San Francisco and Bakersfield are 251 miles apart as a condor would fly but culturally and politically, they might as well be on different planets — and that also applies to their congressional representatives.
Uber-progressive San Francisco’s Nancy Pelosi is the long-serving Democratic leader — and current speaker — of the House while very conservative Bakersfield’s Kevin McCarthy leads the Republican minority and would displace Pelosi if the GOP recaptures control of Congress this year.
Republicans need to gain just five seats in November to take over and uniformly, polling and other tests of political sentiment indicate that with President Joe Biden’s unpopularity, driven by high inflation and other issues, the GOP is well positioned to win control.
Democrats hope they can stave off defeat by tying former President Donald Trump to the Jan. 6, 2021, assault on the Capitol by his supporters and motivating their voters to oppose a pending Supreme Court decision eroding abortion rights.
It’s possible, although unlikely, that whether Pelosi retains the speakership or cedes it to McCarthy will ultimately hinge on a few California duels, set up bychanges in congressional district boundaries and outcomes of last week’s primary election.
On paper, as many as six or even seven California congressional seats could change partisan hands in November, but four — two now held by Democrats and two by Republicans — loom large on the political radar.
—Republican Mike Garcia, a former fighter pilot, defeated Christy Smith, a Democratic assemblywoman, in a special election for a congressional seat in Los Angeles’ northern suburbs in 2020. He then eked out a 333-vote win over Smith for a full term later that year, despite a 7.5% Democratic voter registration edge. Garcia hopes his third matchup with Smith this year will also be a charm, but the new 27th Congressional District has a 12%-plus Democratic voter margin, making him decidedly more vulnerable.
—Katie Porter, a Democratic congresswoman from Orange County who has acquired a high national political profile, won her Irvine-centered district despite its slight Republican voter registration margin and her new district (CD 47) now has a slight Democratic edge, which should make re-election easier. However, Republican challenger Scott Baugh, a former assemblyman and current Orange County GOP chairman, is a formidable fundraiser whose hopes ride on Biden’s unpopularity.
—Hanford Republican David Valadao has been elected and re-elected by San Joaquin Valley voters despite a lopsided Democratic voter registration advantage. His newly redrawn, three-county district (CD 22) favors Democrats by more than 17 percentage points but Valadao hopes that his independent image — he was one of 10 Republican House members who voted to impeach Trump — will save him again. Having overcome stiff primary challenges from two other GOP candidates, Valadao now faces Rudy Salas, a Democratic assemblyman from Kern County who counts on a high turnout of Latino voters to flip the seat.
—Democrat Mike Levin has won two terms in Congress from a coastal region — northern San Diego County and southern Orange County — that was long a Republican stronghold, but the very slight Democratic voter registration edge of his redrawn district (CD 49) fuels Republican hopes of a win if national trends invade the turf. Former San Juan Capistrano Mayor Brian Maryott beat four other Republican hopefuls for the right to take on Levin.
Overall, it appears that Democrats have a better chance of unseating Garcia and/or Valadao than Republicans have of ousting Porter and Levin. Could a two-seat Democratic gain in California stave off a GOP takeover of the House? Unlikely, but certainly in the realm of possibility.
CalMatters is a public interest journalism venture committed to explaining how California’s state Capitol works and why it matters. For more stories by Dan Walters, go to calmatters.org/commentary.