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.

Of the nine Senate seats likely to be competitive this year, only one is a potential pick-up for Republicans. The rest are GOP-held swing seats or in safe Democratic terrain. 

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.

Senate 5

In brief:

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

As a moderate Central Valley Democrat prepares to step down, an internecine, head-spinning battle to take her place has broken out.

The district:

The rules of California electoral politics don’t always apply in the Central Valley. Here registered Democrats often outnumber Republicans, but Republicans regularly win. In this Stockton-centered district in particular, personal allegiances and loyalties are often just as important as party in determining who votes with whom. 

But the district has changed more than most in recent years, rendering it more predictably blue. The Republican share of the electorate has fallen off a cliff. Bay Area refugees (many of whom still work in and around San Francisco) have flocked over the hills in search of cheaper housing. That has changed the economy, the culture, the traffic and, yes, the politics here. 

The incumbent:

Cathleen Galgiani, one of the state’s most moderate senators, has voted pretty reliably with her party on labor and LGBT issues, but been more unpredictable on environmental and criminal justice legislation. After three terms in the Assembly and two in the Senate, she’s termed out.

The candidates:

Attention has focused on two Democrats: Assemblywoman Susan Eggman, a progressive hoping to switch chambers, and Mani Grewal, a Modesto city councilmember and local real estate mogul. 

Eggman has repeatedly authored legislation to set up supervised injection sites for intravenous drug users and was the only state legislator from the Central Valley to support a bill that would have locked California’s stringent environmental legislation in place, over the objections of agricultural interests. 

In contrast, Grewal describes himself as the “different Democrat” — one who supports capital punishment and has the backing of agricultural and law enforcement groups, and Galgiani. 

Grewal’s effort to distinguish himself from Eggman backfired in the late summer of 2019 when his campaign ran an ad suggesting that the lesbian assemblywoman supported a bill that would protect child molesters. After Equality California, the sponsor of the bill, cried foul, Grewal lost the endorsement of the Legislature’s Asian Pacific Islander caucus. 

The GOP vote will be split three ways. State party-endorsed Jesús Andrade is a relative moderate. Jim Ridenour, ex-mayor of Modesto, and Kathleen Garcia, a Stockton school board trustee who was a registered Democrat until a few months ago, are quietly running. But by siphoning off enough GOP votes from Andrade, they could enable the Democrats to secure top-two spots.

In January, the Andrade campaign claimed that Ridenour and Garcia were “plants” of the Grewal campaign, an accusation that Grewal called “ridiculous.”

The stakes:

Whether one of the most moderate lawmakers in the Senate is replaced by a progressive, a moderate or a Republican will determine where the Legislator’s political center lies in 2021. Plus, if Grewal wins, he would be the Legislature’s first Sikh.

Further reading:

Shenanigans? Under California’s primary rules, some campaigns boggle the mind

California candidate’s false claim on gay sex bill costs him an endorsement


Senate 7

In brief:

A centrist East Bay Democrat loathed by labor faces a challenge from within his own party.

  • Dem-on-Dem battle

The district:

East of the Berkeley and Oakland hills, it’s still a Bay Area district and accordingly blue. But the typical Democrat differs from those living Bayside. The demographics here are majority non-Latino white. And the suburban district, host to the corporate headquarters of Chevron, has the third-highest median income in the state.

The incumbent:

Democrat Steve Glazer won his first campaign touting his opposition to public transportation strikes and his support from the Chamber of Commerce. His relationship with organized labor hasn’t improved since. Though Glazer votes with the rest of his caucus on most issues, when it comes to the touchiest subjects that define industrial relations — teacher tenure laws, charter school legislation, public pension obligations — he skews right.  

That’s never seemed to hurt him in his district, where he’s won twice by healthy margins. But it has put Glazer at odds with the Democratic Party, and this year he failed to get its endorsement.

The challengers:

Progressive Democrat Marisol Rubio is a disability rights activist who sits on the Contra Costa Democratic Party Central Committee. So far, she has the backing of the California Federation of Teachers and the California School Employees Association. Many organized labor groups would love nothing more than to see Glazer leave Sacramento.

