California House: Tough Road for Democrats Gets Tougher

June 6, 2012 · 11:59 AM EDT

California has long been the cornerstone of the Democrats’ long-shot path to take back the House, but that already uphill plan got even more difficult on Tuesday, with two of the party’s best pick-up opportunities now off the table and a third once-prime seat starting off at a disadvantage.

The biggest surprise, and subsequent disappointment, came in the 31st District, when top Democratic recruit Redlands Mayor Pete Aguilar failed to crack into the top two, assuring that either Rep. Gary Miller (R) or state Sen. Bob Dutton (R) will be the Republican sent to Washington next fall.

In the open 21st District, a series of recruitment failures got even worse for Democrats, when their preferred candidate, Fresno City Councilor Blong Xiong, didn’t make the top two either, and instead they’re left with an underwhelming candidate against a top Republican legislator. Democrats hold a 10-point voter registration edge here, and this should have been one of their top targets, but now is all but off the table.

Democrats did get a break in the 26th District, but they had to work and spend nearly $1 million to make sure Assemblywoman Julia Brownley, made it into top two. They may be encouraged by that result now, but state Sen. Tony Strickland topped Brownley by nearly 20 points and has the sizeable cash edge. This is a seat that should have been more competitive for Democrats than it is.

Bottom line: Democrats probably can’t cherry pick their way to a net gain of 25 House seats (and a majority), so they need to pick up a handful of seats in at least a few states. With President Obama running strong at the top of the ticket, California is a critical state. But yesterday’s primary results suggest that Democratic prospects in the state are dimming.

California is a microcosm of Democrats’ difficult road to the majority. Democrats likely need to increase their numbers in the delegation from 34 to 39 seats to have any chance to win back the House later this year. But to do that, they will need to win all 11 California races listed on our competitive race chart, even though they only have the advantage in six districts while another is a pure toss-up.

California isn’t competitive in the presidential contest, but Democrats have work to do in the state if they are going to continue to maintain that they have a realistic chance of taking back the House. The numbers coming out of yesterday’s primaries don’t help the party’s argument that the House is in play.

1st District (Open; Herger, R)
As expected, state Sen. Doug LaMalfa (R) finished first in the primary and will face last cycle’s Democratic nominee, Jim Reed, in the general election. Former state legislator Sam Aanestad (R) had the backing of conservative Rep. Tom McClintock, but Aanestad finished in third place. LaMalfa had a $233,000 to $432 cash advantage over Reed on May 16 and will be elected to congress in November.

2nd District (Open; Woolsey, D)
The only surprise in this heavily-Democratic district is that two Democrats won’t be moving on to the general election. Assemblyman Jared Huffman (D) finished first with 38 percent but he’ll face Republican Daniel Roberts (16 percent) in the fall. Anti-war activist Norman Solomon (D), who had celebrity backing, finished third with 14 percent, probably would have given Huffman a run for his money, but now the state legislator will cruise to Congress in a district where Obama received 74 percent of the vote in 2008.

3rd District (Garamendi, D)
Republicans have crowed about Rep. John Garamendi’s (D) vulnerability ever since the new lines came out, and Tuesday’s results showed they have an opportunity. Republicans got the candidate they wanted: Colusa County Supervisor Kim Dolbow Vann (R) , who received 26 percent in the primary. The congressman received just over 50 percent in a district Obama carried in 2008 but George W. Bush won in 2004. This looks like a competitive race, and we continue to rate it as Lean Democrat.

7th District (Lungren, R)
Rep. Dan Lungren (R) and Dr. Ami Bera (D) move on to November in a rematch of their 2010 race. The congressman received about 52 percent of the vote on Tuesday, compared to about 42 percent for Bera, confirming the race’s toss-up status. This is a must-win for Democrats in November, and Lungren’s showing has to be disappointing for Bera.

