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Politics

California's closely watched House primaries offer preview of battle to control Congress

A voter drops off his ballot at the drop in front of the San Diego Registrar of Voters' office in Kearny Mesa, March 5, 2024.
Mike Damron
/
KPBS
A voter drops off his ballot at the drop in front of the San Diego Registrar of Voters' office in Kearny Mesa, March 5, 2024.

Voters settled House primaries across California on Tuesday, with all eyes on a handful of swing districts whose November matchups will help determine which party controls Congress for the next two years.

All of California’s 52 congressional seats had primary elections. The top two vote-getters in each race will advance to the general election regardless of their political party. About 10 of those seats figure to be competitive, and a handful are considered toss-ups.

These races will be some of the most competitive in the country this fall, and the outcomes will help determine which political party controls Congress. Right now Republicans have 219 seats in the House of Representatives, while Democrats have 213. There are three vacancies.

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“Californians are used to our state being a national leader, and our role in the 2024 elections is no different,” said California U.S. Rep. Pete Aguilar, chair of the House Democratic Caucus. “I’m going to do everything in my power to ensure that we’re successful this November.”

California Republican Party chair Jessica Millan Patterson said voters are “fed up.”

“Voters are ready to send a clear message to radical, far-left Democrats this November that they've had enough, and it's time to put California and our nation on a pathway to success once again,” she said.

The outcome of some races won't be known for days or even weeks. That’s because most people vote by mail with ballots that, as long as they are postmarked by Election Day, can arrive up to a week later and still be counted.

That has made counting ballots in California a weekslong drama that, for close contests, can transform Election Day into an election month.

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Here’s a look at the most competitive House races in California:

22nd District: Political infighting leads to lockout fears

Republican incumbent David Valadao and Democrat Rudy Salas were leading the field in early returns in this Central Valley farm district that has been targeted by Democrats as a crucial pickup opportunity.

Republican rancher Chris Mathys and Democratic state Sen. Melissa Hurtado were trailing.

Democrats have feared that Salas and Hurtado — two state lawmakers who are well-known in the district — could splinter the Democratic vote and allow both Republicans to advance to the general election. That would be a major embarrassment for Democrats while dealing a major blow to their chances of retaking the House.

Salas has the backing of the Democratic Party and prominent state officials like Gov. Gavin Newsom. Newsom recently made a fundraising pitch on Salas’ behalf, warning of a “DEEP risk of having two Republicans make the general election.”

47th District: Replacing Katie Porter

Republican Scott Baugh and Democratic state Sen. Dave Min were out front in early returns to fill the seat that incumbent Democrat Katie Porter vacated to run for the U.S. Senate.

Baugh, a former state Assembly member, narrowly lost to Porter in 2022 in a district that had once been reliably Republican. His party sees the seat as a top pick-up opportunity in November.

Democrat Joanna Weiss, who founded an organization to promote progressive candidates, was behind Min and Baugh.The race between Min and Weiss was one of the nastiest this cycle, with each campaign relentlessly attacking the other. That also meant they were handing easy general election fodder to Republicans.

Weiss' campaign has criticized Min for a drunken driving arrest last year. Min has accused Weiss of funding her campaign from money her husband made as a lawyer defending Catholic priests found guilty of molesting children. Weiss' campaign says her husband never defended a Catholic priest, saying she loaned money to the campaign from a home equity line of credit.

Porter backs Min, who also has the endorsement of the state party. Weiss is backed by Emily's List, which supports Democratic women who favor abortion rights, and by Lt. Gov. Eleni Kounalakis.

45th District: A Republic seeks to hold on to a seat in Asian community

Republican U.S. Rep. Michelle Steel has advanced to defend her Orange County seat in November.

Steel, a South Korean immigrant who has been in Congress since 2020, represents a district that was drawn to give Asian Americans a stronger voice in Washington. It’s home to the nation’s largest Vietnamese community.It was not yet clear who Steel will face in the general election.

Democrats Derek Tran, the son of Vietnamese refugees, and Kim Nguyen-Penaloza, the daughter of a Vietnamese refugee father, and two others were trailing Steel. Nguyen-Penaloza has the endorsement of the state Democratic Party.

49th District: Democrats seek to defend a coastal seat

Democratic U.S. Rep. Mike Levin has advanced to defend his seat in this Southern California district that includes portions of Orange and San Diego counties.

It’s not yet clear who he will face in November.

California’s coastal districts tend to lean Democratic, but Republicans believe they have a chance to oust Levin. Republican Matt Gunderson, an auto dealer, was leading a trio of other GOP challengers.

Voters chose Levin in 2018 to replace longtime Republican Darrell Issa, who has since returned to Congress in a neighboring district. Levin has since been reelected twice — by six points in 2020 and 5 points in 2022.“I think we’ve built the best ground operation of any congressional campaign in the United States,” Levin said in a video posted on X, formerly known as Twitter.

27th District: A Republican tries to hang on in liberal Los Angeles

Republican U.S. Rep. Mike Garcia has advanced to the November general election, where he’ll defend his position as the last GOP House member anchored in Los Angeles County.

Garcia has won the seat repeatedly despite a sizeable advantage for registered Democratic voters in the district.“Tonight's results are a testament to the fact that our mission and message is resonating with CA-27: Ensure the security of California families,” Garcia said in a statement.

His main competition was from Democrat George Whitesides, who was leading another Democrat in the count. A former NASA chief of staff, Whitesides has campaigned on abortion rights and environmental protection.

Garcia gets help from his both his background as a former Navy fighter pilot and his surname, which comes from his Mexican immigrant father and is familiar in a district with a significant Latino population.

41st District: A veteran Republican defends his seat

Republican U.S. Rep. Ken Calvert has advanced to defend his seat in November and will face off against Democrat Will Rollins.

Calvert is the longest-serving Republican in the California congressional delegation, having held his seat in this district east of Los Angeles since 1993. He won by about 5 percentage points in 2022 in a district that is about equally split between Republican and Democratic voters.

Rollins, a former federal prosecutor who lost to Calvert in 2022, gets another chance this year. Rollins, who is gay, could garner significant support in the city of Palm Springs, which has a sizeable LGBTQ+ population.

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