Ordinarily, primary elections in June don’t settle partisan political conflicts but, rather, set the stage for showdowns in November’s general elections.
However, thanks to California’s “top two” primary system, the June 5 election could effectively decide who will be the state’s next governor and, perhaps even more importantly, whether President Donald Trump will continue to enjoy Republican control of Congress or face a Democratic takeover that could bring impeachment.
Democratic Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom is certain to finish first among the 27 candidates for governor. But there’s a down-to-the-wire contest between Democrat Antonio Villaraigosa, the former mayor of Los Angeles, and Republican businessman John Cox for second place. If Villaraigosa is No. 2, it’s game on for a full-fledged shootout in November. If it’s Cox, Newsom can begin measuring the governor’s office for new drapes.
The situation on Congress is even dicier.
Democrats need to gain 24 seats to recapture control of the House of Representative. Flipping at least several seats in true-blue California is, by their own calculations, a key factor.
Democrats are concentrating on the seven California congressional districts now represented by Republicans that favored Hillary Clinton over Trump two years ago.
Two of those GOP congressional members retired rather than face tough re-election battles: Darrell Issa, in the San Diego County-centered 49th Congressional District and Ed Royce, whose 39th district includes portions of Orange and Los Angeles counties.
Those districts are prime Democratic targets. So are the adjacent Orange County districts of Dana Rohrabacher (48th), who has been, for some reason, a big fan of Russia, and Mimi Walters (45th), plus the 25th district in the northern reaches of Los Angeles County, now in the hands of Steve Knight.
In theory, two other GOP-held districts in the San Joaquin Valley are also at risk: David Valadao’s 21st and the 10th, which is held by Jeff Denham. However, both have a knack for overcoming heavy Democratic registration pluralities and have backed immigration reform, defusing an issue that otherwise could hurt them among their large Latino constituencies.
Although his situation is getting scant media attention, Knight may be the most vulnerable of the targeted Republicans, mostly because of dramatic demographic changes in the Antelope Valley portion of his mountain-desert district. It has seen a heavy influx of working-class families from urban Los Angeles seeking lower housing costs, and a surge of Democratic voter registration has been one result.
The big campaign action has been concentrated on the Issa, Royce and Rohrabacher seats, but the Democratic enthusiasm about capturing them may have backfired. All drew heavy numbers of Democratic candidates, many of them unknowns, while GOP candidates are fewer and better known, raising the possibility that Republicans will finish first and second and freeze Democrats out of the competition in November.
As they belatedly awoke to that possibility, Democratic leaders frantically tried to talk some candidates into dropping out and chose a few Democrats to receive special help. In Issa’s district, they began attacking one of the Republicans, Assemblyman Rocky Chavez of Oceanside, for voting with Democrats on several key legislative issues, hoping to erode his GOP support.
With so many candidates on congressional primary ballots and with the prospect of low-turnout election–perhaps a third of the state’s 18.9 million registered voters–even a few votes either way could determine whether Democrats can, indeed, make big gains in California this year, recapture the House and make life miserable for Trump.