8th District (Open; Lewis, R)
It looks like two Republicans will likely advance to the general election in this Republican seat, with the top four finishers separated by just about 500 votes. State Assemblyman Paul Cook finished first with just 15.5 percent of the vote (10,682 votes) and it looks like Former assemblyman Gregg Imus will claim the second spot with 15 percent (10,353 votes). Law office manager Jackie Conaway (D) wasn’t far behind with 14.7 percent (10,163) and wealthy conservative activist Phil Liberatore (R) was just a few more votes behind (10,144). The AP hasn’t called this race for anyone yet.

9th District (McNerney, D)
Rep. Jerry McNerney received 48.5 percent of the vote on Tuesday and will face recent law school graduate Ricky Gill (R) in the general election. Gill (39.5 percent) and a second GOP candidate combined to receive over 51 percent of the vote. GOP strategists are upbeat about the race, even though Obama carried the district with 58 percent. Move from Democrat Favored to Lean D.

10th District (Denham, R)
Rep. Jeff Denham finished first on Tuesday, with just under 50 percent, and will face former astronaut Jose Hernandez (D) in the general election. The Democrat received almost 30 percent of the vote while Chad Condit, son of former Rep. Gary Condit (D), ran as an Independent candidate and received 15 percent. Denham had over $1 million in the bank on May 16 compared to $367,000 for Hernandez and starts the general election with the advantage. Lean Republican.

15th District (Stark, D)
Eighty year-old Rep. Pete Stark finished first on Tuesday, but with only 43 percent of the vote following a series of missteps and outbursts during the primary. He moves on to the general election against another Democrat, young Dublin City Councilman Eric Swalwell (35 percent). This is a solidly Democratic seat either way, but if the race continues on its current trajectory, Stark is facing an extremely difficult path to reelection.

16th District (Costa, D)
Rep. Jim Costa convinced fellow Rep. Dennis Cardoza (D) to retire so that he could run in this seat, but his re-election isn’t guaranteed. The congressman finished first on Tuesday, but with just 42 percent of the vote. Republican Brian Whelan finished second and had just 26 percent of the vote, but combined with the margin of two other GOP candidates, that creeps to nearly 50 percent. Given those results, move from Safe Democrat to Democrat Favored.

21st District (Open; new)
This is one of Democrats’ biggest disappointments of any district in the country. After failing to recruit a number of possibly strong hopefuls, Democrats were unable to pull their last-minute recruit into the top two on Tuesday. Fresno City Councilman Blong Xiong (D) finished third with 19 percent behind fellow Democrat, Central California Hispanic Chamber of Commerce President John Hernandez (23 percent) in a district where Democrats hold a 10-point voter registration edge. As we have written before, Hernandez does not appear ready for the large stage of a congressional race, while Republicans have an experienced, top tier nominee in Assemblyman David Valadao. The Republican had nearly half a million dollars in the bank on May 16, while Hernandez was almost $8,000 in debt. Valadao is clear favorite for November, and it’s hard to see how Democrats win here. Move from Lean Republican to Safe Republican.

24th District (Capps, D)
Democratic Rep. Lois Capps (48 percent) and former Republican Lt. Gov. Abel Maldonado (32 percent) move on to November after Maldonado finished ahead of actor Chris Mitchum (18 percent). The two Republicans received more votes than the incumbent in this redrawn district but Capps still starts with the general election with the advantage. Maldonado is hated by conservatives in the state, and it’s unclear they can stomach him, even against Capps. He also has been plagued by ongoing tax problems. We still rate the race as Lean Democrat, but don’t ignore the potential for a GOP opportunity.

26th District (Open; Gallegly, R)
Democrats avoided complete disaster by spending close to a million dollars to ensure Assemblywoman Julia Brownley made it into the top two. Brownley (26 percent) got a late start, represented just 16 percent of the congressional district and had to fend off Ventura County Supervisor Linda Parks, who was running as an Independent and received 19 percent of the vote. But the race doesn’t get any easier for Democrats. State Sen. Tony Strickland (R) finished first on Tuesday with 45 percent and had over $700,000 in the bank on May 16. Given Strickland’s showing and Brownley’s need to get virtually all of Parks’ vote, we are moving this contest from Toss-Up/Tilt R to Lean Republican.

