California Primary Watchlist

Introduction

Next Tuesday, there will be primary elections in 7 states across the country. In an effort to keep our articles concise, Split Ticket has decided to devote a separate write-up to the Golden State alone. California is unique because it has more competitive House primaries than any other state and uses a non-partisan top-two primary system to select general election nominees.

This means that individual parties do not call the shots here. Anyone, regardless of party affiliation, can vote for any candidate on the ballot. Then, the top-two vote recipients advance to the November general election, regardless of their party identification.

Statewide Races

Senate

California has not had a head-to-head Senate matchup between the two national parties since 2012, when Dianne Feinstein defeated the Republican with a 25% margin, par for the course in the solidly Democratic state. Since then, two Democrats have advanced to the general election, shutting out the divided GOP field from having a presence on that line of the ballot. In both cases, the Republican failure to coalesce behind a single candidate led to shut-outs.

This cycle, appointed Senator Alex Padilla (D) faces his first two Senate elections: the primary for the special election to replace Vice President Kamala Harris and the primary for the 2022 general election. He faces no significant Democratic challenger and should be winning a majority of the primary vote for both contests.

On the Republican side, lawyer Mark Meuser has the state party endorsement and is expected to secure the second place spot on the ballot. Regardless, Padilla should be coasting to re-election in a state where Democrats outnumber Republicans two-to-one. Split Ticket has rated this race as Safe Democratic

Governor

Unlike most other states, California mobilized for a statewide election last September for an off-season gubernatorial recall election. Governor Gavin Newsom (D) easily defeated the effort, slipping just a fraction of a percentage point statewide and nearly tying his 2018 margin.

Governor Newsom is running for re-election, without serious challenge from any Democrat. He should also be getting just over a majority of the primary vote, although discontentment with his conduct during the COVID-19 pandemic may cause him to win fewer votes than Senator Padilla.

The opposition’s failure to crack into Newsom’s electoral strength last year demoralized many recall election candidates, notably media figure Larry Elder, the previous candidate John Cox, and former San Diego mayor Kevin Faulconer. All three men will not be seeking the office this year, leaving the field wide open for other anti-Newsom candidates.

State Senator Brian Dahle secured the Republican party’s endorsement at convention, meaning he should be winning the lion’s share of the conservative vote. This should be enough to carry him to second place on the November ballot. Like in most recent California statewide races, the Democrats start off as overwhelming favorites. Safe Democratic.

House

Key Races

CA-03

The Trump +2 3rd district spans the California Gold Country, running along the Nevada border from Lake Tahoe to Death Valley. Most of this scenic land is sparsely-populated, so Placer, Nevada, and Sacramento counties pack the biggest electoral punch.

Equipped with the Trump endorsement, the backing of the CA GOP, and a legislative district that straddles the Placer/Sacramento border, Assemblyman Kevin Kiley seems poised to advance to the general election. But Sacramento County Sheriff (R) Scott Jones and (D) Kermit Jones, both boasting a slew of local and national endorsements, should not be discounted. Safe Republican

CA-13

Republicans’ best hope for a pick-up in a Central Valley majority-Hispanic seat is the open 13th. Josh Harder’s district swap opened a path for Democratic Assemblyman Adam Gray, a moderate with strong local connections. Democrat Phil Arballo, the 2020 nominee in CA-22, is also running.

When it comes to Republican candidates, Merced businessman David Giglio appears to be the frontrunner, though he has been outraised by Elise Stefanik’s pick John Duarte. Even with a split jungle primary vote on both sides, Gray and Giglio would be favored to advance to the general election.

This is a district where small towns and medium-sized cities are critical to Democratic victory, so Gray’s record of overperforming in Stanislaus (Modesto) and Merced counties at the state level bodes well for his campaign at the start. Leans Democratic

CA-15

The race to replace Jackie Speier in the safe Democratic 15th district could be one of California’s more competitive primaries. All three of the top contenders come from San Mateo County, the district’s most populous. Speier has joined the Golden State Democratic establishment in supporting Assemblyman & Speaker Pro Tempore Kevin Mullin, an ostensible frontrunner. The bigger question is whether a Republican or a Democrat will take second place ahead of the November election. Supervisor David Canepa and Emily Beach are the other leading Democrats.

