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A ballot drop box at the Encinitas Chamber of Commerce office along Encinitas Boulevard. Voters vote in person or drop off their ballot for the March 5 primary at multiple locations in San Diego County. Photo by Laura Place
Democratic House candidates in some swing districts have large amounts of ground to make up if they want to overtake current Republican incumbents. Photo by Laura Place
California FocusOpinion

Elias: Primary bodes ill for swing-district Dems

It may have been because Democratic U.S. Senate candidate Adam Schiff spent big in this month’s primary election to make sure former Major League Baseball star Steve Garvey would be his opponent this fall.

It may have been because of a general lack of interest and enthusiasm among Democratic voters in California for that election, which featured no serious contests for president and only one statewide ballot proposition.

But one thing for sure: Democrats must do much better this fall than they did in the California primary if they expect to take any congressional seats from Republicans in their bid to win back control of the House of Representatives.

National Democrats have said for months those districts are their key to winning back the speaker’s gavel.

But in so-called swing district after swing district, primary election results left Democratic candidates with large amounts of ground to make up if they want to overtake current Republican incumbents.

Almost all these districts reside in Southern California and the Central Valley, with most of Northern California not looking up for grabs at all, not even where longtime incumbent Democrats are about to retire.

For several years, Democrats have believed they can topple Republican David Valadao from his 22nd district seat, mostly in Tulare and Kern counties. 

In the primary there, the serious contest was on the Democratic side, where former state Assemblyman Rudy Salas fought off a bid by state Sen. Melissa Hurtado for the right to a rematch with Valadao, who beat him two years ago.

But Salas starts the runoff campaign at a disadvantage. He and Hurtado combined for just 44% of the primary vote, while Valadao and another Republican netted 55%. 

So the Democrat will need to attract 7% more votes in the fall than Democrats totaled this spring.

It was worse for Democrats in the 27th District, centered on Santa Clarita, where Republican Mike Garcia seeks a third term from a district with a Democratic registration advantage. 

Garcia got 56% of the primary vote, while November rival Democrat George Whitesides pulled in just 32%.

Meanwhile, in Republican Michelle Steel’s 45th district in Orange County, she took 56% of the vote to autumn Democratic rival Derek Tran’s paltry 16%.

Then there’s the 47th District seat in another part of Orange County, held for six years by Democrat Katie Porter, a loser to Schiff and Garvey in the Senate run. 

Democratic Party officials backed state Sen. Dave Min against activist Joanna Weiss in the primary and he won a runoff slot, the two Democrats netting 45% of the vote. Meanwhile, Republican Scott Baugh and the No. 2 Republican drew a combined 47%.

Put it together and in virtually all the swing districts Democrats believe can give them control, they start the fall season at a disadvantage.

This does not outwardly faze Democratic officials, who mounted only a very light get-out-the-vote drive in the primary, saving their resources for the fall.

“Historically, the primary dynamic is not really predictive of general election outcomes in California,” said Dan Gottlieb, a spokesman for the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee. 

“Ultimately, there will be much more enthusiasm in the fall, when President Biden faces off again with Donald Trump. It’s that enthusiasm factor that brings out voters.”

He also said that because his party expects Schiff to have an easy time against Garvey in November, money that might otherwise have been spent on that race will wind up helping congressional candidates.

Democrats believe that while Schiff’s promoting Garvey in the primary to avoid facing off with Porter helped pump up the vote for down-ticket Republicans this spring, down-ticket Democrats expect to have far more resources later this year.

They will need that, plus a lot more enthusiasm than their voters showed this fall, to make up the margins Republicans enjoyed in those districts this spring. 

If they can’t summon these up and don’t add unexpected seats elsewhere, Democrats can expect Republicans to control the House for at least two more years.

Email Thomas Elias at [email protected]

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