A photo illustration of the U.S. Capitol

The races to watch: California Congressional primary

The 12 most important congressional races to watch in California.

Photo illustration of the U.S. Capitol. Photography by Architect of the Capitol via Flickr

Everyone likes a good rematch.

The “blue wave” that washed over the county in November 2018, flipping 41 congressional seats to the Democrats, crashed with particular force in California. The state’s Republican caucus in Washington lost half of its delegation — a measly 14 of 53 reduced to a measlier seven. 

Now the GOP wants payback. What are the odds? Presidential election years juice voter turnout — that’s trickier for Republicans because it attracts occasional voters, who historically have been more likely to vote Democratic. And there’s no reason to believe that voters from the affluent coastal burbs and majority-minority Central Valley districts that Democrats wrested from Republicans have warmed to President Trump in the intervening months. 

But the freshman Democrats from California now have a record — on impeachment, the Green New Deal, and their perceived closeness with House Speaker Nancy Pelosi. Republicans plan to hammer them on it.

That all makes for several lively races — a dozen, by our count. In Simi Valley, 15 candidates including a YouTube shock jock, a convicted felon and both a Christy and Christopher Smith have crowded into not one but two of the most contentious House races in the country. In east San Diego County, a prison-bound Trump loyalist steps down, prompting a civil war within the regional GOP and a long-shot pick-up opportunity for local Democrats. And the Central Valley and Orange County will see rematches in two of the closest contests of 2018 — testing whether the blue wave will recede or continue to inundate California. 

Election Day is March 3. And then what? Under California’s top-two primary system, the first and second place winners, regardless of party, will move on to the general election ballot in November. Below: the key races.

Congressional 8

In brief: 

In one of the state’s reddest districts, an incumbent’s retirement leaves voters with options: his chosen successor, a right-wing firebrand or something completely different. 

  • Open seat
  • GOP-on-GOP battle
  • Dem-on-Dem battle

The district:

From the northern edge of San Bernardino Valley, east to Arizona and north nearly to Reno, this district includes some of the state’s most dramatic geographic features — Death Valley, the Mojave Desert, Mount Whitney — and its most sparsely populated communities. It’s also the largest district in the state by size and one of its most reliably Republican.

Though GOP registered voters outnumber Democrats by a few points, that understates the strength of Republican electoral performance here. In the 2018 congressional race, a Democrat didn’t even make it into the top two. President Trump beat Clinton in this district by 15 points.

The incumbent:

Paul Cook was elected to the seat in 2012. And though his district includes some of the brightest red pockets of the state, he’s legislated as, if not a moderate, then at least not allergic to working with Democrats on occasion.

In September 2019, Cook announced that he wouldn’t be running again, blaming ideologues in both parties for a “toxic” political environment. 

The candidates:

As soon as Cook announced his exit, the Republican establishment threw support behind three-term Assemblyman Jay Obernolte, whose district spans much of the high desert. Endorsements came from Cook, Republican leaders in the Legislature, and the state party itself.

That hasn’t dissuaded Tim Donnelly from having another go. The founder of the Minutemen Party, an armed vigilante group seeking to enforce federal immigration law, he rode the national wave of Tea Party activism in 2010 to a seat in the Assembly. He also unsuccessfully ran for governor and, last year, against Cook.

Two other Republicans are running: Jerry Laws, a retired truck driver and frequent candidate, and Justin Whitehead, a bartender.

The Democratic Party and some of the state’s largest labor and environmental groups have endorsed Chris Bubser, co-founder of the Los Angeles-based progressive women’s activist group Hang Out Do Good. Despite her long electoral odds, she got off to an early fundraising lead in 2019.

Two other Democrats are running: Apple Valley lawyer Bob Conwa and home solar consultant James Ellars.

The stakes:

Cook’s departure means another old-school, compromise-oriented politician will be leaving Washington — and voters will decide what kind of politician replaces him.

