By MICHAEL R. BLOOD
AP political writer
LOS ANGELES (AP) — Tuesday’s California primary will set the stage for a November election where a handful of U.S. House seats in the Los Angeles and Central Valley area will help determine which party controls Congress.
Democrats dominate California politics, but the Republican Party retains pockets of strength in a sprinkling of House districts that will feature among the nation’s flagship elections. Republicans only need to capture a handful of seats nationally to grab a majority from Democrats and Speaker Nancy Pelosi of San Francisco.
Midterm elections usually punish the party in the White House and polls show declining popularity for Democratic President Joe Biden. Voters have been angered by inflation, rising crime, abortion rights and other cultural disputes at home and conflicts abroad.
While no incumbent appears to be in big trouble in the California primary, that could be a different story come November. The main battlegrounds are Orange County, a former conservative stronghold southeast of Los Angeles that has become increasingly diverse and Democratic, and the Central Valley, a vast inland swath sometimes called the country’s salad bowl for its immense agricultural production.
House Republican Leader Kevin McCarthy, of the Central Valley town of Bakersfield, could become the next speaker if the GOP flips enough seats.
Former President Donald Trump has held major contests in other states but has stayed away from heavily Democratic California, though some GOP candidates have openly embraced it in hopes of tapping into the remnants from his conservative base.
Democrats are seeking to reclaim four seats the party lost in 2020. Additionally, a special runoff is being held to fill the vacant seat of former Republican Rep. Devin Nunes, who stepped down to run Trump’s media company. . The seat is expected to remain under Republican control.
Despite the unsettling national climate for Democrats, the California Republican Party has been drifting toward obscurity for years. The GOP holds just 10 of the state’s 53 House seats — with Nunes’ vacancy — and represents less than 24% of registered voters statewide. California will drop to 52 House seats next year because its once-booming population growth has stalled.
An overview of the key races:
TRUMP’S IMPEACHMENT VOTE BRINGS UNCERTAINTY
Representative David Valadao is a survivor. Despite running in a heavily Democratic and largely Latino district in the Central Valley, the Republican with a bipartisan streak held his seat from 2013 to January 2019, lost it for one term, then won it back in of a 2020 rematch with Democrat TJ Cox.
His newly drawn district, 22, has a similar strong Democratic slant. An early challenge will be eliciting lingering resentment from some conservatives over his vote to send articles of impeachment to the Senate that blamed Trump for the Jan. 6 Capitol insurrection.
Rival Republican Chris Mathys, a staunch Trump supporter, promises to oust Valadao for that vote. But Trump has not made a significant commitment to the race, and Valadao, a dairy farmer, has the support of McCarthy, who is close to Trump, and the endorsement of the state’s GOP.
If he survives the primary, Valadao is expected to face Congressman Rudy Salas, a moderate Democrat for five terms.
A REPUBLICAN WHO SEEK TO DEFY THE ODDS – AGAIN
Rep. Mike Garcia is an anomaly in the Los Angeles metro area: a Republican congressman. He holds the last House seat held by the GOP anchored in heavily Democratic Los Angeles County, which he retained in 2020 by just 333 votes.
The former Navy fighter pilot was endorsed by Trump in 2020. He joined House Republicans who tried to throw out electoral votes from Arizona and Pennsylvania and opposed Trump’s impeachment after the Capitol insurrection.
Garcia is seeking reelection in the new 27th District, which overlaps with some of his old ground but has a stronger Democratic slant. Several Democrats are on the ballot, including Christy Smith, a former lawmaker who lost to Garcia in 2020, and Quaye Quartey, a retired Navy intelligence officer.
Garcia points to her vote for $2,000 stimulus checks as an example of her political independence. Democrats have a nearly 12-point registration advantage, but Garcia’s local roots, military service and Latino surname are formidable assets.
PROGRESSIVE STAR BATTLES IN FORMER “REAGAN COUNTRY”
Southern California’s 47th District, which includes Huntington Beach and other famous surf spots, was once considered “Reagan country” for its conservative leanings and ties to former Republican President Ronald Reagan. But that has changed, like much of California, and the Orange County district is roughly evenly split between Democrats and Republicans.
The district’s boundaries stretch inland to include Irvine, the hometown of Democratic Rep. Katie Porter, a star of the party’s progressive wing. His main challenger is Republican Scott Baugh, a former state legislative leader and former county GOP leader.
About two-thirds of voters in the new district are new to Porter, and his challenge is to enlist them as supporters. She comes with an advantage: nearly $19 million in the bank, making her one of the most prolific fundraisers in Congress.
Baugh attacked her as a “radical” in the mold of Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York, a self-proclaimed Democratic socialist. Democrats can be expected to highlight a $47,900 civil fine that Baugh agreed to pay in 1999 while in the Legislature for campaign finance violations.
A RIVALRY ON THE RIGHT
Rep. Young Kim, a South Korean immigrant and former lawmaker, was among four California Republicans to win Democratic seats in 2020. Running in the GOP-leaning 40th district this year, it appeared she had a relatively open path. to re-election.
But his campaign and his GOP allies recently invested more than $1 million in ads to blunt the trajectory of his Republican rival Greg Raths, a retired Marine colonel and Trump booster. It appeared to be a precautionary measure, with Kim being endorsed by the state GOP and holding a large fundraising advantage over Raths.
The ads also look like a counterbalance to a decision by the only Democrat on the ballot, doctor Asif Mahmood, who ran ads highlighting Raths’ conservative credentials. Mahmood appears to be following a common strategy in trying to elevate a primary rival – in this case Raths – who would likely be easier to beat in the general election.
SHOOT NO PUNCH IN VARIOUS DISTRICT
The 45th district anchored in Orange County has a slight Democratic registration advantage and includes the largest Vietnamese American community in the country. The seat was specifically designed to give Asian Americans, who are the district’s largest group, a stronger voice in Congress.
It is in this diverse neighborhood that Republican Rep. Michelle Steel, a South Korean immigrant, hopes to win another term in Congress, despite living in a nearby neighborhood. So far, it’s been a furious, sometimes nasty fight with Democrat Jay Chen, his likely opponent in the November runoff who also lives just outside the district.
Republicans accused Chen of “racism” after telling his supporters that an “interpreter” was needed to understand Steel’s remarks, arguing that Chen was making fun of his accented English. Chen, the son of immigrants from Taiwan, said his remarks were politically twisted and that he was referring to “convoluted talking points” that he says Steel uses to circumvent issues, not his accent.
GOP SEE POTENTIAL PICKUP
The 49th District runs through Orange and San Diego counties and has only a slight Democratic registration advantage. Representative Mike Levin, a Democrat, is seeking another term after first winning the seat in 2018.
As an incumbent, he has an advantage, but Republicans see an opening with struggling Democrats nationwide and many Californians unhappy with homelessness and crime.
Levin is expected to advance to the November second round. A handful of Republicans are vying for the slot to challenge him in November, including several with political experience: Orange County Supervisor Lisa Bartlett; Oceanside adviser Christopher Rodriguez; and former San Juan Capistrano mayor and businessman Brian Maryott, who was defeated by Levin in 2020 and has the state’s GOP endorsement.
In a district that straddles Camp Pendleton, Levin has focused heavily on veterans affairs, as well as climate change and the environment.