A photo illustration of the California Assembly

The races to watch: California Assembly primary

The outcome of these 15 contests will trace the ideological trajectory of California politics, and determine what policy is possible in 2021.

Photo illustration of the California Assembly. Photography by Anne Wernikoff for CalMatters

California Democrats hit an apex in 2018 when they won three-quarters of seats in the state Assembly and Senate. Two years later, Republicans aim to reverse that trend. But in a state trending ever bluer — and in a presidential election year sure to generate high turnout — Democrats could push their high water-mark even higher. 

The most competitive races in the Assembly are evenly split three ways: swing seats Democrats recently acquired and must defend, toss-up seats the GOP will try to hang on to, and open seats in partisan strongholds where members of the same party will fight it out. One Riverside-adjacent district is a test case for independents.

Though Democrats expect to retain “gigamajorities” in both chambers, each party contains multitudes. Key races are intra-party battles — pitting far-left candidates against liberals, arch-conservatives against moderates, establishment faves versus iconoclastic outsiders. The outcomes will trace the ideological trajectory of California politics, and determine what policy is possible.

In each of the key races below, a chart shows how the district is currently being represented along a left-to-right ideological spectrum. CalMatters created these by gathering each incumbent’s “yes” and “no” or skipped votes from the 2019 Assembly session and feeding that data through software. The software — created by political scientists from UCLA, the University of Southern California, Rice University and the University of Georgia — groups lawmakers based on how frequently they vote with one another.

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.

Made with Flourish

Assembly 13

In brief: 

A blue island in the Central Valley’s magenta political sea, a Dem-on-Dem-on-Dem battle for this open seat exposes the party’s ideological rifts and tests the clout of a local leader.

  • Open seat
  • Dem-on-Dem battle

The district:

When the national housing market imploded in 2008, it hit hard in Stockton, which went bankrupt. Now, working and middle-class families are fleeing the Bay Area eastward seeking cheaper homes, swelling the populations of Tracy and Stockton.

Of all Central Valley districts, this is the most urban. Local debates place gun violence and homelessness over the more traditional Valley fare of agriculture and water. It’s also one of the most Democratic: Hillary Clinton beat Donald Trump here by over 30 points. 

The incumbent:

Democrat Susan Eggman was the sole regional legislator backing a bill to lock in state environmental policy — despite the ire of Big Ag. Her progressive brand reflects both her biography (she was a professor of social work before joining the Stockton city council) and her district. In 2018, she beat her GOP opponent by 30 points. This year she’s vacating the seat to run for the state Senate.

The candidates:

The three Democrats come from two factions: progressive and moderate. That rift could just as easily be described as pro- and anti-Michael Tubbs, Stockton’s 29-year-old mayor. 

Progressive San Joaquin County Supervisor Kathy Miller is backed by Tubbs, Eggman and the California Democratic Party.

From the more business-friendly wing of the party: Christina Fugazi and Carlos Villapudua. 

A middle school science teacher, Fugazi is a Stockton city council member and Tubbs’ chief rivals in city politics — she backed Stockton’s then-Republican mayor over Tubbs in 2016. Since then she’s opposed Tubbs’ most high-profile proposals, including the city’s universal basic income pilot project and its violence intervention program that pays young men considered most likely to commit gun violence. She’s endorsed by the California Federation of Labor.

Villapudua is a former San Joaquin County supervisor who unsuccessfully ran against Tubbs in 2016 and Eggman two years later. His endorsements include Democratic Assemblyman Jim Cooper, a criminal justice hawk, and San Joaquin County Supervisor Leroy Ornellas, a Republican. 

The stakes:

With no Republican in the race, moderates have a good chance to push this seat back toward the political center. 

Further reading:

Carlos Villapudua running for Eggman’s Assembly seat


Assembly 25

In brief: 

A Democratic free-for-all in a solidly blue Bay Area district

  • Open seat
  • Dem-on-Dem battle

The district:

From Fremont to east San Jose, the district is about as blue as a district gets. Democrats outnumber Republicans here by more than 30 points, and in 2016 President Trump got a mere fifth of votes cast.

It’s Northern California’s only Asian-majority Assembly district — including some of California’s largest Chinese, Vietnamese and Filipino neighborhoods.