Further reading:

Old dynamics, new hopes are brewing in the race for the open seat in California’s 8th District

One Republican skips the weekend party convention and heads for the border


Congressional 10

In short: 

A Bay Area-adjacent Central Valley district that recently flipped blue is ready for a very expensive rematch.

  • Swing seat
  • Dem-on-Dem battle
  • GOP-on-GOP battle

The district:

It’s in the Central Valley, but the Bay Area’s fingerprints are all over it.

The Bay’s housing market has caused Tracy’s population to surge with super-commuters in recent years. In the Trump era, Bay Area campaign cash has made races here among the most expensive, and its weekend volunteers have poured over the hills into Modesto and Turlock.

Though this is a seat Democrats nabbed from Republicans in 2018, it’s been leaning that direction for half a decade. In 2015, the number of registered Democrats surpassed Republicans, and Clinton beat Trump by 3 points.

The incumbent:

Josh Harder was born in Turlock before attending Stanford and Harvard. After a stint as a venture capitalist, he returned to the district to unseat GOP Rep. Jeff Denham. In Washington, Harder has voted in the ideological dead center of the Democratic caucus. And with strong ties to Silicon Valley, he’s been one of the state’s most prolific fundraisers.

The challengers:

Ted Howze is the best know and best funded. A veterinarian and former Turlock councilman, he ran for the seat in 2018 as an immigration hardliner and very nearly grabbed a top-two spot.

Two other Republicans jumped into this race after trying their hands in other districts to the north. Bob Elliott is a San Joaquin County supervisor and Green Beret veteran. Marla Livengood from the California Strawberry Commission ran for Congress in a neighboring district in 2018, losing by double digits in a solidly Democratic area. The state GOP hasn’t endorsed in the race.

Harder is also facing two opponents within party: Mike Barkley, a lawyer who has run for the seat twice before, and Ryan Blevins, a robotics engineer.

The stakes:

Harder beat Denham in 2018 by characterizing him as a Trump acolyte. With his own record and associations with Washington D.C. to defend, now Harder will have to prove that his win wasn’t merely a reaction to an unpopular incumbent, but to the GOP itself.

Further reading:

‘Impeachment circus’: Harder and Pelosi ripped by GOP candidate in District 10

Two more Republicans announce bids to challenge Harder for District 10


Congressional 16

In short:

A long-serving moderate gets a challenge from the left — a microcosm of internal fissures within the Democratic Party.

  • Dem-on-Dem battle

The district:

Running along Highway 99, this district meshes two distinct voting blocks: urban Fresno, which votes predictably and overwhelmingly Democratic, and rural and more conservative areas around Merced and Los Baños.

Nearly 60% of the residents here are Latino, but regular voters skew whiter. And although Democrats outnumber Republicans by 20 points, this is no bastion of progressive politics. Dependably Democratic, it occupies the political center.

The incumbent:

Jim Costa is an increasingly unusual breed in California Democratic politics: a self-proclaimed “Blue Dog” centrist. A fixture of California politics — he served in the Legislature for more than two decades before joining Congress in 2004 — he votes with his party on social issues important to Democrats, such as abortion rights and gun control. But as an ally to the district’s agriculture and oil and gas industries, he’s earned the disdain of some environmental and social justice activists.  

The challengers:

Democrat Esmeralda Soria, a daughter of Tulare farmworkers who was the first Latina to serve as Fresno’s city council president, has name ID and support in the city that has served as Costa’s electoral bulwark against the redder sections of the district. Already she has blocked Costa from gaining the state party endorsement. And she’s backed by the Service Employees International Union California and labor icon Dolores Huerta. 

Also running to Costa’s left: Kimberly Williams, a former community college professor and U.S. Foreign Service spokesperson.

The lone Republican: Kevin Cookingham, a former president of an online charter school. With the Democratic vote split three ways, he stands a good chance of securing a top-two slot.

The stakes:

Costa’s strongest election foes have come from the right, allowing him to appeal to both Democrats and moderate Republicans. This year might be different.