Community volunteer Julie Mobley is running as a Republican.

The stakes:

Steve Glazer has a ton of money to spend, has plenty of name recognition in his district, and has long presented himself as an independent-minded pragmatist who fits the centrism of his district. This race will be a test of just how much the district has changed in the Trump era — and just how much ideological diversity can fit inside the California Democratic Party’s tent.

Further reading:

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


Senate 13

In brief: The state’s richest Senate district has no shortage of eager candidates with war chests ready to do battle for this seat.

  • Open seat
  • Dem-on-Dem battle

The district:

Google, Oracle, Stanford and much of the Bay Area gentry class call this stretch of the San Francisco peninsula home. As the richest district in the state (by median income) and second most educated (more than half the population has a college degree), it’s also overwhelmingly Democratic. In 2016, the incumbent state senator won by more than 50 points and Hillary Clinton topped Donald Trump by nearly 60.

The incumbent:

Jerry Hill, one of PG&E’s sharpest critics, is stepping down. A one-time Republican whose early legislative career was fueled by funding from some of the largest California business interests, Hill now sits in the ideological middle of his fellow Democrats. 

The candidates:

Seven candidates have piled in — some with plenty of money to spend. 

The person with the most at the moment is Josh Becker, founder of a philanthropic fund that supports nonprofits. His time spent in Bay Area do-gooder circles has paid off for Becker, who is one of the few legislative candidates to have the formal backing of Gov. Gavin Newsom. He’s also raised a fair amount from Silicon Valley’s biggest venture capitalists.

Sally Lieber, a former member of the Assembly, is running to Becker’s left with the backing of worker rights icon Dolores Huerta. Shelly Masur, on the Redwood City Council, is backed by many trades unions, the California Federation of Teachers and San Francisco state Sen. Scott Wiener, one of the most vocal pro-housing development voices in Sacramento. In the inevitable debate over housing, Lieber and Masur are most receptive to the idea of empowering the state to require that local governments zone for more housing. 

Other Dems: Michael Brownrigg, a Burlingame city councilman and former mayor running, and Anne Oliva, a Realtor and Milbrae city councilmember.

The lone Republican: engineering consultant Alexander Glew. Add to the list Green Party activist David Dailey and Libertarian and California secessionist John Webster. 

The stakes:

It’s easy enough to assume that a Democrat will win this seat. The question is: which kind? Will one of the Senate’s elder statesmen be replaced with a like-minded moderate or a fiery progressive? Someone who will defend local control over housing policy at all costs or is willing to challenge the suburban character of the district? The sheer number of Democrats competing against a single Republican means only one Democrat may make it past March 3.

Further reading:

CA Senate candidates talk housing during Sunnyvale forum

Senate candidates clash over housing policies, PG&E’s future at Palo Alto forum


Senate 15

In brief: 

Another crowded field of Democrats in an open Bay Area seat is complicated by a well-known independent. 

  • Open seat
  • Dem-on-Dem battle
  • Party defector

The district:

Spanning the Santa Clara Valley from One Infinity Loop in Cupertino to East San Jose, it contains downtown San Jose, affluent suburbs, Little Saigon, and the largest Sikh temple in the United States.

But it is less diverse is its politics. Nearly half of voters here are registered Democrats, while Republicans represent fewer than 1-in-5. A Republican have never represented the district. 

The incumbent:

Jim Beall has been in elected office since his late 20s. Now that he’s termed out — after a career characterized by his authorship of a 2017 bill to raise the gas tax, and support for better mental health services — he leaves a vacuum in one of the state’s most racially diverse, wealthy but also economically unequal districts. 

The candidates:

There is no shortage of name recognition among the three Democrats running to replace Beall. 

Dave Cortese has been on the Santa Clara County Board of Supervisors since 2008, ran for San Jose mayor in 2014 with the support of organized labor, and touts his opposition to the public pension “reform” championed by current mayor Sam Liccardo. Cortese has the backing of the state party. 

Also running is former Assemblywoman Nora Campos, who tried to unseat Beall in 2016. That race turned into an eye-poppingly expensive proxy battle between oil companies, who backed the more business-friendly Campos, and monied environmentalists such as Tom Steyer.

