For the last decade, California's 53 congressional seats have been reliably uneventful. Thanks to the twin forces of redistricting reform and the new top-two primary system, that has completely changed this cycle, and the June 5 primary will give us the first taste of what's to come in the state's newly competitive House districts.
In the tumult of the last decade, when wave elections flipped the House wildly in both directions, only one California seat changed hands: Democratic Rep. Jerry McNerney defeated then-Rep. Richard Pombo, R-Calif., in the 11th District in 2006. Other than that, California's gerrymandered congressional seats kept the same parties. But the citizen commission that conducted redistricting this cycle totally upended the House map, inducing a wave of retirements, unlocking a number of new Democratic opportunities (especially in the state's diverse inland areas), and making California a centerpiece of national Democrats' plans to take back the House majority.
But redistricting made some Democratic-held seats more competitive, too, and pitted two pairs of Democratic incumbents against each other in two Los Angeles districts. And because of the all-party, top-two primary system that voters approved by ballot measure in 2010, Reps. Howard Berman and Brad Sherman (30th District) and Reps. Janice Hahn and Laura Richardson (44th District), and several other Democratic pairs in similarly liberal districts, could go all the way to November instead of being decided on primary night. (Subscribers can read a National Journal magazine story on those races here.)
That is but one interesting effect of the new primary system, which has also spawned a few independent candidacies that are more viable than usual in an all-party field. The most notable independent is the 26th District's Linda Parks, who is hoping to take advantage of a split Democratic field and advance to the general election along with the district's lone Republican candidate. That prospect has national Democratic groups concerned about losing even the chance at a critical pickup opportunity, so much so that Democratic-aligned outside groups have spent over $1 million to keep Parks out of second place.
But though the all-inclusive primary was supposed to encourage candidates to branch out beyond their bases and moderate the electoral process, local observers say that hasn't quite played out yet. Independent voters are not used to turning out in force in the spring, and this cycle's independent candidates lack the resources to mount heavy turnout operations. Plus, the new primary rules are not yet ingrained in California's political culture. "Some people think they can vote for two candidates," Parks said in a May interview. "There hasn't been a lot of information out. ... So we're letting people know they can vote."
Thus, major party candidates have continued to operate using their old playbooks. "The goal of the system is to make campaigns campaign for everyone, but that's not necessarily the case" this year, said a Republican campaign mananger. "This is the first time. Everyone's taking notes, and there will be several more elections to go before everyone figures it all out."
For that reason, the primary will not be a great overall barometer for the November general elections -- even though Democrats and Republicans will be facing off directly in a primary for the first time since 2000, the makeup of the electorate will be too different. There will be a few keys to take away: In the 44th District, for example, a strong showing by Hahn could further squeeze Richardson's slowing fundraising, and the voting in the districts that will match two members of the same party in the general could provide early clues and possibly unseat a few incumbents who had always been safe running against Republicans in November. But, for the most part, the primary will take place in a completely different political environment than the November elections.
Here are some short, race-specific previews to aid your digestion of the late-night returns:
CA-01: Retiring GOP Rep. Wally Herger anointed state Sen. Doug LaMalfa to replace him, blessing LaMalfa with his network but sparking blowback about backroom deals from other Republicans. There are two main Republicans contending with LaMalfa for a spot in the general election, though, and Sam Aanestad and Michael Dacquisto could end up splitting whatever anti-establishment mood there is in this conservative seat in California's northeastern corner.
: Democratic Assemblyman Jared Huffman
is the leading favorite to replace retiring Rep. Lynn Woolsey
in a deeply liberal district north of San Francisco. But because of that, Huffman will likely face another Democrat in the general election, and liberal activist Norman Solomon
and businesswoman Stacey Lawson
would make for very different races in the fall.
: Just about anything could happen here, except a Democratic victory in the fall; it's a R+11 district, according to the Cook Report. But 10 Republicans and an ex-Republican independent are competing for the open seat, which covers a massive swathe of southeastern California, making grassroots campaigning difficult. Assemblyman Paul Cook
and San Bernardino County Supervisor Brad Mitzelfelt
have some name ID from previous races, but the sheer size of the district and the field makes prognostication impossible.
: Rep. Jeff Denham
's Central Valley district got more competitive when the congressional map was redrawn, and Democratic ex-astronaut Jose Hernandez
makes Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee chairman Steve Israel
's eyes light up whenever Hernandez comes up in conversation -- which is often. Independent Chad Condit
is making a low-budget bid for the general election, and his father's time in Congress left him with some residual name recognition, but Condit faces the same problem as independents everywhere: The middle might not be turning out for this year's primary.
: Democratic Rep. Pete Stark
's volatility and occasional rudeness have irked many people over his long tenure, but he always won primaries and then crushed Republican opponents in a very liberal East Bay district. This year, Democratic Dublin City Councilman Eric Swalwell
has made a strong push for the general election, forcing Stark into some unusually bad gaffes as the veteran tried to keep Swalwell out of contention for the top two.
: National Republicans have decided on their standard bearer in this new seat: Assemblyman David Valadao
, who was among the National Republican Congressional Committee's first crop of "Young Gun" candidates. Democrats lost their earliest recruit to family issues and now prefer Blong Xiong
over John Hernandez
: As I wrote in On Call
last week, independent Linda Parks has given national Democrats serious heartburn, but leading Democrat Julia Brownley
and outside Democratic groups have outspent Parks by a huge margin, and money usually ends up being a reliable predictor in open primary races. Brownley entered the race late and has other Democratic contenders to deal with, and Parks has name recognition as a longtime Ventura County supervisor. If Parks advances to the top two, she would deny Democrats a big pickup opportunity in a seat that gave President Obama
over 55 percent of its vote in 2008. Republican state Sen. Tony Strickland
is a dynamite fundraiser, a NRCC "Young Gun," and, as the only Republican on the ballot, is all but assured of a spot in the general.
: Berman and Sherman are both likely to advance to the general election after spending over $5.5 million between them before the primary. That trend will continue in the general election, which looks likely to be the most expensive House race in the nation.
: GOP Rep. Gary Miller
does not currently represent any of the 31st District in Congress. On paper, that gives an advantage to fellow Republican Bob Dutton
, who has represented a big chunk of the seat in California's state Senate. But big spending by Miller and several super PACs has swamped Dutton; the district will be another interesting test case of the power of money in politics. Redlands Mayor Pete Aguilar
, a DCCC "Red to Blue" candidate, is likely to advance over a small field that includes a few other Democrats.
: Richardson's fundraising has slowed considerably this year amidst a string of ethics problems, and Hahn could more or less shut the door on her with a strong performance in the primary, as noted above.
: State Sen. Alan Lowenthal
has the inside track for Democrats in this new Long Beach seat, while Long Beach Councilman Gary DeLong
has outspent ex-Rep. Steve Kuykendall
: Democrats are excited about the prospect of challenging Rep. Brian Bilbray
, whose seat got more competitive after redistricting. First, though, leading Democratic candidates Scott Peters
and Lori Saldana
have engaged in a bruising primary fight, in which Peters outspent Saldana about 5-to-1. The primary is one of two high-profile contests for the Progressive Change Campaign Committee on Tuesday. The liberal group endorsed Saldana and is looking for its first victory of the 2012 House cycle.