Further reading:

Soria Tired of Waiting Her Turn in Congressional Challenge to Costa

‘She is tired of waiting her turn’: Costa stares down liberal challenger


Congressional 21

In short:

In one of the Democratic Party’s narrowest wins from 2018, a rematch will test the staying power of the “blue wave” midterms. 

  • Swing seat
  • Rematch
  • Head-to-head

The district:

Jutting from the southeastern edge of Fresno down south to Bakersfield, it has the highest poverty rate of any district in the state.

It’s long seemed to defy political logic. Registered Democrats have long outnumbered Republicans by double digits. Trump was soundly defeated here in 2016. And yet, year after year, voters re-hired a Republican for Congress. That disequilibrium broke last year — barely. GOP Rep. David Valadao lost by 862 votes. 

The incumbent:

In the lead-up to the 2018 midterm elections, Democrat T.J. Cox ran a quieter primary than Democratic challengers elsewhere — most saw his challenge to Valadao as a longshot. But a massive voter mobilization effort targeted at Latino and younger voters pulled him through. And he has some bruises to show for it. 

In three separate instances in 2019, Cox was forced to fess up to previously undisclosed business ties, including his directorship of a Canadian mining company that got into legal trouble for failing to pay its employees. In D.C., Cox has voted in line with the bulk of his Democratic colleagues.

The challengers:

David Valadao wants his seat back. Due to his agricultural pedigree and moderate record on immigration, he believes he’s the kind of Republican who can still win in this section of the Central Valley.

But he’s had financial troubles of his own, and must thread a tricky needle: sufficiently distance himself from Trump to entice moderate Democrats and independents, but not so much that he alienates his own party. 

Also running: perennial candidate Roque “Rocky” De La Fuente and his son, Ricardo — the former as a Republican and the latter as a Democrat. Go figure.

The stakes:

This time around, Democrats have a battered incumbent to defend of their own. Even with the high turnout that typically accompanies a presidential election year, this is seen as among their most vulnerable seats.

Further reading:

Bankruptcy and conflict: One of California’s tightest races is packed with financial baggage

How a multi-millionaire father-son duo crashed the Cox-Valadao rematch


Congressional 22

In short:

Incumbent Devin Nunes’ high-profile defense of Trump amid impeachment makes him a national hero to some, villain to others. Democratic hope springs eternal in this GOP-leaning district.

  • Swing seat
  • Dem-on-Dem battle

The district:

From Clovis to Tulare to Visalia, Big Ag is king in this stretch of the eastern Central Valley. It’s also one of the state’s more conservative plots. Republicans outnumber Democrats, and Trump won here by nearly 10 points.

The incumbent:

As chairman of the House Intelligence Committee prior to 2018, Nunes protected Trump and railed against the “Deep State.” After the GOP lost its House majority in 2018, Nunes became the dismissive, trolling counterpart to Democratic Rep. Adam Schiff, who chaired the House’s impeachment inquiry. 

When not sparring with Democrats on CSPAN, Nunes has been busy filing defamation suits — against CNN, Twitter, the Fresno Bee, a retired farmer in the district, a Republican political strategist and — most notably — two online social media users claiming to be Nunes’ mom and his cow.

For all those reasons, Nunes is a powerhouse fundraiser with his fans.

The challengers:

Phil (Felipe) Arballo, a Fresno financial advisor, has endorsements from the Congressional Hispanic Caucus and local trades union groups. He’s also out-raised the other Democrats running. His campaign says the impeachment battle has made for particularly good fundraising.

But the state Democratic Party has endorsed Bobby Bliatout, CEO of a health clinic company serving Fresno’s southeast Asian community, who won just 5% of the vote when he ran for the seat in 2018. Democrat Dary Rezvany, who operates an auto repair shop, is also running, as is independent Eric Garcia.

The stakes:

Odds are still on Nunes, but this is likely to be a massive money suck for both parties. And presidential turnout could give Nunes more of a run for his money.

Further reading:

Devin Nunes lives on a congressman’s salary. How is he funding so many lawsuits?