The incumbent:

Kansen Chu is seeking a local gig (and a sizeable pay raise) with the Santa Clara County Board of Supervisors. That triggered a mad dash of contenders for a rare thing in California in the era of relaxed term limits: an open legislative seat in a safe Democratic district. 

The candidates:

There are nine — and with no obvious frontrunner among the eight Democrats.

Anna Song likely has the most district-wide name recognition: she’s run for Assembly before (unsuccessfully) and currently serves on the Santa Clara County Board of Education. Other candidates with local experience: Santa Clara school board member Jim Canova; Milpitas Councilman Anthony Phan; Roman Reed, a former Fremont planning commissioner turned stem cell research advocate; community college district member and consumer attorney Anne Kepner; and Milpitas councilmember and teacher Carmen Montano.

Two Democrats are touting their youth. Natasha Gupta, 29, is a political novice who said she was convinced to run after attending the Gilroy Garlic Festival the day of the 2019 mass shooting. Alex Lee, 23, is a former staffer to Sen. Henry Stern and Assemblyman Evan Low. 

Financial advisor Bob Brunton is the lone Republican.

The stakes:

This district isn’t turning red anytime soon, but Brunton’s presence in a race otherwise crowded with Democrats means he could snag one of the top two spots.

Further reading:

Political Advisor Alex Lee Joins 25th Assembly District

Education trustee Anna Song to run for California Assembly


Assembly 35

In brief: 

A GOP holdout on the California coast that pits an anti-Trump Democrat against a moderate Republican hoping to rise above his party label.

  • Swing seat
  • Head-to-head
  • GOP incumbent in Clinton country

The district:

This is the last of a dying breed: a Republican district with oceanfront property. Tracing the 101 from Lompoc to Paso Robles, this stretch of the Central Coast is more rural, agricultural and conservative than Santa Barbara to the south or Monterey to the north. 

But the district’s eclectic mix — farm fields and vineyards, a college town and an Air Force base, sleepy surf towns and exurban sprawl — makes for politics that averages out to moderate. 

The incumbent:

On paper, Jordan Cunningham ought to be vulnerable. His purple district is trending blue. He’s a member of President Trump’s party in a district Trump lost by 6 points.

But Cunningham, now running for a third term, generally hews to the center. Having broken with his party on certain state climate policies and predatory loan restrictions, he’s also ticked off business interests by backing pro-privacy regulations.

The challengers:

Dawn Addis is a councilmember from the dune-bound beach community of Morro Bay. She helped organize the San Luis Obispo Women’s March after the election of President Trump, before making her first run for office. In other words, she’s emerged from a movement of ticked-off left-of-center women who powered the Democratic blue wave in 2018. To be determined: how her identification with the “resistance” plays in this district.

The stakes:

In an era of intense partisan polarization, Cunningham is an anomaly: a Republican who has successfully distanced himself from the national party brand. As GOP registration continues dropping in his district, it’s unclear whether he can continue to pull this off.

Further reading:

Morro Bay Councilwoman Dawn Addis announces run for State Assembly

Jordan Cunningham steps across the aisle to take on police reform, consumer rights


Assembly 36

photo illustration of the california assembly district 36 candidates

In brief: 

The last Republican district in Los Angeles County may be the Democrats’ to lose

  • Swing seat
  • Dem-on-Dem battle
  • GOP incumbent in Clinton country

The district:

Bound between the San Gabriel and Tehapachi mountains, most of this high desert district belongs to Los Angeles County, but it has always cut a different cultural and economic path. The Air Force, its auxiliary industries, agriculture and trucking have provided jobs here, and politics have skewed conservative. 

But times are changing , partly due to tens of thousands of priced-out Angelinos — many African American and Latino — who’ve recently moved northward into Lancaster and Palmdale. In 2012, registered Democrats and Republicans were neck-and-neck across the district. Now Democrats outnumber Republicans by 10 points.

The incumbent:

Tom Lackey, a former special education teacher and Eagle Scout turned highway patrolman, choked up while speaking on the Assembly floor about a bill restricting police use of force. Even opponents have few bad things to say about the guy. He’s one of the Assembly’s most moderate Republicans: More than half of the bills he put his name on in 2019 were co-authored with Democrats, and he ended up backing those use-of-force restrictions.