CA-22 Special

The first somewhat-competitive special election of the 2022 cycle is being held under the old 22nd district lines. Republican Connie Conway is facing Democrat Lourin Hubbard in a Safe Republican race to determine Devin Nunes’s successor in this Trump +5 seat. Special elections are generally too variable to make hard conclusions regarding the national environment, but a large Republican win would still be worth consideration. About 66% of the vote was cast for GOP candidates in the special primary earlier this year. Safe Republican

CA-27

Much like David Valadao’s, Mike Garcia’s redrawn district is bluer than the one that he currently represents. Had Garcia been up for election under the boundaries of the Simi Valley-free 27th district in 2020, he would have narrowly lost to Christy Smith.

Smith is running again this year and seems like the most likely Democrat to face Garcia in the fall. But some members of her party have turned to retired Navy officer Quaye Quartey, a bigger spender, even though no public polling has suggested he will take second. On paper, the changes to the 27th make it one of just a handful of valid Democratic targets. The only hope for Republicans is that a strong national environment will be enough to save the incumbent. Tossup

CA-37

The safe Democratic 37th district is being vacated by Karen Bass, a candidate for Mayor of Los Angeles and erstwhile Vice Presidential hopeful. Located north of Inglewood and east of Santa Monica, this Los Angeles-based seat fits best into the minority-coalition category.

The leading candidate to replace Bass is St. Sen. Sydney Kamlager. Other Democrats with credible warchests include ex-City Councilor Jan Perry, newsman Michael Shure, and Culver City Mayor Daniel Lee. Because the GOP took just 14% of the vote here in the old district, the two Republican candidates could split the vote in the jungle primary enough to set up a general election between two Democrats.

CA-40

Republican Young Kim outran President Trump by enough to defeat incumbent Democrat Gil Cisneros in one of 2020’s few crossover seats. The Korean-American Congresswoman received a redder, albeit Biden-won, district following the redraw. New lines, a fundraising advantage, and the Republican-leaning national environment should give Kim an easy path to victory come November.

Kim’s probable opponent is Asif Mahmood, a Democrat who serves on the California Medical Board and has largely cleared the primary field. Meanwhile, controversial Republican Greg Raths, the 2020 GOP nominee in CA-45, lurks in the background stoking uncertainty that has put Congressional Republicans on the defensive with spending. A Kim vs. Mahmood matchup may be Tuesday’s most likely outcome, but it is not definite. Likely Republican

CA-42

The 42nd is a safe Democratic seat connecting Long Beach with central Los Angeles. A double-bunking was averted here following the dual retirements of Alan Lowenthal and Lucille Roybal-Allard. Long Beach Mayor Robert Garcia appears to be the frontrunner for this district.

Assemblywoman Cristina Garcia, the more progressive candidate in the race, has territorial connections to the 42nd’s Los Angeles portion. Slightly-less-than-half of the seat’s voters live in Long Beach. With multiple minor candidates in the race, it will be interesting to see if the Democratic vote splits enough to give Republican John Briscoe a path to the general election.

CA-47

The 47th is a Biden +11 seat in Orange County. It is represented by Katie Porter, a Democrat from Irvine – the seat’s bluest community. The leading Republican here is Scott Baugh, a former Assemblyman & County GOP chair from Huntington Beach – the historic heart of Orange County Republicanism.

Of the three other Republicans seeking election in this seat besides Baugh, IT analyst Brian Burley appears to be the most credible. Army Reserve officer Shawn Collins, a Republican who drew early attention, dropped out of the race in March. Porter’s new district shares the same partisanship of her old district, but her unimpressive performance against Greg Raths in 2020 suggests that she is vulnerable this year. Leans Democratic

CA-49

Perhaps the best target for Congressional Republicans in SoCal is the Biden +11 49th district, a seat currently represented by Democrat Mike Levin. The district spans the coastline from Orange County communities like Laguna Niguel down to Democratic turf near the San Diego County city of Encinitas.

Despite Orange County Supervisor Lisa Bartlett’s quality as a candidate, 2020 nominee Brian Maryott seems poised for a rematch. He has outraised the rest of the GOP field and has the backing of the Orange County GOP. A third Republican candidate to watch is Oceanside Councilor Christopher Rodriguez. Levin is another Democrat who, like Porter, underperformed expectations in 2020 enough to imply vulnerability this cycle. Leans Democratic

Honorable Mentions

CA-05

Long-time Republican Congressman Tom McClintock is the frontrunner in the Trump +12 5th district. Although the seat excludes the incumbent’s Placer County home, it includes most of the centrally-located Sierra turf of the current 4th. Most of the redrawn 5th’s population lives in the eastern portion of Stanislaus County (Modesto). Fresno County Supervisor (R) Nathan Magsig and lawyer (D) Mike Barkley are McClintock’s main opponents.