Democrat Phil Arballo Says He Has a Solid Plan to Beat Devin Nunes in 2020


Congressional 25

In short:

A sex scandal, a recently released felon, a YouTube shock jock and two contests in one — welcome to one of the most outlandish and feverishly contested congressional races in the country.

  • Swing seat
  • Open seat
  • Dem-on-Dem battle
  • GOP-on-GOP battle
  • Special election
  • Scandal

The district:

The three valleys that form the north Los Angeles suburbs — Simi, Santa Clarita and Antelope — have always been defined in opposition to their metropolitan neighbor. In the 1970s, Santa Clarita became synonymous with white flight, as L.A.’s middle- and upper-middle-class white residents and much of the L.A. law enforcement workforce fled crime, mandatory bussing and urban living. This all gave the region a decidedly conservative bent: Simi Valley is home to the Reagan national library.

But those politics have been changing — partly in reaction to the Trump era but also as a function of diversifying demographics.

The incumbent:

In October 2019, Katie Hill — the politically savvy, millennial freshman Democrat whose outsized victory just a year earlier embodied the electoral backlash against President Trump — resigned

Hill’s fall from political grace came quickly. Two weeks earlier, details of her sexual relationship with a campaign staffer and accompanying nude photos were posted by RedState, a right-wing political website, and the British tabloid the Daily Mail. Many Republicans called for Hill’s resignation. She stepped down, saying it was to stop the release of additional compromising photos, and vowed to fight against “revenge porn” as a private citizen.

Now there are two campaigns: the race to fill the rest of Hill’s current term, and the race to fill the new term that will begin in 2021.

The candidates:

A whopping 13 people (6 Democrats, 6 Republicans, and 1 independent) have plunged in to take Hill’s spot in 2020.

If Democratic leaders had their way, Christy Smith would be a shoo-in. A relative moderate who won election to the state Assembly in 2018, she’s endorsed by Gov. Gavin Newsom, both of California’s U.S. senators, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, the state party and Hill herself.

But Cenk Uyger, host of the lefty political YouTube channel Young Turks, is running as a Sanderseque outsider. In fact, he very briefly had the backing of Sen. Bernie Sanders before an outcry from local Democrats, pointing to Uyger’s history of saying misogynistic things on his show, led Sanders to pull the endorsement.

Other Democratic contenders: UCLA professor Robert Cooper III, lawyer Anibal Valdez-Ortega, filmmaker Christopher Smith (not to be confused with Christy Smith) and county patient caseworker Getro Elize.

Former GOP Rep. Steve Knight, who lost to Hill by more than 8 points, is running again. Campaigning to his right are Mike Garcia, a former Navy pilot who derides the “Socialist agenda” of elected Democrats, and George Papadopoulos, a former Trump campaign loyalist who served two weeks in federal prison after pleading guilty to lying to the FBI.

Other Republican hopefuls: bankruptcy attorney David Lozano and businessmen Kenneth Jenks and David Mercuri.

Otis Lee Cooper, a bounty hunter with his own YouTube series, “Coopers Crusaders,” is running without a political party.

You might think that any candidate who filled out the necessary paperwork to run in the regularly scheduled election would do the same for the special (and vice versa). Alas, this is a California election: only nine of the candidates are running in both races.

Running in the special election (but not the regular): David Rudnick, a real estate investor and anti-GMO activist, and Christin Powers, who says she is no longer running for the seat but instead running for president.

Running in the regular election (but not in the special): Christopher Smith, Otis Cooper, Mercuri and, most notably, Papadopoulos.

The stakes:

Remember there are two elections here. In the special election, unless a candidate wins over half of the votes on March 3 (unlikely given the crowded field), the top two candidates will compete in a run-off on May 12th. In the regularly scheduled election, the top two candidates will be placed on the November general election ballot no matter what.

Because the May race is likely to see lower turnout (and therefore be more GOP-friendly) than the November general, it’s entirely possible that the candidate who wins the special election will be replaced by the winner of the general.