He’s managed to defy the party registration numbers of his district since 2014 (though by smaller margins each election) — but he’s still a Republican in a district that increasingly isn’t. 

The challengers: 

Over a half-dozen Democrats have piled in. Johnathon Ervin, a Raytheon aerospace engineer who narrowly lost a bid to unseat state Sen. Scott Wilk in 2016, would seem like the most likely choice. He’s endorsed by Assembly Speaker Anthony Rendon.

Steve Fox is a former Republican and perpetual candidate who held the seat for a single term before being soundly defeated by Lackey in 2014. Since then two former staffers have accused Fox of sexual harassment, allegations he calls “smears.” The first case (an aide accused Fox of exposing himself to her) was settled by the Assembly, which paid the accuser $100,000. The second is unresolved.

Five other Democrats are running: Eric Ohlsen, a Coast Guard veteran on a Bernie Sanders-aligned platform; Ollie McCaulley, who runs a company teaching businesses to win federal contracts; Diedra Greenaway, a cannabis dispensary manager; Lourdes Everett, a former emergency medical technician; and Michael Rives, a repeat candidate whom the ballot identifies as a retired healthcare administrator.

The stakes:

This year presents Democrats’ most promising opportunity to pick up an extra seat. Republican may pray that Fox’s name recognition makes him the only Democrat to make the top-two runoff in November.

Further reading:

Unlikely Assemblyman Steve Fox accustomed to beating the odds:

Johnathon Ervin files to challenge Assemblymember Tom Lackey


Assembly 37

In brief: Democrats battle it out on the Central Coast, pitting moderate against progressive and one city against another.

  • Open seat
  • Dem-on-Dem battle

The district:

Hugging the coast between the San Ynez Mountains and the Channel Islands, the district’s two population centers are Santa Barbara and Ventura, along with more rural enclaves such as Ojai. It’s been solidly Democratic for a generation. In 2017, the district joined a statewide trend: The number of Republicans fell beneath the number of political independents. 

Environmentalism is robust here — site of severe wildfires and the 1969 oil spill that launched Earth Day.

The incumbent:

Monique Limón was elected in 2016 after six years on the Santa Barbara school board. A young Latina who developed a close working relationship with Assembly Speaker Anthony Rendon, Limón is a Democratic rising star. With Hannath-Beth Jackson termed out at her senate seat, Limón is bidding to hop over to that chamber.

The candidates:

Six Democrats, including Cathy Murillo, Santa Barbara’s progressive mayor, and Jason Dominguez, a former city councilman and one of her most vocal rivals from the center.

Among the others, Jonathan Abboud is a 27-year-old, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez-backing Santa Barbara community college trustee, Stephen Blum is a former teacher, Steve Bennett is an anti-sprawl activist turned Ventura County supervisor, and Elsa Granados directs a sexual assault crisis center.

One Republican: Charles Cole.

The stakes:

With such ferocious competition among the many Democrats, Cole may snag the second place spot in the primary, making the primary all-the-more cutthroat among Dems.

Further reading:

Late Entries Scramble Assembly Race

What’s Next for Monique’s Assembly Seat?


Assembly 38

In brief: 

A Simi Valley seat left open after a round of electoral musical chairs was one of Democrats’ narrowest 2018 victories.

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

The district: 

This used to be Republican country. Connecting Simi Valley and Santa Clarita, it’s home to many members of Los Angeles law enforcement — plus the Reagan presidential library. 

But when pundits talk about the Trump-era GOP’s losses in the well-educated white suburbs, they mean districts like this. The electorate here is now evenly split between Republicans and Democrats. It still leans to the right on certain issues (in 2018, a GOP-backed effort to repeal a hike in the gas tax won by more than 10 points). But Clinton beat out Trump here, and last year Democrat Christy Smith narrowly seized the district from the GOP column. 

The incumbent:

Smith is exactly the kind of candidate who helped propel Democrats’ blue wave in 2018: a relatively moderate woman who lives in the suburbs. But after the sudden resignation of U.S. Rep. Katie Hill, Smith decided to seek a promotion to her seat.

