Republicans have been talking big this fall, saying they expect to improve greatly on their current 15 seats in California’s delegation of 53 members on the House of Representatives.
Don’t bet on it, despite the fact the GOP managed a victory in one recent special election for a Central Valley state Senate seat previously held by a Democrat.
For one thing, turnout is generally much lower in special elections than in November votes with offices like governor and a full plate of controversial ballot initiatives at stake. That’s especially true among the Latino voters who have lately made California dependably Democratic, but did not turn out heavily in that special election.
Republicans plan next year to target three Democrats who in 2012 took previously GOP congressional seats. But they may not do nearly as well as they expect.
One Democrat who thought he would be a big beneficiary of the political demise of former San Diego Mayor Bob Filner is first-term Democratic Rep. Scott Peters, who ousted longtime Republican incumbent Brian Bilbray last year. The GOP anointed former City Councilman Carl DeMaio as Peters’ opponent, and he’s a major threat, having carried his San Diego-based district when he narrowly lost the mayoralty to Filner last year. Once Filner left office, DeMaio toyed with the idea of making another run for mayor, thus leaving Peters sitting pretty. But he eventually opted to go against Peters.
But for their infighting, Republicans could also have a shot at two other newly Democratic seats. They will wage a spirited primary campaign among three significant candidates wanting to oust Sacramento area Rep. Ami Bera. Vying for the slot opposite Bera will be Igor Birman, an immigrant from the old Soviet Union who has been chief of staff to Rep. Tom McClintock, solidly entrenched in a neighboring district.
There will also be Elizabeth Emken, the GOP’s failed 2012 candidate against Democratic U.S. Sen. Dianne Feinstein, who moved her residence from the East San Francisco Bay area city of Danville to make this run, and former Rep. Doug Ose.
Says Alan Hoffenblum, a former Republican consultant who now edits the California Target Book rundown on the state’s political races, “Republicans in this district love to fight over who’s a real Republican; they’re not as good at beating Democrats.”
The GOP may have its best chance in the Coachella Valley area around Palm Springs, where it seeks to upset first-termer Raul Ruiz, who ousted longtime Rep. Mary Bono Mack last year. Likely to face Ruiz is soon-to-be termed out Assemblyman Brian Nestande, whose father Bruce was a longtime state legislator and later an Orange County supervisor.
Republicans will also try to regain a Ventura County-based seat they lost last year when Rep. Julia Brownley narrowly defeated former GOP state Sen. Tony Strickland. Yet, Brownley appears more entrenched by the day.
Even if the GOP picks off a Democrat or two next year, the embattled party is just as likely to lose one or two seats it now holds. Most endangered in the GOP is longtime Rep. Gary Miller, in the 31st district, taking in most of southern and central San Bernardino County. Miller lucked out last year, as Democrats splintered their party’s vote in the “top two” primary, leaving Miller to run against a fellow Republican.
This time, no other significant Republican seems likely to run, while Democrat Pete Aguilar, the party’s leading vote-getter last time, faces former Democratic Congressman Joe Baca and activist Eloise Reyes, endorsed by the fund-raising group EMILY’s List. So Miller will almost certainly get a Democratic opponent in this district with a large Democratic majority among registered voters, an area that twice voted for President Obama.
Another possibly endangered Republican is Jeff Denham, from the Merced-Modesto area. His district is strongly Latino, one reason Denham bucked his party’s leadership to endorse immigration changes including a pathway to citizenship for undocumented immigrants. He is likely to be opposed by beekeeper and farmer Michael Eggman, whose sister is a Democratic assemblywoman.
The bottom line, though, is that the GOP will be lucky to hang onto its current puny total of 15 California congressional seats. That’s mainly because the party has made no significant inroads into the solidly Democratic loyalties of the state’s Latino voters and will continue paying heavily for it.