The Democrats’ 2018 victory here signaled a historic and symbolic shift for this traditional GOP stronghold. For Republicans, Hill’s unceremonious departure offers an opportunity to reclaim what was once theirs.

Further reading:

What We Know About That California Special Election And What It Could Mean For 2020

Highlights from Mike Garcia’s interview with The Talk of Santa Clarita

Will California’s “revenge porn” law really help Rep. Katie Hill?

Endorsement: Christy Smith is the best choice to replace Katie Hill in Congress


Congressional 39

In short: 

Following a narrow Dem victory in 2018, Republicans want a rematch — and a referendum on impeachment.

  • Swing seat
  • Rematch

The district:

Diverse, well-educated and suburban, this may be the archetypical example of the once-solidly-GOP district that has slipped from Republican fingers in the Trump era. 

The Republican share of registered voters has been trending down for years, and Democrats now outnumber Republicans by 2 points. Even so, the 2018 election pitting a Latino veteran political novice against a well-known Korean American former legislator was a nail-biter. It took two weeks to declare the Democrat the victor.

The incumbent:

Gil Cisneros was an actual lottery winner, and also lucky enough to make it past the 17-person primary and eke out a 3 point victory in one of 2018’s closest congressional races. Having millions to spend on the race probably helped. A former Republican who became an education philanthropist after winning $266 million in 2010, he ran as moderate.

In Congress, Cisneros is on the Armed Services and Veterans Affairs committees, bolstering his foreign policy cred. After news of Trump’s Ukraine affair broke, Cisneros joined six fellow freshmen House Democrats — all veterans of the armed services or intelligence agencies — to call for an impeachment investigation. It was a turning point in the saga.

The challengers:

Republican Young Kim’s loss in 2018 caught many by surprise. It was hard to imagine a Republican candidate better suited to the district. She was a Korean immigrant in a district with a large Korean community, and a skilled retail politician with electoral experience and connections to the Orange County party establishment. Kim also had a knack throughout the campaign for saying as little as humanly possible about President Trump, who lost the district by 9 points. 

Republicans evidently still see her as their best chance in 2020. No other GOP candidate got into the race. There’s also independent Steve Cox, a former motorcycle enthusiast. 

The stakes:

Cisneros has reason for optimism, given the power of incumbency and the typically higher turnout of a presidential year. But a lot has happened since November 2018: Trump’s impeachment, and two years of Cisneros’ record in Washington.

Further reading:

In one swing district, impeachment hasn’t swayed voters – yet

Can Young Kim Help Turn Orange County Red Again?

Midterms missionaries: Voices inside one of California’s hottest Congressional battlegrounds


Congressional 45

In short: 

A rising star of the populist left fights to keep a district where Republicans still outnumber Democrats.

  • Swing seat
  • GOP-on-GOP battle

The district:

Hugging the west side of the Santa Ana Mountains, this inland Orange County district runs from Yorba Linda’s edge to Mission Viejo. Republicans outnumber Democrats, with dark blue clusters around UC Irvine. And as with much of Orange County, President Trump and his flavor of GOP politics are unpopular with this affluent, highly educated electorate. Since 2015, the GOP share of voters has declined 7 points — a more precipitous drop than in any other congressional district on this list.

The incumbent:

Katie Porter is among the most well-known members of the 2019 freshman class. With a knack for dissecting bankers into meme-able soundbites from her perch on the House Financial Services Committee, the UC Irvine bankruptcy law professor has championed an Elizabeth Warren-inspired left-leaning populism. In fact, Sen. Warren used to be Porter’s professor at Harvard Law, and Porter now co-chairs her presidential campaign. 

Porter’s virality has been good for fundraising — helpful within the eye-poppingly expensive Los Angeles media market. But as a Medicare for All proponent, she is an unusual fit in a district where Republicans still outnumber Democrats. 

The challengers:

Even if the GOP lost much of its electoral grip on Orange County, there are still plenty of credentialed Republicans in this district — and a large political apparatus to support them. Six have lined up to take on Porter. 