Ann Ravel was an Obama appointee to the Federal Elections Commission. She stepped down within a few weeks of President Trump’s inauguration, decrying in her resignation letter the “unlimited, often dark money” channeled into political campaigns. Now she’s running on her pro-transparency bonafides. 

A Republican isn’t likely to win here, but a former Republican might. Johnny Khamis is another known quantity in the district. A San Jose city councilman, he quit the GOP in 2018 over Trump’s immigration policy, and is running as an independent.

Neither of the two GOP contenders, Ken Del Valle nor Robert Howell, has mounted much of a campaign.

The stakes:

If the historical trend holds, in the March primary two Democrats will snag the top two spots. That will likely set up an intraparty squabble that will play out through November, either along ideological or factional lines.

But the entry of Khamis could alter that script. His candidacy will also be a test case of whether a label-free center-right candidate can succeed in a district where a Republican can’t.

Further reading:

Poll: San Jose Councilmember Johnny Khamis leads Senate race


Senate 21

In brief: 

A moderate Republican incumbent tries to hold on to his rapidly changing district, and one of the last red bastions of Los Angeles County.

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

The district:

Anchored by its largest population center in Santa Clarita, this district follows the Santa Clara river before spreading out into Lancaster, Palmdale and east to Victorville. The population growth in these latter high desert communities — fueled by former Angelenos seeking cheaper, more suburban and safer neighborhoods — has shifted the voter registration numbers ever bluer.

But while Democrats have outnumbered Republicans here since 2014, GOP and GOP-inclined voters have always punched above their weight, voting at higher rates and regularly backing Republicans for Congress, state Senate, Assembly and governor. The exception: Clinton outpolled Trump here by 3 points.

The incumbent:

Scott Wilk is a known entity. Starting as a community college trustee in 2006, he represented the area in the Assembly before the Senate. His voting record is what you might expect from a Republican in a Clinton-backing purple district. He has occasionally broken with his party on gun control and business regulations. 

The challengers:

Wilk avoided a challenge from his own party. That means the four Democrats in the race will be scrambling for a second-place spot to face him in November.

Kipp Mueller’s career as a labor lawyer has made him a union favorite: He’s backed by both the Los Angeles County Labor Federation and the Service Employees International Union, plus the state party. But the 33 year old only moved to Santa Clarita from downtown Los Angeles in the spring of 2019 — making it easy for opponents to label him a carpetbagger.

Other Democrats in the race include immigration attorney Warren Heaton, who describes himself as more moderate than Mueller; Dana LaMon, a retired judge turned motivational speaker; and Steve Hill, a Marine veteran who ran for the seat in 2016 and is also a stand-up comedian and member of the Satanic Temple.

The stakes:

In 2012, Republican Steve Knight won this seat by nearly 15 points. In 2016, Wilk won by 6. With the help of anti-Trump turnout, a ton of volunteer energy from overlapping congressional and Assembly races ,and the rapidly changing demographics of Antelope Valley, Democrats think 2020 might be their opportunity to replace one of the GOP’s most moderate members.

Further reading:

Meet two very different Democrats who aim to complete a political trifecta against LA-area Sen. Scott Wilk

He’s an Atheist. A Satanist. And He Wants Your Vote


Senate 23

In brief:

An open seat in the swiftly evolving Inland Empire gives Republicans an opportunity to recalibrate, and Democrats a once-unthinkable chance to win.

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

The district:

As recently as 2016, state Democrats hardly bothered to show up in this stretch of the San Bernardino Valley. But after a decades-long decline in GOP registration numbers, the inevitable happened in 2018: The number of Democrats surpassed Republicans. 

Forming a bracket around the denser bits of Riverside, this district probably still leans conservative. President Trump narrowly outpolled Clinton in 2016. But this year, Republican candidates will have to do something they aren’t used to doing here: Put up a fight.

The incumbent:

Mike Morrell won his last race by 14 points and is one of the Capitol’s most reliably conservative votes. Ineligible to run again, he vacates a district that has changed dramatically even since 2016, when Morrell beat his Democratic opponent by double digits.