The candidates:

In a seat they narrowly lost without an incumbent, Republicans see this as one of their most promising pick-up opportunities. They seem to be consolidating around Suzette Martinez, a former congressional aide who own a Christian daycare center. She’ll be competing against fellow Republican Lucie Volotzky, a mattress company CEO.

Four Democrats hope to take Smith’s place. Dina Cervantes is the daughter of Mexican immigrants who worked for the Los Angeles Unified School District and for a Long Beach councilman. Kelvin Driscoll is a program director with the Los Angeles County social services. Brandii Grace is a video game designer, and Annie Cho is a public relations consultant. 

The stakes:

The midterms were a blowout for Democrats, who managed to flip long-held Republican districts across California. Without a built-in incumbent advantage, this race tests whether 2018 was a one-off.


Assembly 42

In brief: 

What happens when an anti-Trump Republican finally gives up and runs as an independent in a district that backed Trump in 2016? Good question.

  • Swing seat
  • Rematch
  • Party defector

The district: 

Snaking from the outskirts of Riverside through the low desert of Coachella Valley into the high desert north of Joshua Tree National Park, this district sits on the knife’s edge of California politics. It holds a virtually identical number of registered Democrats and Republicans. 

It’s not purple so much as checkered red and blue. Republicans dominate in Yucaipa, Yucca Valley and Twenty Nine Palms, where voters helped give President Trump a 4-point lead over Hillary Clinton, district-wide. But Palm Springs and rapidly growing, increasingly diverse places such as Beaumont and San Jacinto (which now host former Los Angeles and Riverside residents seeking more affordable housing) are now reliably blue.

The incumbent:

Chad Mayes had a vision for the California Republican Party. As leader of the Assembly GOP, he urged colleagues to dwell less on divisive cultural issues and instead offer small-government solutions to reduce poverty and steward the environment.

They didn’t buy it. After Mayes helped Democrats reauthorize a cap-and-trade emissions reduction program in 2017, Republicans booted him from his leadership position. Mayes then joined former Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger to find a “New Way” for the party, an anti-Trump voice within the GOP. This time, Mayes is running without a political party. 

The challengers:

DeniAntionette Mazingo, a Democratic lawyer who lost to Mayes in 2018 by 10 points, is giving it another go. With no elected experience and limited name recognition, her campaign is a long shot. But Mayes’ decision to run under the “no party preference” label complicates things in unpredictable ways.

Another wrinkle: After Mayes bailed on the GOP, Republican Andrew Kotyuk jumped in. Business groups have a friend in Mayes, but local partisan Republicans, many of whom have long considered Mayes a turncoat, may back their party’s man. Whether that splits the right-of-center vote to Mazingo’s advantage or simply corrals the district’s moderates into Mayes’ camp is anyone’s guess.

The stakes:

Can a center-right critic of President Trump survive in California without a party? More than a few Republicans will be watching to find out.

Further reading:

Another California Republican defection: Former party leader bails on the GOP

Fight or switch? One Republican legislator ditches GOP, the other gets primaried


Assembly 55

In brief: 

A Republican who has hung onto a diverse patch of SoCal suburbia, despite waning GOP registration, faces a new Democratic challenger.

  • Swing seat
  • Dem-on-Dem battle
  • GOP incumbent in Clinton country

The district:

It overlaps both the 39th Congressional district (where Democratic Rep. Gil Cisneros faces a rematch from Republican Young Kim) and the 29th Senate District (which will host the biggest rematch of the Senate political map). Upshot: This three-county corner of southern California suburbia will be at the eye of three overlapping electoral storms.

Birthplace to Richard Nixon, the region has undergone a radical shift away from the GOP. That trend precedes the Trump era, but the nativist politics of the president, anathema to so many immigrants and highly educated voters, has exacerbated it. This district is one-third Latino and one-third Asian American, and 40% of adults here have college degrees. In 2014, Republicans outnumbered Democrats in the district by more than 19,000. This year, the advantage is just over 1,000.

The incumbent:

Phillip Chen sits on the moderate end of the Assembly GOP caucus, though on business and tax-related legislation, he’s voted with the rest of his party. 