By fundraising alone, Don Sedgwick, a Laguna Hills city councilman and former mayor, appears the frontrunner. His pitch to voters rests on his lifelong ties to the district (unlike some opponents he actually resides inside its boundaries) and on his skills as a business owner who runs a jewelry store chain. With the exception of climate change — he has called for “common sense” solutions to the problem — his views are in line with the mainstream of his party. He wants federal spending cuts and backs Trump’s border wall.

Peggy Huang, a deputy state attorney general on the Yorba Linda city council, is running on her career and — as a female Taiwanese immigrant — on her potential appeal to a broader swath of voters.

Lisa Sparks, dean of Chapman University’s School of Communications, may be best known for her controversial decision to invite former White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders to speak at the school.

Wrapping up the Republicans: Greg Raths, a Mission Viejo souncilman and Marine veteran; Christopher Gonzales, an Irvine attorney; and Rhonda Furin, a former teacher and self-described “Conservative MAGA Candidate.”

The stakes:

It’s a test case: Can a progressive keep winning in a right-leaning district by ginning up enough enthusiasm from its bluest corners? 

Further reading:

Katie Porter Came to Washington to Go to War With Wall Street

OC Candidates Set for March 2020 Election


Congressional 48

In short: 

In one of Orange County’s last Republican bastions, a fortunate Democrat hangs on for his political life. 

  • Swing seat
  • GOP-on-GOP battle

The district:

This 50-mile stretch of Orange County coastline represents the high water mark of the blue wave. In no California congressional district represented by a Democrat are the Dems outnumbered by a larger spread (7%) or did President Trump receive a higher share of the vote (46%).

So how did a Democrat capture the seat? Democrts are hoping it was due to a strong candidate and a lasting shift of otherwise conservative voters away from the Trumpified GOP.

But Republicans are counting on a simpler answer: Dana Rohrabacher. 

The incumbent:

In the lead-up to the 2018 election, nowhere was anti-Trump electoral enthusiasm as concentrated as in Orange County. Harley Rouda, a wealthy real estate executive with no political experience, was one of eight Democrats to join the race. Their target: Rep. Rohrabacher, a mainstay of Orange County GOP politics whose preference for warmer U.S.-Russia relations earned him the derisive nickname “Putin’s favorite congressman.” 

Rouda beat him by 7 points. But this time Rouda won’t have “Putin’s favorite congressman” for a foil. He’ll instead be defending his own record, including his vote to impeach the president.

The challengers:

Four Republicans and one member of the far-right American Independent Party have filed to take on Rouda. Based on her fundraising lead, name recognition, endorsements and connections, Michelle Park Steel appears the clear frontrunner.

An Orange County supervisor for six years, Steel previously sat on the state’s Board of Equalization. She’s married to former Republican National Committeeman and ex-state party chair Shawn Steel, and has the backing of the state party and every California Republican congressman.

Other Republicans running: Brian Griffin, who runs a real estate listing and commercial printing company; Brian Burley, a former Huntington Beach city council candidate who runs an IT consulting company; and John Thomas Schuesler, a mortgage broker whose campaign literature warns of a coming “Marxist Cult Revolution.”

The stakes:

On paper, this is the Democrats’ most vulnerable congressional seat. If Republicans are able to take it back, it will indicate that their previous loss was more about Rohrabacher’s unpopularity than anything else. If Rouda holds on here on November 3, Democrats are probably having a very good night. 

Further reading:

O.C. Supervisor Michelle Steel to challenge Rep. Harley Rouda in 2020 election

Flipping Orange County was key for Democrats. Now the trick is to keep it

Congressional 49

In short: 

Of all the seats California Republicans lost in 2018, this district spanning Orange and San Diego Counties may be the hardest one to retake.

  • Swing seat
  • Head-to-head

The district:

A political mishmash of historic Republican strongholds (affluent Rancho Santa Fe, the Camp Pendleton Marine Corps Base, and San Clemente, home to President Nixon’s “Western White House”) alongside reliable Democratic voting blocs (seaside Encinitas, the UC San Diego Campus) all average out to a toss-up. 

