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee showed Porter with a slight lead over Walters, 49 to 46 percent. Those numbers are within the margin of error for the poll so the race is rightly classified as a “toss-up” in 2018.
CA-48 – Harley Rouda (D) vs. Dana Rohrabacher (R)
California’s 48th district spreads from Huntington Beach down to Laguna Beach, and several areas in between, located to the south of the City of Los Angeles. This area, much like the 45th, has been in Republican hands for decades. Incumbent Republican Dana Rohrabacher currently holds the seat, and has been there since winning election in 2012. This is another district that Democrats are targeting heavily in 2018, and challenger Harley Rouda has even picked up the endorsement of President Barack Obama to help raise his profile. Hillary Clinton won this district in 2016 by 2 points over Donald Trump. The New York Times offers some background on the race and the candidates:
Harley Rouda may not fit the image of a liberal hero. For decades, he was a registered Republican and in 2016 donated money to the presidential hopeful John Kasich. He is a real estate executive opposed to rent control. He regularly appears at campaign events with a white pocket square tucked into his conservative dark suit, even in the sweltering Southern California summer heat.
But Mr. Rouda is the Democrats’ best chance in three decades to unseat the Republican congressman Dana Rohrabacher.
With his unwavering support of President Trump and his close ties to Russia, Mr. Rohrabacher is the target of ire for Democrats across the country. He is the only sitting congressman whose name has appeared in indictments around the Russia investigation and the House majority leader went as far as suggesting he is on Vladimir Putin’s payroll.
Now, Mr. Rohrabacher’s embrace of the Kremlin has also put him at risk politically in this rapidly changing suburban district. Democrats have deemed Mr. Rohrabacher the most vulnerable Republican in California. A recent New York Times Upshot and Siena College poll found the candidates tied, each with 45 percent of likely voters. And Mr. Rouda has raised more money than the Rohrabacher campaign, according to finance reports filed at the end of June.
The Times also polled the race and found a tie at 45 percent each, with 10% undecided. Clearly Democrats are hoping that a tie goes to the challenger and Rohrabacher could be beaten in such a tough year for Republicans. Rohrabacher’s Russian ties haven’t been helping given the current speculation and ongoing questions of Russia interfering in various U.S. elections.
CA-50 – Duncan Hunter (R) vs. Ammar Campa-Najjar (D)
California’s 50th district consists of parts of San Diego County and Riverside County on the southern end of the state. The seat has gone back and forth between parties over the years, but has firmly belonged to Republicans since 2002. Republican Duncan Hunter, the incumbent, is running against Democrat Ammar Campa-Najjar, a Latino Arab American working to unseat Hunter. The race was looking fairly safe for Hunter until he and his wife were recently indicted on charges of abusing campaign funds. Since that news broke, Democrats see another opening in California to chip away at Republican control of the House. The 50th district is one of the few we’ve discussed which actually did vote for Donald Trump over Hillary Clinton in 2016, which shows you how much more Republican it is than some of the other toss-up districts we’ve discussed.
As reported by the San Francisco Chronicle, the Hunter indictment put CA-50 in play for Democrats:
GOP Rep. Duncan Hunter’s indictment Tuesday for alleged misuse of campaign funds is a disaster for California Republicans. Just ask his attorney.
An indictment before the November election “will result in a solidly Republican district being handed to a Democratic candidate,” Gregory Vega, Hunter’s attorney, wrote in an Aug. 6 letter to Deputy U.S. Attorney General Rod Rosenstein, unsuccessfully asking him to delay any action that “could swing a solidly Republican seat in the mid-term elections.”
Flipping Hunter’s inland San Diego-area 50th Congressional District seat isn’t anything near a sure thing. His name will appear on the November ballot with a Democratic challenger in a Republican stronghold. But the long-anticipated indictment gives Democrats a huge boost in their effort to grab enough GOP-held districts in California to make a big dent in the 23 seats the party needs to take back control of the House.
Hunter’s challenger, as the LA Times reports is working overtime to ingratiate himself with voters and try to capitalize on Hunter’s situation:
“It’s not his politics, it’s his age,” Iverson, 67, told me as we stood on the porch of a stunning home overlooking Lake Hodges in Escondido.
But after listening to Campa-Najjar speak and take questions for more than an hour Sunday morning, Iverson’s doubts disappeared like so much Hunter campaign cash.
“He’s articulate, prepared, and given his background — growing up as a Palestinian — I think that gives you some life experience right out of the box,” Iverson said. Campa-Najjar is a Palestinian Mexican American.
I spent about five hours with him Sunday at the campaign event in Escondido (which is in his district), at a meeting of the La Jolla Democratic Club (which is not), and at a late lunch at California Pizza Kitchen, where he seemed mellow from fatigue.
“It’s been a long couple of days, but I’ve been doing this for 20 months,” he said. He had flown to New York on a red-eye to attend a fundraiser on Thursday, flown back to Orange County to attend a Barack Obama rally in Anaheim on Saturday, then to Arizona for a fundraiser that evening, and back to San Diego for Sunday’s events.
In Anaheim, he met with Obama, but was not invited onstage.
This may seem like a snub, but it’s strategy. He’s running in a Republican stronghold — California’s 50th Congressional District — which voted for Donald Trump over Hillary Clinton by 15 percentage points in 2016. To win, he will have to sway the independent voters and disaffected Republicans who are turned off by Trump but who don’t much care for Obama either.
Despite the indictment, which Hunter continues to fight strongly, Campa-Najjar still has an uphill battle. In fact, Hunter still may be able to win thanks purely to the deeper Republican makeup of CA-50. According to Roll Call, which is reporting on an internal Democratic poll, the race could be tied with each candidate at 46 percent. If that is truly the case, then count CA-50 as another toss-up on election night and another chance for Democrats to pick up another California seat.
Democrats see the opportunity to sweep each of these seats, but even taking 5 out of 6 would be an accomplishment and get them about 20% toward the goal of flipping 25 seats to regain House control. There will be a lot of money spent on both sides in California for these crucial districts.
Check the 2018 House Ratings page for a list of other closely watched toss-up races this year.
Filed in: 2018 Midterms Tagged in: CA10 CA25 CA39 CA45 CA48 CA50 California Election 2018 house toss-up