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Elections 2022: Democrat Asif Mahmood focuses on abortion — but not Young Kim

In the first TV ad of his campaign to represent the 40th Congressional District, Democratic challenger Asif Mahmood focuses on abortion access, making it clear he believes that resisting efforts to overturn Roe v. Wade is a winning issue even in a district where Republican voters outnumber Democrats by more than 5 points.

But instead of focusing on GOP incumbent Young Kim — who opposes abortion rights and who most forecasters predict will narrowly win the race — Mahmood instead targets GOP challenger Greg Raths of Mission Viejo, calling him “too right-wing for Orange County.”

“We expect Raths to advance in June,” said Nathan Click, spokesman for Mahmood’s campaign, when asked about that choice. “And we aren’t waiting until after the primary to show voters what’s at stake.”

Kim’s campaign declined to comment for this story.

But experts say Raths would surely be Mahmood’s preferred challenger in November, since he lacks the advantages that come with being an incumbent and has more openly embraced MAGA-style Republicanism in an area that soundly rejected Trump twice over.

“There’s no question that (Mahmood) would rather run against Raths than Kim,” said Dan Schnur, a politics professor at USC.

“Mahmood is spending money to promote his preferred opponent to conservative voters. And if it motivates his own base in the process, so much the better.”

Call it smart. Call it tricky. But you can’t call it unusual, or against any rules, for candidates on either side of the aisle to spend money to boost a primary competitor they consider to be the easier target for November. Campaign finance rules only require disclosing funds used to support or oppose any candidate.

One of the most high-profile examples this cycle happened in the Pennsylvania governor’s race, where Democrat Josh Shapiro’s campaign paid for ads that played up how Trump-endorsed candidate Doug Mastriano opposes abortion and supports the Big Lie of a stolen 2020 election. Mastriano this week won the GOP nomination and will face Shapiro in the general election.

A group supporting California Attorney General Rob Bonta also paid for radio ads promoting far-right GOP challenger Eric Early, saying he’s “pro-life, pro-Trump and pro-guns” before reminding voters to “remember to vote early, before the June 7 election.”

The tactic can be risky.

“That’s a dangerous game to play,” said Jodi Balma, politics professor at Fullerton College.

There’s no guarantee that voters won’t elect that underdog candidate in November, she noted, with a portion of voters who will support whichever candidate has their preferred party label next to his or her name. And if that person holds views that the candidate paying for the ads genuinely feels would be harmful to residents, then those ads — and that candidate — would have played a role in helping put that person in office.

In the case of the CA-40 race, Balma said she’d be concerned if Mahmood’s campaign was focusing on fringe GOP challenger Nick Taurus, an American Nationalist from Laguna Hills who supports punishing women who get abortions and regularly espouses anti-Semitic and homophobic views.

She sees less distinction between Kim and Raths, predicting they’d largely vote the same way on most issues. They gave the same answers on most questions in a Register candidate questionnaire on issues such as opposing abortion rights, offshore drilling and a pathway to citizenship for undocumented immigrants. On an ideological scale of 1-10, with 10 being far right, Kim rated herself a seven and Raths gave himself an eight.

But while Kim has tried to distance herself from Trump, Raths has not. And Mahmood’s campaign is seizing on that to target Raths — noting in the ad that Raths was “featured at Trump candidate forum in Mar-A-Lago” — in a district that would have voted for Biden in 2020 by 2 points.

Raths said he attended the February forum in Mar-a-Lago as a paid guest.

“I have not been endorsed by our former president,” he said.

Asked about the idea that Mahmood could be targeting him to take out Kim, Raths said, “If that is his strategy, it works for me. In 2020 I raised over $1.2 million after the primary and I believe I can do the same, if not more, if I make the top two on June 7.”

As of March 31, which was the close of the last reporting period, Kim had raised $4.8 million this cycle, while Mahmood raised $1.4 million, Raths had raised $136,110 and Taurus had raised $9,693.

Mahmood’s campaign says the focus on Raths is a response to internal polling that indicates Raths is “surging” against Kim. The campaign notes that Raths was the GOP nominee in 2020 for a House district that, before boundaries were redrawn last year due to redistricting, included more than half of the current 40th District. That year, Raths beat out five other GOP challengers to advance with Rep. Katie Porter, D-Irvine, to the November election, where he lost by six points.

“Our polling has consistently shown Raths is far better known and well liked among GOP voters in the district,” Click said.

Balma hasn’t seen any such polling, but said she thinks it is likely that Raths might have more name recognition within CA-40.

The main way to overcome any such gaps in name recognition is money, which can pay for TV ads, signs, mailers, door knockers and everything else to help voters get to know a candidate. And so far Kim has that win in the bag.

The next round of campaign finance reports, showing funds raised through Wednesday, May 18, are due May 26.

Ballots for the primary have been mailed to all registered Orange County voters. They can be returned via the mail or placed in an official drop box now, or voters can wait to vote in person at a Vote Center when they start to open May 28.

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