In practice: A district with a slight GOP-edge, an environmentalist streak and a recent history of voting for Democrats. When the current incumbent Democrat beat the Republican for the first time in at least a generation, it was by double digits. Gov. Gavin Newsom narrowly won this district, too.

The incumbent:

Rep. Mike Levin seemed to come out of nowhere — an environmental lawyer who played a role in Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign.
Since going to Washington, he has voted consistently with the Democratic pack. 

The challengers:

Unlike 2018, when 16 candidates crowded into this congressional race, this year there will only be two: Levin and Republican San Juan Capistrano Mayor Brian Maryott.

Maryott is running as a fiscal conservative, pointing to his career as a financial planner. But he also touts his support for environmental protection and his willingness to work with Democrats. Without another Republican outflanking him on the right, he can afford this ecumenical approach. 

The stakes:

There’s no real contest here until November. But as Levin and Maryott amass war chests for the general, this may be the GOP’s last chance to reclaim this district before it slips into the Democratic column for good. 

Further reading:

Rep. Mike Levin raises twice as much as opponent, Brian Maryott, during 3rd quarter


Congressional 50

In short: 

Legally and ethically troubled Rep. Duncan Hunter made this GOP stronghold competitive. Now that he’s gone, let the Republican free-for-all begin. 

  • Open seat
  • Dem-on-Dem battle
  • GOP-on-GOP battle
  • Scandal

The district:

Head 20 miles inland and San Diego County gets very conservative very quickly. Ranging from suburban to exurban to rural, this is one of the most Republican districts in the state. They outnumber Democrats by 10 points, and Trump won her by 15 points.

The incumbent:

Where to begin?

Duncan Hunter, a Marine combat veteran from a San Diego political family, campaigned in 2018 by falsely insinuating his Democratic rival was a terrorist sympathizer. By December of 2019, Hunter pleaded guilty to misusing more than $200,000 in campaign contributions. Federal prosecutors said he misappropriated the funds for (among other things) bar benders, school tuition, extra-marital engagements and a cross-country flight for a pet bunny. Even after Hunter’s wife flipped on him in court, the congressman insisted the attacks against him were a “Deep State” ploy. 

In January of 2020, he abruptly resigned, leaving it to Gov. Newsom to decide whether to call a special election to fill the remainder of his term. Regardles, a slew of contenders have lined up to win the next term.

The candidates:

Among the four Republicans, there are three fairly prominent names, each more conservative than the last:

Darrell Issa, the car alarm magnate with millions to spend, represented a coastal district in Congress for much of the past decade. He’s endorsed by every Republican congressman in California. 

Carl DeMaio, a mainstay of San Diego County GOP politics and a conservative talk show host, most recently chaired the unsuccessful effort to repeal a state gas tax increase. 

Brian Jones, a right-wing state senator who has described himself as “Trump before Trump,” is the only one of the three who actually resides in the district.

That leaves final GOP candidate Nathan Wilkens, a retired Navy SEAL and former congressional staffer.

The Democratic frontrunner is Ammar Campa-Najjar, who interned in the Obama White House before working in public affairs at the Labor Department. In 2018, he lost to Hunter by less than 4 points. But now Hunter is gone, and with him, much hope that a young progressive could win here. Adding to his woes: Marisa Calderon, executive director of the National Association of Hispanic Real Estate Professionals and a fellow Democrat, hopped into this race at the last minute. She suspended her campaign in late January, but her name will still be on the ballot.

Social activist Jose Cortes is running with the Peace and Freedom Party. Three others are running as independents: management consultant Helen Horvath, mortgage advisor Henry Ota, and Lucinda Jahn.

The stakes:

In one of the few enthusiastically pro-Trump districts in California, this will be a fiercely competitive race for Republicans. If a Democrat emerges from the March primary having nabbed one of the top two spots, the race will likely be a referendum on the president — good news for any GOP candidate here. But if two Republicans make it to the November ballot, expect a combative, costly race as the two ideologically like–minded candidates try to distinguish themselves from one another.

