At first glance, the surprise retirements of two entrenched and embattled Southern California Republican Congress members is terrific news for Democrats, in their desperate bid to seize control of the House in November’s midterm elections.
Well, watch what you wish for, Dems.
Quick update for those who’ve been focused on more existential matters of fire and flood: In recent weeks, Donald Trump’s overwhelming unpopularity in California inspired representatives Darrell Issa and Ed Royce, a pair of routinely reelected fixtures amid the state’s Republican small congressional delegation, to call it quits.
Both longtime incumbents, from San Diego and Orange County, were key targets in an aggressive national Democratic strategy to land the House by ousting GOP members in districts Hillary Clinton won in 2016.
In a political paradox, however, California’s top-two primary rules now may make it less likely that Democrats will prevail for the seats. Because so many galvanized party wannabes are signing up to run, chances now increase that newly minted Republicans could finish one-two in the primaries, freezing the Dems out come fall runoffs.
“Prior to the retirement announcements, Democrats have been pounding for months on Royce and Issa, yoking the two vulnerable Republicans to a president loathed in this heavily Democratic state,” noted the redoubtable political reporter David Siders. “But with no GOP incumbent in either race — and with Democratic candidates threatening to splinter their party’s share of the vote — Democrats now face the prospect of getting scrubbed entirely from the November ballot.”
So motivated are Democrats by their contempt for Trump (66-to-30 percent disapproval in a recent UC Berkeley poll) and his radical right-wing policies, in fact, that nearly 70 party contenders are campaigning in the 14 GOP-held districts in the state — dozens more than ran for those seats in the past three congressional elections combined. In Royce’s 39th District alone, seven viable Democrats are battling each other for party voters, while four already are seeking Issa’s seat in the 49th.
Although Clinton defeated Trump in presidential balloting in the districts, Republicans maintain an edge in voter registration — a natural advantage for non-incumbent local GOP candidates not tied directly to Trump, in a field packed with Democrats.
A notable example of the kind of Republican profile that could prevail despite anti-Trump sentiment: Assemblymember Rocky Chávez, whose relatively moderate positions on taxes, immigration, and offshore drilling depart from those of our 46 percent 45th president, and who wasted no time filing for Issa’s seat about 12 seconds after the nine-term incumbent called it quits.
Not only the seats of Issa and Royce but also those of five other pro-Clinton Republican House members in Orange County and the Central Valley are critical to Dem hopes of flipping 24 GOP seats nationally to win the House — and a fragment of Beltway power.
In midterm elections, Democratic performance often wanes because of low turnout by their voters, compared to the GOP. It would be a cruel irony if Democrats fail in November because of an abundance of enthusiasm within their party.
Election updates. The top-two primary may hinder Dems in some local races, but it doesn’t hurt at all in statewide contests.
Two party worthies, Lieutenant Governor Gavin Newsom and former L.A. mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, according to both Berkeley’s Institute of Governmental Studies poll and the Public Policy Institute of California survey, are running well ahead of Republican contenders John Cox and Travis Allen, the latter of whom hold single-digit percentages among likely voters.
This sets up scenarios for an all-Democrat runoff in November between Newsom, campaigning as the tribune of the party’s left wing, and the more pro-business Villaraigosa, who’s urging Latinos to make history by electing him.
In the U.S. Senate race, Dianne Feinstein holds a comfortable lead over State Senate President Kevin de León.
He hopes to capitalize on anti-Trump fever, portraying the moderate incumbent as wishy-washy. However, his institutional connections to Sacramento’s simmering sex harassment scandal will make it tougher to challenge a pioneering woman pol in a #MeToo election year.