That would seem to match his district, which has turned against the politics of President Trump but remains right-of-center. In 2016, Chen won the seat for the first time by an overwhelming margin even while Hillary Clinton beat Trump across the district by 5 points.

Chen’s also a prodigious fundraiser and, has been blessed with relatively weak electoral opponents in the past.

The challengers:

The state Democratic Party and Cisneros have endorsed Andrew Rodriguez, a Walnut City councilman in his mid-20s.

The stakes:

In 2018, Democrats flipped every Orange County congressional district blue, sacking the heart of Republican political power in the state. This year, the Dems aim to do the same for legislative seats.


Assembly 57

In brief: 

Politics is a family business in the East Los Angeles Democratic-dominated district. And family conflict can get messy.

  • Open seat
  • Dem-on-Dem battle

The district:

Running from Norwalk to the City of Industry, this pocket of the San Gabriel Valley is overwhelmingly Democratic. A Republican hasn’t won a state or federal race here since its lines were drawn. 

The district is also majority Latino, though extending up to suburban Hacienda Heights, it also has a large Asian American population.

The incumbent:

Assembly Majority Leader Ian Calderon is heir to a California political dynasty that has held at least one seat in the Legislature since 1982.

He is the son of Charles Calderon, a moderate political powerhouse who became the first Latino senate majority leader. Ian’s uncles Ron and Tom Calderon both served in the Legislature, both assumed political roles regulating the insurance industry, and both eventually accepted plea deals in federal corruption cases.

In November, Calderon announced that he would not seek reelection — raising the possibility that Sacramento could be Calderon-less for the first time in nearly four decades. But not so fast…

The candidates:

Ian Calderon has endorsed Lisa Calderon, who helps run a political action committee for Edison International. She’s also his step-mother.

Facing off against her is a member of another storied political family: Sylvia Rubio, the sister of Assemblywoman Blanca Rubio and state Sen. Susan Rubio. The elected Rubio sisters are more moderate, business-friendly Democrats than Ian Calderon has been, but it’s not yet clear how the third Rubio’s views compare with those of Lisa Calderon’s.

Voters looking for a fresh name have six other Democratic options: Vanessa Tyson, a political science professor at Scripps College; Josué Alvarado, a Whittier city council member; Dora Sandoval, board president of the Little Lake City School District; Primo Castro, a lobbyist with the American Cancer Society; and two Rio Hondo Community College trustees, Gary Mendez and Oscar Valladares.

Given the sheer quantity of Dems in the race, the lone Republican, Whittier teacher Delphine Martinez, stands a decent chance of taking one of the top two spots. 

The stakes:

This is as much a story about familial political fortune as it is policy and politics. The end of Calderonian representation in the Capitol would mark a turning point. And a Rubio win would solidify that family’s growing footprint in the Capitol. And if neither family makes it to the general election? That would be the biggest story of all.

Further reading:

Family feud takes shape in working-class corner of LA

How domestic violence survivors could be given a moment to ‘exhale’


Assembly 68

In brief: 

Few districts have shifted as quickly from blood red to purple since the election of President Trump. Democrats think they’ve found the right candidate to unseat a vulnerable incumbent.

  • Swing seat
  • Dem-on-Dem battle
  • GOP-on-GOP battle
  • GOP incumbent in Clinton country

The district:

The district is all Orange County. That’s a fact of literal geography; from Lake Forest through north Irvine to Placentia, but it’s also a statement about its politics. 

Of all the hot race districts — Assembly, Senate or Congressional — none have seen a larger drop in the Republican share of registered voters since 2016. That doesn’t mean this former GOP bastion is now solidly blue; Democratic registration has ticked up only slightly. But the types of Republicans who live here — affluent, well-educated— have been less keen than other Republicans on Trump. Hillary Clinton beat him here by 5 points.

The incumbent:

Steven Choi’s story is similar to that of Phil Chen’s to the north. Both were first elected to the Legislature in 2016, running as traditional SoCal Republicans with passions for cutting taxes, regulations and crime. Both skated by relatively easily last year, despite shifting political terrain, thanks to challengers with little name ID or money. This year both have targets on their backs.

