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Against The Trend: California


To celebrate the holiday season, Split Ticket’s Against The Trend series is heading west to California. Rich both in geographic wonders and cultural diversity, the country’s most populated state dominates the 435-seat House of Representatives. Though the Golden State recently lost a seat in decennial reapportionment, its 52-member Congressional delegation comfortably remains the largest in the nation.

While California is undoubtedly a blue state, its immense physical size and varied ethnic mix make it a crucible for political identities across the Republican-Democratic spectrum. Viewing the Golden State monolithically is a surefire way to misinterpret regional divides and historical loyalties that define competitive House races and make California, to some extent, a microcosm of American politics.

How’d We Do – House

Overall, House Republicans in California had a good night on November 8th. Every GOP incumbent won reelection, including vulnerable members David Valadao (CA-22) and Mike Garcia (CA-27). The party also managed to elect John Duarte to the open CA-13. 

On the Democratic side, endangered Democratic incumbents Katie Porter (CA-47) and Mike Levin (CA-49) secured new terms despite serious opposition. Democrats Will Rollins (CA-41) and Jay Chen (CA-45) both lost competitive races but could win rematches in 2024.

Some of last month’s Republican success in Golden State House races can be explained by weak Democratic performances at the top of the ticket. The best-performing statewide Republican, Lanhee Chen, lost the Controller race by just 10 points. Governor Gavin Newsom, meanwhile, beat GOP standard bearer Brian Dahle by 18 points, less than both his initial margin of victory in 2018 and that of the “no” vote on the 2021 recall question. Alex Padilla, by comparison, won reelection by 22 points — confirming that pro-Republican ticket splitting has a lesser impact on contests for Senate and President.

Lackluster statewide Democratic performances and flagging minority turnout accompanied a rightward shift that negatively impacted some of the party’s House candidates. Split Ticket’s own SHAVE research found that California’s adjusted generic congressional ballot shifted toward the Republicans by 5.7 points, a figure right of the R+3.7 national average. Oregon and New Jersey, similarly blue states, saw comparable Republican momentum, though less pronounced than in New York.

In terms of Split Ticket ratings, CA-13 was the only Golden State seat called incorrectly. We forecast a victory by assemblyman Adam Gray, who had outperformed Biden in his 2020 legislative reelection. Thanks partially to low turnout, the electorate shifted leftward by less than expected between the June primary and November general elections, allowing well-connected agribusinessman John Duarte to flip the seat Republican. The 13th (Biden +11) hosted the second-closest House race of the cycle after Colorado’s 3rd, with Duarte winning by just 564 votes.

While all of the other seats technically voted in line with expectations, we could have forecast three more exactly: CA-03, CA-06, and CA-09. The first two districts ended up closer than our LIKELY R and SAFE D ratings suggested, with Republican Kevin Kiley and Democrat Ami Bera winning by 7 and 12 points, respectively. The last, on the other hand, reelected prodigious fundraiser Josh Harder comfortably despite a LEANS D rating.

Foresight proved correct in CA-21, CA-25, and CA-26, three double-digit Biden seats that reelected incumbent Democrats by less than their presidential leans suggested. We rated each LIKELY D following a last minute change in Jim Costa’s CA-21. Costa’s historical underperformances fueled that decision, though poor turnout in Fresno played a more significant role in his modest 8-point victory. Julia Brownley, who faced well-funded Republican Matt Jacobs in formerly-Republican CA-26, posted a similarly-small victory.

In CA-41, our LEANS R rating proved prescient. Incumbent Republican Ken Calvert won by just under five points against Will Rollins, a promising Democratic self-funder, in a contest that many forecasters did not see on the radar. Rollins has a serious shot at winning a rematch in this Trump +1.0 Riverside County-based seat, which includes Palm Springs, should he run again next cycle. 

CA-47 and CA-49, two Biden +11 seats based in Southern California, reelected Democratic incumbents Katie Porter and Mike Levin modestly. Both races had been rated LEANS D, but conventional wisdom for most of the cycle gave Levin the higher chance of losing. He ended up winning by more than 5 points, not too far behind his 2020 margin of victory under the old lines. Both Levin and Porter outran Governor Newsom in their districts.

Asian American Republicans Young Kim (CA-40) and Michelle Steel (CA-45) both won comfortable reelections, though Kim, whose seat is a bit redder than Steel’s, was returned to office much more convincingly. Orange County’s down-ballot Republicanism helped carry both women over the line. The county backed all of the GOP statewide candidates this year despite its recent presidential shift toward the Democrats. 

Republicans David Valadao (CA-22) and Mike Garcia (CA-27) round out the list. Both members attracted enough crossover support to win reelection in comfortably-Democratic seats that got bluer in redistricting. Valadao faced Assemblyman Rudy Salas, who, like Gray in CA-13, outperformed Biden in his last legislative reelection. Central Valley turnout dynamics and the statewide environment certainly played a role in Salas’s loss. 

Garcia won a rematch against Christy Smith despite having Simi Valley removed from his seat. National Democrats’ decision to leave Smith financially adrift likely increased the incumbent’s final margin of victory, but it’s difficult to argue Garcia’s incumbency was not a leading factor in his 6-point win. In terms of both vote share and raw vote, Smith underperformed Governor Newsom. 

Overall, the primary-to-general election “blueshift” that historically affects certain California swing districts did not have universal effect this cycle. Certain seats, like CA-13 and CA-22, saw their electorates move left between both dates, but not sufficiently to elect Democrats. The compositions of others, like CA-26, actually got slightly more Republican. As in past midterms, it’s best to examine the data on a case by case basis. The recent establishment of a statewide vote-by-mail system could also be responsible for increases in Democratic turnout. 

Early 2024 Thoughts

It’s far too early to make any declaratory judgements about 2024, but there’s no reason to avoid preliminary guesswork. Assuming next cycle’s national environment is neutral to Democratic leaning, presidential-year turnout — particularly among minorities – would likely put pressure on California’s swing-seat Republicans. Some, like Young Kim (CA-40) and Kevin Kiley (CA-03), begin as favorites for reelection. Ken Calvert (CA-41) and Michelle Steel (CA-45) could also fall into this category depending on their Democratic opponents.

Despite their crossover appeal, David Valadao (CA-22) and Mike Garcia (CA-27) would be at the greatest risk of defeat. Rudy Salas and newly-elected Assemblywoman Pilar Schiavo are potential Democratic candidates in those districts. John Duarte (CA-13) finds himself in a similar situation in his Biden-won Central Valley seat, though it’s currently unclear whether Adam Gray will run again. While these three (plus Calvert if Rollins runs again) are the most vulnerable sitting Republicans, none is a pushover. The 2024 story, assuming it turns out as we expect, simply seems more likely to place the GOP on defense than offense. That’s good news for Democrats Katie Porter and Mike Levin, who won by decent margins already this year.

VA-04 Special Election — First Glance

Virginia’s 4th district (Biden +37) recently opened up after incumbent Democrat Don McEachin passed away due to colorectal cancer. Democrats easily nominated state senator Jeniffer McClellan in an intriguing firehouse primary, quelling fears that her controversial colleague Joe Morrissey would secure the nomination. Republicans went with Leon Benjamin, the party’s candidate from last month’s general election. The district, based around Democratic Richmond, is SAFE D despite recently-favorable shifts in some of the smaller Coastal Plain counties. The special election is scheduled for February 21, 2023.

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