Rep. Gary Miller, R-Calif., was the incumbent most vulnerable to losing reelection when he announced his retirement on Wednesday. But while Democrats are likely to pick up his Southern California seat — where voters preferred President Obama to Mitt Romney by a 16-point margin in 2012 — there's little agreement among Democrats on whom the new member of Congress should be.
Miller won reelection last cycle, despite that strong Obama performance, because of a strange confluence of decennial redistricting and California's top-two primary system. The district was almost entirely new to Miller when he decided to run there in 2012 and avoid a member-versus-member race with GOP Rep. Ed Royce. Miller was joined in the race by former GOP state Sen. Bob Dutton and a number of Democrats, including Redlands Mayor Pete Aguilar, the favored candidate of D.C. Democrats. But despite the district's Democratic lean, Miller and Dutton finished first and second, and advanced to the general election. Aguilar finished third, about 1,500 votes shy of second place and 2,500 short of Miller's tally.
Democrats quickly identified Miller as their top 2014 target — no Republican represents a district that went stonger for Obama — and Aguilar, backed by the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, is running again. But Aguilar isn't alone in seeking the seat. EMILY's List, which supports pro-choice Democratic women, is behind lawyer Eloise Gomez Reyes. The group last week eagerly touted that Gomez Reyes raised twice as much campaign cash as Aguilar in the previous fundraising quarter, and it quickly sought to cast her as the leading Democrat in the June primary.
"The path for front-runner Eloise Gomez Reyes just got clearer," said EMILY's List spokeswoman Marcy Stech. "The momentum around her grassroots campaign grows stronger every day as voters hear about her plan to fight for jobs, education, and a fair shot for all."
Meanwhile, former Rep. Joe Baca, D-Calif., who, after redistricting, was defeated for reelection in a bordering district, has declared for the race. Miller's district contains about two-fifths of Baca's old one before the lines were redrawn. Baca raised very little money in the last fundraising quarter, but in a top-two, open-seat primary, his name ID could be a factor. In an interesting twist, Baca may have helped deliver some votes to Miller in 2012 when he endorsed the Republican in the all-GOP general election.
Republicans have a little more than three weeks to find a candidate of their own. Filing closes on March 7. But if a Republican and a Democrat advance to the November general election, the Democrat will begin the race as the favorite to move the seat into their party's column.
National Republican Congressional Committee Chairman Greg Walden issued a statement following the news of Miller's retirement, thanking Miller and his family for their service. But unlike when fellow Republicans Jim Gerlach and Buck McKeon announced their retirements earlier this year, Walden didn't express confidence that Republicans would hold Miller's seat.