An immigrant from South Korea, Choi is a soft-spoken, buttoned-up presence in the Capitol — voting with Republicans most of the time, but speaking of the value of occasional bipartisanship to get things done. Not being a bomb-thrower has its drawbacks: He’s been a lackluster fundraiser.

The challengers:

If Democratic political consultants were building a candidate from scratch to win here, Melissa Fox would make a pretty good mockup.

A lawyer and small business owner who ran for Irvine city council on a pledge to improve public transportation and help veterans, she’s since branded herself as a pragmatic coalition builder. She also shares a profile with many of the disaffected Republicans whom Democrats are courting: an educated white woman.

The state party establishment has rallied around Fox, who began 2020 having raised six times more than Choi’s 2018 Democratic opponent. And she’s roughly doubled Choi’s haul.

Two other candidates — progressive Democrat Eugene Fields, spokesperson for the Council on American-Islamic Relations in Los Angeles, and Republican Benjamin Yu, a Lake Forest traffic and parking commissioner — are running.

The stakes:

This goal of the California Democratic 2020 cleanup crew will test whether a Republican can survive in an anti-Trump district that leans right.


Assembly 72

In brief:

The Assembly’s most moderate Republican eked out a win in 2018 and now has to defend himself from both left and right.

  • Swing seat
  • Dem-on-Dem battle
  • GOP-on-GOP battle
  • GOP incumbent in Clinton country

The district:

Stop us if you’ve heard this one before: A coastal Orange County district, once a GOP bastion, has become in the Trump era a virtual toss-up. In 2014, Republicans outnumbered Democrats by 10 points here. It’s down to 1 point. 

That may be due in part to Trump’s nativist immigration stance. The district is home to Little Saigon, one of the country’s largest population centers of Vietnamese Americans — many first-generation immigrants. But the story is more complicated. Once a reliable block of support for the anti-communist warriors in the California GOP, Little Saigon and its post-Cold War politics have been in flux since long before 2016, as younger Vietnamese Americans come of voting age.

The incumbent:

Tyler Diep emerged from the wreckage of the 2018 blue wave as the Assembly GOP’s lone freshman. He’s also the party’s most moderate, voting alongside Democrats to make it harder for companies to classify their gig workers as independent contractors, to place interest rate caps on consumer loans, and to force plastic bottle manufacturers to use more recycled materials. He’s also that rare thing among elected Republicans: an occasional but forceful critic of the Trump administration.

As a young immigrant of color (he was born in Vietnam in 1983) with the proven ability to raise a fair bit of money, Diep also represents a version of the GOP that some within the party would like to defend — and replicate. 

But not everyone. Some conservative Republicans in the district want Diep out. In late January, the Orange County Republican Party formally rescinded their endorsement of the incumbent citing in a press release “a series of votes incongruent with the Republican platform.”

The challengers:

On the last day to file, GOP former state Sen. Janet Nguyen announced she would be taking on Diep.

To his left, Democratic activists seem to have rallied around Diedre Thu-Ha Nguyen, a Garden Grove councilmember. The state Democratic Party has followed suit given her campaign contribution, more than $20,000.

The challenge from both Nguyens on opposite sides scrambles an important electoral calculus that undergirded Diep’s 2018 campaign. Then running against Josh Lowenthal, Diep relied on the support of much of the district’s large Vietnamese population. Another Democrat, Bijan Mohseni, is a recent UCLA law school graduate.

The stakes:

Losing this district (which as recently as 2018 was held by one of the state’s most conservative legislators) would be a stinging defeat for the GOP. Whether Diep can ward off the intra-party challenge from Janet Nguyen will also send a message about elected Republicans hoping to take a more moderate path.

There are also policy consequences. Occupying the center of the Legislature’s ideological spectrum, Diep sits significantly to the left of any of his Republican colleagues in the Assembly. Replacing him with either a Democrat or a more conservative Republican would widen the chasm between left and right.

Further reading:

It’s personal: An Orange County GOP lawmaker breaks his silence on Trump immigration policy

Fight or switch? One Republican legislator ditches GOP, the other gets primaried


Assembly 73

In brief: 

Under ordinary circumstances, Bill Brough wouldn’t have to be concerned about holding onto his beet-red district in coastal Orange County. But Bill Brough is not an ordinary incumbent. 