The challengers:

Many elected Republicans hoping to present a unified front back Rosilicie Ochoa Bogh. The daughter of Mexican immigrants, she has worked as a field representative for Assemblyman Chad Mayes, a moderate who recently defected from the party. Bogh is endorsed by every Republican state senator, including Morrell, and the California Republican Party.

Lloyd White, now on the Beaumont City Council, is running as the only GOP contender with local government experience. Christina Puraci, a Romanian immigrant who’s president of the Redland Unified School District’s board, is also running under the GOP label. All three have trumpeted their pragmatism and their willingness to work with Democrats.

The Democrats are split in a contest that could be framed as insider-versus-outsider. Abigail Medina, who nearly beat former GOP Assemblyman Marc Steinnorth in 2016, is the City of San Bernardino school board president and has the backing of many of the state’s top elected officials. Kris Goodfellow is a former journalist who became a small business owner, and is a newcomer to elected politics. Nevertheless, she won the endorsement of the state party and some of California’s largest unions. 

The stakes:

An open seat gives the voters here a chance to hit the ideological reset button, if they choose to. 

Further reading:

Sen. Mike Morrell’s tenure in state legislator offers a lesson on term limits


Senate 28

In brief:

A special election in the Temecula area likely gives Democrats one chance on March 3 to snatch this once-blood-red district from Republicans.

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

The district: 

Rounding out the bottom of the San Bernardino Valley before running east through Palm Spring all the way to the Nevada border, this is one of the state’s fastest-growing regions. Between 2011 and 2017, the district added more than 75,000 people — a higher growth rate than any other district but one. 

The demographic changes, driven by coastal housing prices, has coincided with an equally dramatic political shift. In 2014, registered Republicans outnumbered Democrats by 9 points. Now the two groups are almost even. 

The incumbent:

Jeff Stone was one of the most ardent (and verbose) conservatives in Sacramento before he stepped down in November to become a regional representative to the Labor Department under President Trump. That presented a double-edged sword for progressives: Stone’s new federal job is a nightmare for organized labor, but his Senate departure has given Democrats a shot at nabbing a district that otherwise wouldn’t have been up for election until 2022. 

The challengers:

Joy Silver of Palm Springs, who helped run an assisted-living home for LGBT seniors before opting to run for office after the election of President Trump, is the most familiar face from the Democratic camp. She narrowly lost to Stone in 2018 and has been endorsed by the party.

Silver seemed to have the Democratic field all to herself until early January when Elizabeth Romero, a UC Riverside vice chancellor and a Riverside County Board of Education member, hopped in. Romero is running as a relative centrist and highlights her elected experience compared to Silver. Anna Nevenic, a nurse who has already unsuccessfully run for office four times, is also in the race.

Republicans have largely gravitated to Melissa Melendez, an impassioned conservative Assemblywoman from this district’s populous western corner. Stone ultimately endorsed her, and so has the California Republican Party.

John Schwab, a real estate broker and Marine veteran from Hemet, is also running as a Republican.

The stakes:

Special elections, called when an incumbent steps down mid-term, are governed by a different set of rules. After the March 3 primary, if a candidate manages to get at least 50% of the vote, he or she will be declared the winner. Otherwise, there will be a runoff on May 12. Given the high turnout projected for March 3, when Democrats will be voting in a contested presidential primary, an outright March 3 victory is the Democrat’s best chance. But with three Democrats in the race, that’s a long-shot.

Further reading:

Lake Elsinore Assemblywoman Melissa Melendez to run for state Senate

Basketball, bill failures, errant judges and $4-a-gallon gasoline


Senate 29

In brief:

This is a rematch of a rematch — and likely to be the most closely watched and exceedingly expensive senate campaigns in the state. It’s also a chance for Democrats to get even for their biggest loss in 2018. 

  • Swing seat
  • Rematch
  • GOP incumbent in Clinton country

The district:

From western Anaheim to Chino Hills, this largely suburban district that cuts across three counties saw the GOP’s voter registration advantage disappear in the months leading up to the 2016 presidential election. A Republican hasn’t won in a regularly scheduled election here since.