30th District (Berman, D/Sherman, D)
Democratic Reps. Brad Sherman and Howard Berman will take their expensive and bitter intra-party battle all the way to November as both Members finished in the top two. Sherman has been leading in the polls and finished about five points ahead of Berman, even though Sherman currently represents almost three times more voters in the redrawn district than Berman. While Sherman finished first this round, many observers believe Berman will prevail by exercising his financial advantage over the next five months. Keep watching.

31st District (Miller, R)
In one of the most dramatic shifts of the night, two Republicans finished in the top two in this Inland Empire seat. Rep. Gary Miller finished first with 27 percent, even though he doesn’t currently represent any of this new district. State Sen. Bob Dutton (R), who does represent part of the district, finished second with 25 percent, while Redlands Mayor Pete Aguilar (D) finished a disappointing third at 22 percent. Aguilar was competing with three other Democratic candidates who received a combined 26 percent. With two GOP candidates moving on, Republicans are guaranteed a win, so we’re moving the race from Lean Democrat to Safe Republican.

35th District (Baca, D)
Rep. Joe Baca finished ahead of state Sen. Gloria Negrete McLeod 44 percent to 27 percent, but their intra-party fight continues on through the fall.

36th District (Bono Mack, R)
Rep. Mary Bono Mack (58 percent) finished well ahead of Harvard-educated physician Raul Ruiz (42 percent) in one of the only head-to-head matchups in any district across the state. Mack’s margin demonstrate Democrats’ uphill climb against the congresswoman. We continue to rate the race as Republican Favored, though even that may overstate Democratic prospects here.

41st District (Open; new)
Without any astronauts, incumbents, or scandal, party strategists often talked about this seat as a generic ballot test. But the initial news isn’t particularly good for Democrats. The party holds a seven point voter registration advantage but Riverside County Supervisor John Tavaglione (R) finished first on Tuesday with 45 percent and three GOP candidates combined for 55 percent. Riverside Community College District Trustee Mark Takano (D) finished second with 36 percent and will face Tavaglione in the general election. Move from Democrat Favored to Toss-Up/Tilt Democrat.

44th District (Hahn, D/Richardson, D)
Incumbent Reps. Janice Hahn and Laura Richardson faced off for the first time on Tuesday but will continue their fight through the fall. As expected, Hahn finished first with 60 percent, even though she represents less than half of the territory that Richardson currently covers. Richardson received close to 40 percent and is viewed as the underdog in the general election.

47th District (Open; new)
Democrats have a 10-point edge in voter registration in this Long Beach-area district but Republicans aren’t giving up the seat. Long Beach City Councilman Gary DeLong (R) has a reputation as a moderate Republican and will carry the GOP banner after receiving 27 percent of the primary vote. Assemblyman Alan Lowenthal (D) finished first with 35 percent, but at 71 years old, the Democrat isn’t exactly a fresh face and he’ll have work harder than in his legislative races. Move from Democrat Favored to Lean Democrat.

51st District (Open; Filner, D)
State Sen. Juan Vargas (D) finished first with 44 percent and is the prohibitive favorite in this heavily Democratic, San Diego-area seat. Vargas will face Republican Michael Crimmins in the general election, rather than fellow Democrat Denise Moreno Ducheny, making his path to Congress that much easier.

52nd District (Bilbray, R)
Rep. Brian Bilbray finished first in the primary, but with just 41 percent. The race for second between former San Diego city council president Scott Peters and former assemblywoman Lori Saldaña was still too close to call, but the more moderate Peters had the narrow edge by about 645 votes. In total, Democratic and Republican candidates split the vote on Tuesday virtually 50-50. We’re still rating the race Toss-Up/Tilt Republican.