  • GOP-on-GOP battle
  • Scandal

The district:

Suburban, affluent Orange County may be ground zero of Trump-skeptical Republicanism and the waning fortunes for the state GOP. But this district — from the mansion-studded cliffs overlooking Capistrano beach to the Santa Ana foothills — is an exception. 

In this home to President Nixon’s “Western White House,” Republicans still outnumber Democrats by more than 12 points — a larger lead than any other Assembly, Senate or congressional district in the state but one. Trump beat Clinton here by more than 6 points.

The incumbent:

Bill Brough did not emerge from 2019 looking good. In June, two women accused the Dana Point Republican of sexual harassment and unwanted touching. The next month, the state’s ethics commission launched an investigation into his possible personal use of more than $190,000 in campaign cash. 

In an indication of the GOP establishment’s waning patience with Brough, party chair Jessica Patterson announced in September that Brough’s alleged sexual harassment was being investigated by the Legislature’s workforce conduct unit. The final blow came a few days later when the Orange County GOP called on Brough not to run again in 2020.

He’s characterized the complaints as political vendettas. 

The challengers:

With the party turning against Brough, this solidly GOP seat offers Republicans with state ambitions a rare opportunity: good odds of general election victory. 

Assumed frontrunner Laguna Niguel Mayor Laurie Davies has the support of the state California Republican Party, as well as the influential Lincoln Club of Orange County and the Orange County GOP. Ed Sachs, a Mission Vallejo city council member, has the backing of many area Republicans (including one of Brough’s accusers), and promises to vote against tax increases and for tougher sentencing guidelines. 

The state Democratic Party has endorsed real estate broker Scott Rheinhart, who lost to Brough last time. Best case scenario for Rheinhart: Both he and Brough manage to claim the top two spots so that he can face the scandal-plagued incumbent in November. But Rheinhart faces a challenge from fellow Democrat Chris Duncan, a homeland security attorney.

The stakes:

Absent some very irregular vote-splitting, it’s hard to see a Democrat winning this seat. But now that the GOP establishment has severed ties with Brough, his return to Sacramento would be awkward — and reelecting a man facing multiple sexual misconduct accusations probably isn’t the message that the state GOP wants to send to voters.

Any successor to Brough would replace one of the Assembly’s most consistent conservative votes.

Further reading:

O.C. GOP calls on Bill Brough to end reelection campaign

California lawmaker was accused of harassment. Now his campaign spending is under investigation


Assembly 74

In brief:

With a fresh candidate and more cash, Republicans want a mulligan on this OC race they lost in 2018 

  • Swing seat
  • GOP-on-GOP battle

The district:

When people who have never been hear the words “Orange County,” this district is probably what they think of: suburban surfside idyllic, much whiter and well-to-do than the region as a whole and, until recently, predictably Republican. 

The GOP still holds a slight registration advantage here, but in 2018, the district sent a Democrat to Sacramento for the first time since its boundaries were drawn. Voters here also voted narrowly for Democratic Gov. Gavin Newsom.

The incumbent:

Cottie Petrie-Norris was inspired to run after the election of President Trump. Ivy League-educated with a prior career in banking and marketing, she has been one of the Assembly’s more moderate members. Last time she won by 5 points, defeating a male opponent in the “year of the woman” who was also a lackluster fundraiser.

The challengers:

Two women have filed to take on Petrie-Norris: Newport Beach Mayor Diane Dixon and Deputy District Attorney Kelly Ernby. Both offer a distinctly Orange County brand of conservatism aimed at reducing regulations, reining in pension costs, fighting crime, but also protecting the coastal environment. 

Dixon’s campaign has more money and the backing from GOP leaders in both legislative chambers. 

But Ernby has endorsements from former District Attorney Tony Rackauckas and Assemblyman Phillip Chen. In her vocal opposition to “handouts for illegal immigrants” and mandatory vaccinations for children, she may garner support from the more anti-establishment right.

