Californians hit the polls Tuesday in dozens of primaries, including a marquee match-up between two veteran Democratic House members and an unpredictable free-for-all for the Republican Senate nomination.
National Democrats insist that they have a fighting chance of retaking the House in 2012, and according to party bigwigs, California is critical to this end.
“The road back to the House majority runs through California,” House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) told a gathering of Democrats in February. “Simply put, to win back the House, to succeed in our drive for 25 … California Democrats will lead the way.”
That’s not just her home state pride talking, either — DCCC Chairman Steve Israel (D-NY), the man in charge of House Democrats’ campaign operations, has also identified the West Coast as one of the party’s best shots at substantial gains.
Buoying their hopes is the state’s latest round of redistricting, the first to be designed by a new nonpartisan commission. Democrats appear to have come out ahead in the process, with two new open seats leaning their way and several additional seats looking competitive.
California has a new system in which the top two finishers in a primary, regardless of party, advance to the general election. That means little will be decided on Tuesday, but the vote could give some indication of the direction various races are headed. Here are a few of the top contests to keep your eye on.
Democratic Sen. Dianne Feinstein is considered so strong an incumbent that Republicans didn’t even bother to find a legitimate establishment candidate to take her on. That means its up to 23 long-shot, sometimes wildly fringe, candidates to compete for the nomination — none of whom polled better than 2 percent in April. Among them is Orly Taitz, the notorious birther publicity hound who previously ran for secretary of state. In an ironic twist, after demanding Obama provide more and more documentation proving his citizenship (beyond his long-form birth certificate), Taitz is facing fines for failing to disclose her campaign’s donations and expenditures on time. Other notable competitors include Nachum Shifren, the self-dubbed “surfing rabbi,” who blends Hasidic Judaism with far-right politics and beach culture. It could make for a fun election if one of the weirder candidates makes it into the top two and into the general election.
In the most-watched contest of the night, longtime Democratic Reps. Brad Sherman and Howard Berman, are fighting for survival after being forced into the same district. Dubbed “Two Jews, One District” in the local press, the two have been waging a rough and tumble campaign to prove that their decade-plus each in the House is worth continuing. Berman, 71, a respected leader on the House Foreign Affairs Committee (where Sherman also serves), has secured the backing of most of his fellow representatives in the state. But Sherman, who has focused more on maintaining visibility in his district throughout his 15 years and takes a more populist tack in his message, is more than holding his own and even leading in a recent poll by USC. A large number of voters said they were undecided, however, meaning there’s plenty of room for Berman to retake the lead — either on Tuesday or in the general election.
Ricky Gill, a 25-year-old Indian-American Republican running in the 9th District, might add another line to his eclectic resume, which currently includes law school graduate, Spanish speaker and powerhouse fundraiser: incumbent-slayer. Gill’s impressive fundraising (nearly $1.4 million so far) makes him a real threat to three-term Democratic Rep. Jerry McNerney.
McNerney currently represents part of the newly configured 9th District, which will encompass most of the San Joaquin Valley. Democrats have a registration advantage in the new district that has been pegged at 5 percent to 9 percent.
Jose Hernandez is basically Democrats’ dream candidate come true: the son of migrant farmworkers from Mexico who himself picked tomatoes during summers en route to eventually becoming a NASA astronaut. The district itself would also represent a coup for Dems — under its new reconfiguration, it leans Republican, according to the Cook Political Report, but it includes part of the agriculture-heavy Central Valley, which has seen enormous population growth in the past decade. Making inroads there would be a tremendous boost to the party, which already controls most levels of politics in the state.
Hernandez must at least place second in a primary field that includes incumbent Republican Rep. Jeff Denham and Chad Condit, the son of former Rep. Gary Condit, to move on to the general election.
Democrats hope to come away from California with a net gain, but the 24th District is a race that could flip from blue to red. Under redistricting, the Santa Barbara-area district shed a significant percentage of Democratic voters.
Democratic Rep. Lois Capps is the incumbent in the race, but she will be facing one strong Republican challenger in Abel Maldonado. Maldonado has served in both houses of the state legislature, and as mayor of Santa Maria and lieutenant governor (by appointment).
Maldonado has called for comprehensive immigration reform, but sticks close to Republican talking points when it comes to cutting down on government regulations and getting rid of “Obamacare.”
Capps, a former nurse, has touted her accomplishments for the district on the campaign trail, including winning federal money for several new projects in Santa Maria like a transit center, library and hospital neonatal unit.
The race for the 44th District is just a couple freeways over from the epic Berman-Sherman clash that has become the most hotly contested House race in the nation. But two Democratic incumbents are also facing off here, in a swath of Los Angeles County that includes Compton, Lynwood, San Pedro and the Port of Los Angeles.
Rep. Laura Richardson, who is hoping to win a fourth term, decided against running in the Long Beach area and opted to challenge Rep. Janice Hahn, who won a special election in 2011 to replace retiring Rep. Jane Harman. Hahn’s current district was spliced up in redistricting, and now overlaps with those represented by Reps. Richardson, Henry Waxman and Maxine Waters.
Though Richardson has been in Congress much longer, she also has many factors working against her. Her campaign is deeply in debt, and she is currently being investigated by the House Ethics Committee on charges she improperly used House staffers to work on her previous re-election bid.
Hahn and Richardson are the only two candidates running, and will therefore both advance to the general.