CA-09

Democrat Josh Harder switched his re-election bid to the Biden +13 9th district after fellow incumbent Jerry McNerney decided to retire. His Republican opponent in this Stockton-based seat will likely be San Joaquin County Supervisor Tom Patti. Harder’s Bay Area entrepreneurial background has given him strong fundraising connections, but the national environment should keep this seat on the edge of the board with a credible GOP nominee like Patti. Likely Democratic

CA-16

Incumbent Democrat Anna Eshoo is one of Speaker Pelosi’s closer confidants in the House. She represents a safe district in the Silicon Valley region, home to notable cities like Palo Alto. Eshoo is the favorite against Democratic challengers Rishi Kumar, Greg Tanaka, and Ajwang Rading. Kumar appears to be the most formidable of the three. He has outraised his opponents and probably has some residual name recognition from 2020, when he received 36% of the vote in the general election.

CA-21

Jim Costa’s majority-Hispanic Central Valley seat became more Democratic in redistricting. At Biden +20, the Fresno-based 21st is probably out of reach for the GOP regardless of the national environment. But Republicans Michael Maher and Matt Stoll, both of whom ran in the 22nd district special earlier this year, feel that purportedly-rightward trends among the nation’s Hispanics could allow the eventual GOP nominee to hold Costa to an unexpectedly-close margin. Safe Democratic

CA-22

Republican David Valadao has a history of generating the crossover support necessary to overperform fundamentals in hostile districts amid difficult national environments, so the fact that his 22nd became bluer in redistricting is by no means prohibitive. The bright spot for Democrats is Assemblyman Rudy Salas, who remains one of the party’s top national recruits despite sluggish fundraising numbers. Unless Salas begins to rake in cash faster, it will become increasingly difficult to compete with a strong incumbent like Valadao in a Biden midterm. Tossup

CA-25

Democrat Raul Ruiz is a capable incumbent with strong local connections seeking re-election in majority-Hispanic seat based in Riverside County. At Biden +15, the 25th district is on the edge of our board as a reach seat. While the right Republican could mobilize the national conditions to make the race here closer-than-expected, an outright flip is not in the cards. Multiple GOP candidates are contesting this seat, but San Jacinto City Councilor Brian Hawkins seems like the strongest of the bunch. Likely Democratic

CA-26

Another Republican reach seat is the Ventura-based 26th, a Biden +20 district encompassing turf that is traditionally more Republican down ballot. The NRCC is especially proud of its recruit, big-spender Matt Jacobs. Although redistricting placed the Simi Valley into this district, regional trends have worked in the Democrats’ favor. Oxnard also remains a tough a sink to outvote. A good comparison district for this one is VA-10. Republicans are not expected to win either seat, but the right conditions could yield competitive races. Likely Democratic

CA-34

One potential Democrat vs. Democrat contest to watch is the 34th district rematch between Congressman Jimmy Gomez and his 2020 opponent David Kim. Gomez was held to a mere 6 point win by his Koreatown-based challenger last cycle. But redistricting worked in the incumbent’s interest this time around, adding lots of heavily-Hispanic turf in East Los Angeles into the seat. Those changes give Gomez a larger Latino political base with which to work, shoring him up for re-election.

CA-45

The Orange County-based 45th district is represented by Michelle Steel, one of two Korean-American Republicans representing Biden-won seats in SoCal. Steel did not outrun Trump by as much as her colleague Young Kim, but her seat still has a Republican down ballot lean. Perhaps the best solace for Democrats amid an otherwise poor environment is Jay Chen, a college trustee who has emerged as a top DCCC recruit. Additionally, Steel’s seat was made bluer in redistricting compared to the one she currently represents. Tossup

I make election maps! If you’re reading a Split Ticket article, then odds are you’ve seen one of them. I’m an engineering student at UCLA and electoral politics are a great way for me to exercise creativity away from schoolwork. I also run and love the outdoors!

You can contact me @politicsmaps on Twitter.

My name is Harrison Lavelle and I am a political analyst studying at the College of New Jersey. As a co-founder and partner at Split Ticket, I coordinate our House coverage. I write about a variety of electoral topics and produce political maps. Besides elections, my hobbies include music, history, language, and fitness.

Contact me at @HWLavelleMaps or harrisonwlavelle1@gmail.com

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