Republicans’ aggressive campaign to reclaim some of the California congressional seats they lost in 2018 saw mixed results in Tuesday’s primary, showing how difficult it might be to regain a foothold as the state trends toward Democrats and voters with no party preference.
Based on early results, Republican candidates are ahead in two of the seven House districts they lost in 2018, including former Rep. David Valadao, who is looking to make a comeback in the Central Valley’s 21st District, and Young Kim, a Korean American former member of the state Assembly, in Orange County’s 39th District.
But the GOP’s preferred candidates are poised to land on the November ballot in just three of the four districts the party has specifically targeted to win back. And in the three other of the seven lost districts, Republicans didn’t coalesce around a single candidate.
Of course all the tallies are only preliminary and could change dramatically in the coming weeks as hundreds of thousands of mail ballots are counted across the state.
In 2018, those mail-in ballots skewed heavily to Democrats, in many cases erasing early Republican margins and ultimately handing the seat to Democrats.
Republicans blamed their 2018 losses on Democrats’ strategy of collecting mail-in ballots from supporters, such as at nursing homes, and dropping them off at polling places, which is legal under a 2016 California law. At the time, Republicans criticized the practice as shady. But this time around they’ve acknowledged that they need to build their own operation in order to effectively compete and have vowed to do so.
The final results from Tuesday’s primary, once completed, will offer the first glimpse of how effective that GOP ballot collection campaign was.
University of the Pacific political scientist Keith Smith said the practice, sometimes known as ballot harvesting, normally works best when it is organized by a respected local group, like a church or community center. Historically it works best in groups that tend to vote for Democrats, he said.
“Outside of evangelical churches, I just don’t know where the groups are that could do that for Republican voters,” he said.
Republicans have vowed to improve their ground game for 2020. Early last year, the national Republican campaign arm hired a state director — Orange County native Sam Spencer — to lead its comeback operation. The state party has recruited 17,000 volunteers to build relationships with likely voters in their communities and collect their ballots in the fall.
Kyle Kondik, managing editor of Larry Sabato’s Crystal Ball at the University of Virginia Center for Politics, a nonpartisan election handicapper, warned against reading too much into Tuesday’s results, especially with so many ballots still to be counted.
“Some of the initial results may seem promising for Republicans right now, but let’s wait until all the ballots are in to make any assessments,” Kondik said.
The most competitive race in California will likely be Valadao’s bid to regain the seat he lost to Rep. T.J. Cox by just 862 votes.
On paper, the 21st District’s high Latino population and double-digit Democratic voter registration advantage has long made it look like it should be a Democratic stronghold, but Valadao easily held the district for years until Cox eked out a win in 2018.
“He’s got the name recognition and the relationships in the district where he might be able to pull it off,” Smith said. “I think he stands a chance of getting it back.”
And Cox’s first 14 months in Congress have been marked with reports by the Fresno Bee of a series of financial problems, including most recently that the Internal Revenue Service has taken out a nearly $145,000 lien against him for unpaid taxes.
In Orange County, Republicans appear to have gotten their top choices — both Korean American women — in two other competitive races.
In the 48th District, Democratic Rep. Harley Rouda of Laguna Beach looks likely to face Republican Orange County Supervisor Michelle Steel. And in the 39th District, early returns have Democratic Rep. Gil Cisneros of Yorba Linda trailing Kim, whom he beat in 2018 by 7,611 votes.
Steel and Kim are among Republicans’ top recruits this cycle and have demonstrated impressive fundraising abilities for challengers.
While fundraising isn’t a guarantee of support, it can scare away strong challengers. Two of the freshmen Democratic representatives in hotly contested districts, Rep. Josh Harder in the 10th District and Rep. Katie Porter in the 45th District, are both strong fundraisers. That’s dampened Republican enthusiasm to take them on, said Nathan Gonzales, publisher of Inside Elections, a nonpartisan campaign newsletter. Harder is one of the top freshman fundraisers in the country.
“It will be an expensive proposition for Republicans if they want to take him on,” Gonzales said.
Still, early returns show Harder with just a marginal lead against Ted Howze, a Turlock veterinarian who came in third in the 2018 primary.
Porter, who has drawn national attention for her aggressive witness questioning as a member of the powerful House Financial Services Committee, has nearly 50% of the counted votes, and early returns have her facing off against Mission Viejo Councilman Greg Raths.
Political watchers were expecting her rival would be Laguna Hills Mayor Donald Sedgwick, who raised the most money among the crowded Republican field and earned some big-name endorsements.
In the 49th District, Rep. Mike Levin faces Republican Brian Maryott, the former mayor of San Juan Capistrano and the eighth-place finisher in the 2018 primary.
The first test of whether Republicans can reclaim one of these seats comes in the special election to replace Democrat Katie Hill in the 25th District. Hill resigned in December amid allegations of sexual relationships with campaign and Capitol Hill staff, the later of which is a violation of House ethics rules. She denied the affair with a congressional staffer and blamed the allegations on her estranged husband.
Former Rep. Steve Knight, the Republican who was ousted in 2018 by Hill, is running third. Though results are still incomplete, Democratic Assemblywoman Christy Smith of Santa Clarita and Republican defense contractor Mike Garcia seemed poised for a May runoff to represent the northern suburbs of Los Angeles.
Times staff writer Jennifer Haberkorn in Washington contributed to this report.