Further reading:

Duncan Hunter’s expected exit could be a relief for GOP

Rep. Hunter, Sen. Brian Jones, Darrell Issa and Carl DeMaio Take Stage for District 50 Forum

Marisa Calderon suspends campaign for the 50th congressional district


Congressional 53

In short: 

An open seat in a progressive Democratic district looks to be an intraparty rumble, with a local politico and a monied millennial vying for the top two spots.

  • Open seat
  • Dem-on-Dem battle
  • GOP-on-GOP battle

The district:

Hooking north and east around San Diego proper before extending into the suburbs, this district has been solidly Democratic since the 1990s. These days its demographic profile is a pretty good description of the national party: majority non-white, a mix of urban core and inner suburbs, a few highly educated enclaves and a large LGBTQ neighborhood. Registered Democrats outnumber Republicans nearly 2-to-1.

The incumbent:

Susan Davis narrowly won her first congressional race in 2000, but has won re-election by double digits ever since. Her decision not to seek reelection triggered an electoral blitz as a small army of Democrats rushed to lay claim to this safe seat.

The challengers:

Of 16 candidates hoping to replace Davis, 11 are Democrats.

The top contenders — by fundraising, name recognition and endorsements — represent different paths to office.

San Diego City Council President Georgette Gomez climbed the ladder of local politics, and has endorsements from the state party and state Senate President Toni Atkins.

Sara Jacobs is a relative newcomer, a millennial former Clinton campaign staffer. She’s also the granddaughter of billionaire Qualcomm co-founder Irwin Jacobs, who helped fund her unsuccessful congressional campaign for a different district in 2018. She’s been endorsed by Lt. Gov. Eleni Kounalakis.

Other Democrats: San Diego Progressive Club founder Jose Caballero, political organizer Joaquín Vázquez, UC San Diego political science professor Tom Wong, Marine veteran and public policy consultant Janessa Goldbeck, former federal wildlife agent John Brooks, elementary school student supervisor Annette Meza, wind energy specialist Peter Sharma, consultant Eric Kutner and educator Joseph Fountain.

Three Republicans are running: Famela Ramos, a hospice nurse and anti-abortion activist; Chris Stoddard, a Marine veteran and real estate agent; and Michael Oristian, a programmer.

Independents Bryan Fletcher and Fernando Garcia are also in the race.

The stakes:

In one of the bluest districts in the state, here’s the question: Will a GOP candidate make it into the top-two runoff, all but securing election for the top-finishing Dem, or will two center-left candidates make the cut, extending the intraparty battle through November?

Further reading:

‘Progressive veteran’ faces uphill fight in 53rd CD

Deadlocks and easy wins: How the Democratic endorsement battles shaped up in Long Beach this weekend

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Not if, but how: California prepares for an all vote-by-mail election in November

California mail-in ballot on Super Tuesday 2020. Photo illustration by Anne Wernikoff for CalMatters

Election 2020

Politics in the pandemic: Two California elections in May provide a preview

Sen. Bernie Sanders's won the California primary, but California didn't matter much in the march to a Democratic nominee. Here Sanders at a February campaign event at the Craneway Pavilion in Richmond. Photo by Anne Wernikoff for CalMatters

Election 2020

Vote update: How big was Bernie’s win and the California primary’s loss?

Empty shelves of toilet paper and paper towels at Safeway in the Fillmore neighborhood of San Francisco on March 13, 2020. On Thursday Gov. Gavin Newsom issued an executive order banning events of more than 250 people amid coronavirus concerns. Photo by Anne Wernikoff for CalMatters

Election 2020

Californians realize it may take three months or longer before life gets back to normal, poll shows

Voters including Dave Ade of San Jose, right, fill out their ballots on Nov. 6, 2018, at The Salvation Army in San Jose. Photo by Dai Sugano, Bay Area News Group

Election 2020

One upside of the coronavirus shutdown, maybe? Fewer voter initiatives