The stakes:

Republicans are hoping Petrie-Norris’ 2018 victory was just a fluke — a rare confluence of anti-incumbent fervor and a weak GOP candidate. The party is likely to aim a firehose of cash at this stretch of Orange County coastline, but Petrie-Norris hasn’t had much trouble raising a war chest of her own. Expect this to be a very, very expensive race. 

Further reading:

Political Landscape: Former Newport Beach councilman backs mayor’s opponent in Republican race for state Assembly


Assembly 76

In brief:

Republicans are trying to keep a formerly inevitable GOP hold from falling out of reach for good.

  • Swing seat

The district:

Usually political change is gradual, but the transformation here seemed to take place overnight on June 5, 2018. 

Thanks to a surplus of Republican candidates and a last-minute (false) allegation of sexual harassment against the top GOP candidate, two Democrats won the first and second positions here in 2018. In what had long been a solidly Republican district, not a single GOP candidate qualified.

The reality is more complex. As a patchwork of red and blue communities — Camp Pendleton Marine base to the north, Encinitas to the south — the district has been shedding registered Republicans for years. Clinton beat Trump in the area by more than 12 points, and Democrats already outnumber GOP voters here. 

As for that night on June 5, 2018? The two Democratic candidates together got more than 50% of the vote, meaning this was always going to be a tough one for the GOP to hold.

The incumbent:

Between the two Democrats running in 2018, Tasha Boerner Horvath was the more moderate. That endeared her to many mainstream Democratic party groups, who saw her as a better ideological fit for the district, as well as to business interests hoping to sideline the progressive in the race.

She has carried bipartisan-friendly bills that cater to her district (providing more state support for veteran college students, boosting electric vehicle charging stations, promoting cash prize equity at California surfing competitions). She’s also one of the biggest fundraisers in the state; Democratic legislators transferred roughly $200,000 to her campaign. 

The challengers:

Republican Melanie Burkholder, whose campaign biography boasts both a Ph.D in clinical Christian counseling and a half-decade stint as a Secret Service agent, lists her priorities as opposition to new taxes, boosting access to charter schools and pushing for a part-time Legislature. She’s endorsed by the state and San Diego County Republican parties. Michael Murray, an Iraq war veteran, is also running as a Republican.

The stakes:

The question facing the state GOP is whether to mount a pricey fight here or give up on what was only two years ago a solid Republican seat.

Further reading:

Boerner Horvath’s Colleagues Like Her So Much They Gave Her $200K

Judge rules Burkholder can’t use ‘doctor’ on ballot statement


Assembly 77

In brief:

The GOP is looking for payback against a candidate who defected from the Republicans to become a Democrat immediately after his squeaker of a reelection win last time.

  • Swing seat
  • Head-to-head
  • Party defector

The district:

Anchored in the residential neighborhoods of inland urban San Diego, the district gets more conservative the further north you go, as it ropes in Rancho Santa Fe and Poway. But the majority of voters have been favoring Democratic candidates after giving Clinton a 16-point edge over Trump. 

The incumbent:

Brian Maienschein was an exception to the district’s Democratic rule — until he opted not to be. After eking out a 600-vote win in November of 2018, Maienschein, who had been the Assembly’s most moderate Republican, became a Democrat two months later. “As the Republican Party has drifted further right, I – and my votes – have changed,” he said at the time, also blaming President Trump. Assembly Republican leader Marie Waldron labeled him a “turncoat.” As a Dem, Maienschein remains a moderate — but he’s no outlier within the party

The challenger:

June Yang Cutter, a civil litigator with a San Diego law firm, is Maienschein’s lone opponent. “A career politician who wanted to keep his job,” is how she described him. 

That’s probably a pretty good preview of her campaign’s messaging. Though Cutter does not have elected experience, she’s running on a traditional Republican platform. She’s likely to face a financial disadvantage: At the end of 2019, Maienschein had roughly $1 million on hand, cobbled together from new contributions and cash socked away from his last (Republican) campaign.

The stakes:

Maienschein’s switch to the Democratic Party was seen by many to be a prudent political calculation, given the shifting politics of the district. Republicans would love nothing more than to prove the conventional wisdom wrong. 

Further reading:

Still more evidence of the GOP collapse in California: A legislator switches parties

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