But in 2018, Democratic state Sen. Josh Newman was recalled, ostensibly over his support for a state gas tax increase. So while Democrats have a narrow advantage, this is hardly a progressive stronghold. 

The incumbent:

Ling-Ling Chang, the only Asian American woman in the state Legislature, lost this seat before she won it. In 2016, the one-term Assemblywoman ran against Newman and lost by fewer than 2,500 votes. When Newman was recalled in June 2018, Chang beat out five challengers to replace him. But in a low turnout, winner-take-all election, she won with just over 50,000 votes — a third as many votes as Newman won the year before. 

This has all made Chang’s future representation of this politically mixed senate district decidedly uncertain. She has governed accordingly. By some measures, she is the most moderate Republican in the Senate. 

The challengers:

With the help of high turnout and the ever-worsening voter registration numbers for the local GOP, Newman hopes to be the first state legislator to return to the Capitol after being recalled.  

An advocate for veterans with a penchant for weird election tactics (he spent much of the 2016 campaign in a bear suit), Newman was recalled in the summer of 2018. He wasn’t the author of the gas tax hike, but as the most vulnerable Senate Democrat, he was a top target for Republicans and anti-tax advocates.

Two former candidates are also running. Joseph Cho, the former mayor of Cerritos, was the top Democratic in the 2018 recall race. George Shen, a Republican who until recently managed a biofuel company, earned 5% of the vote.

The stakes:

After a nail-biter in 2016 and a wildly contentious recall in 2018, it’s a top priority for both parties.

Further reading:

Nuclear option: Why politicians are warily watching the recall election of Sen. Josh Newman


Senate 37

In brief: 

After evading the 2018 blue wave, this district will be one of the Democratic Party’s prime targets — and the site of a likely bitter primary battle.

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

The district:

Split almost entirely between two longtime GOP districts that flipped blue in the 2018 election, this senate seat — which holds elections every four years — is up now. As a district where voters backed Clinton over Trump by a healthy margin and where Republicans hold only a narrow lead of registered voters, it’s a tempting target for Democrats.

Running from the Anaheim hills through Irvine down to Huntington and Newport Beaches, it’s one of the more affluent and well-educated enclaves of the state.

The incumbent:

John Moorlach has been a presence in Orange County politics since running for treasurer-tax collector in the mid-1990s and warning of financial ruin. When the county did eventually go bankrupt, Moorlach embraced the image of fiscal Nostradamus. A reliable conservative vote in the Senate on most issues, Moorlach, a certified public accountant, focuses on fiscal matters, where he rails against unchecked public pension debts and the excesses of state spending.

The challengers:

Two Democrats hope to unseat Moorlach. But they have to deal with one another. 

Dave Min, a UC Irvine law professor, is running against Costa Mesa Mayor Katrina Foley. The contest has already heated up, but Min is used to that. In 2018, he ran for the overlapping congressional seat currently held by Congresswoman Katie Porter. Despite getting the state party endorsement after a raucous convention battle, he failed to make it into the top two. 

This year, he’s running as a more progressive alternative to Foley — an interesting changing of roles given that he ran as a centrist against Porter. Foley’s campaign has characterized Min as an aspiring politician without relevant experience. She’s also argued that her more moderate brand of politics is a better fit for the district.

Neither was endorsed by the state party this year. Other left-of-center forces have largely split between the two. Many of the trades unions, Emily’s List and the state Democratic Legislative Women’s Caucus are backing Foley. The state’s teachers unions, Equality California and the League of Conservation Voters back Min.

The stakes:

This is one of only two remaining red splotches of coastal California where Democrats hope to finish up what the blue wave started in 2018. For Republicans, it’s a vital toehold in an area they once dominated — and it’s held by one of their most seasoned legislative advocates on fiscal issues. 

Further reading:

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

California Primary 2020 Voter Guide

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Ben Christopher

Ben covers California politics and elections. Prior to that, he was a contributing writer for CalMatters reporting on the state's economy and budget. Based out of the San Francisco Bay Area, he has written...