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Balance of power in House may hinge on state races

The balance of power in Congress will hinge partly on the outcome of California’s demolition-derby elections this year, with new voting districts and Tuesday’s “top-two” state primary attracting Washington’s attention and money.

An array of congressional races here is critical to the Democratic Party’s effort to regain control of the House. Party leaders hope the state will give them six of the 25 additional seats they need to wrest away the majority won by Republicans in 2010.

Feeding the Democrats’ optimism is the party’s 13 percentage point advantage in state voter registration and the absence of a top-ticket race to energize conservatives in November -- when both President Obama and Sen. Dianne Feinstein are expected to win handily here.

“The road to a Democratic majority in Congress runs right through California,” is the mantra repeatedly uttered by Rep. Steve Israel (D-N.Y.), the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee chairman.

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Israel predicts the party will pick up seats in the Inland Empire and Central Valley, areas once considered Republican havens. He also expects Democrats to receive strong backing from independent expenditure committees, unlike in 2010 when Republicans were the prime beneficiaries of outside spending. “Super PACs” and other outside groups already have poured more than $4.2 million into California congressional races overall.

Unlike presidential and U.S. Senate races, contests for congressional seats tend to be steeped in local politics and hometown alliances, swayed more by yard signs than by television advertising. On that level, Republican leaders are confident their candidates will do well in California -- and keep the GOP in control of the House.

Rep. Kevin McCarthy (R-Bakersfield) said that for many of the competitive races, the GOP recruited candidates with deep local roots who would appeal to moderate Democrats and independents as well as members of their own party. Those include Long Beach Councilman Gary DeLong, whose opponents include Democratic state Sen. Alan Lowenthal, also of Long Beach, in a crowded race.

McCarthy said the party is confident that Republican John Tavaglione, who has been elected to the nonpartisan Riverside County Board of Supervisors five times, also will do well against his toughest Democratic challenger, Mark Takano, a teacher and Riverside Community College trustee, despite the Democrats’ slight edge in voter registration.

“Our candidates can reach across the aisle. Not all of them. But in these competitive seats they can,” said McCarthy, a top member of the House Republican leadership.

McCarthy almost gleefully noted that the race attracting the most Democratic money so far is the slugfest between Democratic incumbents Howard Berman and Brad Sherman in the San Fernando Valley.

The Democratic Party’s House Majority PAC also has spent more than $700,000 in hopes that Assemblywoman Julia Brownley (D-Oak Park) will survive a stiff primary election challenge by independent Ventura County Supervisor Linda Parks. The race also includes Republican state Sen. Tony Strickland of Moorpark, a favorite to secure one of the two spots in the November election, and six other congressional hopefuls.

“You don’t pick up seats when you’re worried about getting your candidate through the primary,” McCarthy said.

Still, the Democrats are expected to pick up at least a few -- though it won’t be as easy as party leaders predict, said Nathan Gonzales, deputy editor of the nonpartisan Rothenberg Political Report, which follows congressional races.

“Usually, as handicappers, we could ignore California because there are so few seats at risk,” Gonzales said. “The Democrats have to do well in California if they have any chance to win a majority. But almost every seat is going to be hard” to win.

One race closely watched by both parties is in the Central Valley, where first-term incumbent Republican Jeff Denham of Turlock is being challenged by Democrat Jose Hernandez, a farmworker turned astronaut. Independent Chad Condit, son of former Rep. Gary Condit, is one of the two other candidates in the running.

Nearby, Republican Rep. Dan Lungren of Gold River is in a battle with Democrat Ami Bera, a physician from Elk Grove; the contest also includes a Libertarian and independent candidate, both with scant financial support.

“They’re stuck with having these Republican voting records that aren’t in line with any but a few districts in the state,” said John Burton, chairman of the California Democratic Party. “Those guys are going to have a very tough road.”

The main catalyst in producing California’s mad-scramble election season was the redrawing of political boundaries, done for the first time by a panel of citizens instead of politicians or the courts. Longtime incumbents find themselves vying for votes in unfamiliar territory or in districts merged with those of other House members.

“Republicans really hoped that when this independent redistricting commission created these districts, they would pick up some seats,” said political scientist Larry Gerston of San Jose State University. “Now the state could be more blue. Indigo. You can’t get any bluer than that.”

Republicans have been on the decline in California because of the divisive policies embraced by the party, including those involving immigration and gay rights, said GOP consultant Richard Grenell of Los Angeles, former foreign policy spokesman for Mitt Romney’s presidential campaign.

Republican candidates should stick to a message of limited government and economic prosperity, which appeals across party lines, he said.

“I think the president’s unpopularity, the high unemployment numbers, the dismal budget prospects in Sacramento -- all mean that the Democrats are scrambling to keep their coalitions together,” Grenell said.

“But that doesn’t mean Republicans are going to win,” he said. “Candidates who choose to be divisive are going to find themselves losing on election night.”

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phil.willon@latimes.com


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