LOS ANGELES (AP) — Early returns Tuesday showed closely matched contests in a string of competitive California U.S. House races that will play into control of Congress next year.
Republicans believe as many as five districts in the state could swing their way — enough to give the GOP the House gavel in a midterm-election year when voters typically punish the party that holds the White House. Should that happen, Republican Rep. Kevin McCarthy of Bakersfield would be in line to replace Speaker Nancy Pelosi of San Francisco.
For their part, Democrats are eager to claw back four House districts they surrendered in 2020 and hope to gain more to pad their dominance in the state congressional delegation. Republicans hold only 11 of the state’s 53 seats, which drops to 52 seats next year because California’s once-soaring population growth has stalled.
In the Central Valley, Rep. David Valadao, one of two Republicans who voted to impeach then-President Donald Trump who could be reelected, had an early edge over Democrat Rudy Salas with just a sprinkle of mail votes counted.
In a marquee race in Orange County, Democratic Rep. Katie Porter, a star of the party's progressive wing, jumped out in front of Republican Scott Baugh by double digits, according to an early count of mail-in ballots.
The stakes were spotlighted last week, when President Joe Biden traveled to Southern California to campaign on behalf of endangered Democratic Rep. Mike Levin, whose district straddles Orange and San Diego counties. It was Biden's second trip to California in less than three weeks. Meantime, Vice President Kamala Harris was in Los Angeles for a rally Monday to urge Democratic voters to get to the polls.
Levin opened up an early advantage over Maryott in early returns.
It wasn’t immediately clear if a day of rainy, windy weather across California dampened prospects for Republicans, who were expected to see a large Election Day turnout at polling places after former President Donald Trump’s repeated, unfounded attacks on the security of mail ballots and election integrity.
Overall in the House, there are 220 Democrats, 212 Republicans and three vacancies.
Competitive districts are something of a rarity in heavily Democratic California and cut against its national reputation as a liberal stronghold. But pockets of conservative strength remain, even as Democrats hold a nearly 2-to-1 statewide edge in voter registrations.
The contests are being fought over issues that are shaping races around the country.
Democrats are stressing abortion rights and labeling GOP rivals “extremists” in a party still largely under the sway of former President Donald Trump. Republican candidates are faulting Biden and a Democratic Congress for inflation, rising crime and the long-running homeless crisis.
The main battlegrounds are Orange County — a suburban expanse south of Los Angeles that was once a Republican stronghold but has become increasingly diverse and Democratic — and the Central Valley, an inland stretch sometimes called the nation’s salad bowl for its agricultural production.
The key races Tuesday:
TRUMP SUPPORTER SEEKS THIRD UPSET NORTH OF DEMOCRATIC LOS ANGELES
U.S. Rep. Mike Garcia is the only Republican member of Congress in the Los Angeles metropolitan area. Despite a Democratic tilt in his district, the former Navy combat pilot has won two consecutive elections, but the last two years ago was by just 333 votes.
He faces an even tougher challenge this year after his district – the 27th -- was redrawn and became more Democratic. Democrat Christy Smith is on the ballot for the third time, after two earlier losses to Garcia.
Garcia took a narrow edge in a partial tally of mail-in votes.
Smith, a former legislator, has spotlighted Garcia’s opposition to abortion rights and depicts him as out of step with the district: He was endorsed by then-President Trump in his 2020 contest, then joined House Republicans who rejected electoral votes from Arizona and Pennsylvania and opposed Trump’s impeachment after the Capitol insurrection.
Garcia highlights his military service and points to his vote supporting $2,000 stimulus checks during the pandemic as one example of his political independence. The district includes a large number of veterans and is home to defense industries, which could be an asset for Garcia.
A LONGTIME REPUBLICAN LOOKS TO HOLD ON IN CHANGED DISTRICT
Republican Rep. Ken Calvert has held his seat east of Los Angeles for nearly three decades. But the once-a-decade redrawing of district boundaries landed him in a battleground — the 41st District — where the registration is about equally split between Republicans and Democrats.
He’s a familiar name and the longest-serving Republican in the California congressional delegation. He has a fundraising advantage, but his support from former President Donald Trump poses complications in a district that now includes many transplanted Los Angeles residents and liberal Palm Springs, which has a large concentration of LGBTQ voters.
His home city, Corona, is the largest in the district, and he’s been touting his clout on the Appropriations Committee that enables him to bring home federal dollars for transportation and water projects.
He’s facing Democrat Will Rollins, a former federal prosecutor who is gay. Rollins calls Calvert an extremist and places safeguarding democracy and protecting abortion and LGBTQ rights among his priorities.
Rollins had a led in early tabulations.
SWING DISTRICT VOTERS GET SHARP CONTRAST IN CANDIDATES
Voters in coastal Orange County have a stark choice in selecting their next member of Congress.
Democratic Rep. Katie Porter, a national progressive star, is facing Republican Scott Baugh, a former state legislative leader and past head of the county GOP, in the 47th District that includes Huntington Beach and swaths of suburban terrain.
Porter grabbed an initial 15-point advantage in early returns.
Baugh has been pounding on economic issues, including inflation and gas prices. He recently tweeted a picture of a gas station sign with prices topping $7 a gallon and wrote, “Biden has done nothing to stop this madness.”
Porter is a prolific fundraiser and has pumped over $24 million into the contest, compared to about $2 million for Baugh. She’s been stressing abortion rights and her work as a consumer advocate, including fighting “abusive” credit card fees. Both candidates have depicted each other as extreme.
It was a shock in 2016 when then-Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton captured Orange County, a place long synonymous with conservative politics. The county that was once largely white and Republican has grown demographically diverse and increasingly Democratic. With Biden unpopular nationally, the race will test the depth of that transformation.
RESILIENT REPUBLICAN SEEKS ANOTHER SURPRISE IN FARM BELT
Republican Rep. David Valadao has persevered in a district with a strong Democratic tilt, and now is one of two Republicans who voted to impeach then-President Donald Trump who could be reelected.
Democrats hold a staggering 17-point registration edge in the 22nd District in the state’s farm belt. But Valadao has highlighted a bipartisan streak to win in left-leaning districts before. He held his seat from 2013 until January 2019, lost it for a term, then won it back in a 2020 rematch with Democrat T.J. Cox.
He’s facing Democrat Rudy Salas in a newly redrawn district. Salas, a state assemblyman who is considered a moderate, has been dueling with Valadao over gas taxes, the opioid overdose crisis and health care.
Valadao grabbed an early edge in incomplete returns.
IN CHALLENGING YEAR FOR DEMOCRATS, GOP TARGETS DISTRICT ON CALIFORNIA COAST
Democratic Rep. Mike Levin carried his election two years ago by 6 points. But in a challenging year for Democrats nationally, Republicans are looking for an upset in the coastal district that runs through Orange and San Diego counties.
Coastal California typically leans Democratic, but the race is seen as a toss-up. Democrats hold only a slight registration edge in the 49th District.
The risks for Levin were spotlighted in the final days of the campaign by the president, who visited in hopes of bolstering the incumbent's chances. Biden warned that a Republican Congress would reshape America by cutting back on health care and upending abortion rights and retirement security.
Republican candidate Brian Maryott, a businessman and former San Juan Capistrano mayor who was defeated by Levin in 2020, has been highlighting pocketbook issues at a time of high inflation, climbing interest rates and gas prices that have cleared $7 a gallon. He also says he will resist “fringe socialist interests.”
Levin had a double-digit margin over Maryott a partial tabulation.
Levin has focused heavily on veterans affairs, as well as climate change and the environment, in a district that straddles Marine Corps Base Camp Pendleton.
NEGATIVE ADS, FINGERPOINTING, SHAPE RACE FOR DISTRICT WITH ASIAN TILT
In the 45th District anchored in Orange County, Republican Rep. Michelle Steel, a South Korean immigrant looking for a second term in Congress, and Democrat Jay Chen, a Navy reservist and the son of immigrants from Taiwan, were closely matched in early, returns.
The candidates initially made inflation and hate crimes against Asian Americans key issues. But the race took an ugly turn and most of it has focused on accusation and recrimination.
Chen’s advertising depicts Steel as an extremist who would threaten abortion rights, while Republicans accused Chen of “racism” after he told supporters an “interpreter” was needed to understand Steel’s remarks, arguing that Chen was mocking her accented English. Chen has said he was referring to “convoluted talking points” that he said Steel uses to sidestep issues.
Steel also has distributed flyers depicting Chen as a communist sympathizer, while Chen has said his grandmother fled China to escape communist rule.
The race is being watched nationally for what it will say about the preferences of the Asian community.
The district was specifically drawn to give Asian Americans, who comprise the largest group in the district, a stronger voice on Capitol Hill. It has a Democratic registration edge and includes the nation’s largest Vietnamese community.
A TOSS-UP RACE TAKES SHAPE FOR OPEN SEAT IN CENTRAL VALLEY FARM BELT
A new district in the Central Valley has produced one of the closest contests this year.
The 13th District has a prominent Democratic tilt and a large Latino population, similar to other districts in the sprawling farm belt. But the most likely voters tend to be white, older, more affluent homeowners, while working-class voters, including many Latinos, are less consistent in getting to the polls.
That provides a possible opening for the GOP, despite the 14-point Democratic registration advantage.
In early returns, Democrat Adam Gray opened up a slim edge over Republican John Duarte.
Duarte, a businessman and major grape and almond farmer, has spotlighted water supplies for farmers in the drought-wracked state — a perennial issue in the Central Valley — along with addressing inflation and crime.
Gray is known as a moderate in the state Assembly. In a region heavily dependent on agriculture, he’s been critical of state water management and puts water and agriculture at the top of his issues list. He has also stressed his willingness to work across party lines, and promised to make improvements in public safety and education.
Michael R. Blood, The Associated Press