California poised to be battleground state for Congress in 2014

McClatchy Washington BureauDecember 16, 2013 

— California Reps. Ami Bera and Raul Ruiz are precisely the kind of Democrats whose government offices Republicans would like to shut down next year.

Both are doctors who weren’t in Congress in 2010 to vote for the Affordable Care Act, but Republicans are gleefully pinning the law’s flawed rollout on them almost daily. Both beat longtime GOP incumbents last year by narrow margins in districts evenly divided in party registration. Neither will benefit from presidential coattails next year.

Those watching the races, however, say health care won’t be the only factor. Public attention has shifted very quickly this year from one issue to another: from gun control to domestic spying to military intervention in Syria to the government shutdown to the health care debacle.

“It’s still a long way to 2014,” said Steve Erie, a political science professor at the University of California, San Diego. “Nearly a year is an eternity in politics.”

California is poised to have more competitive congressional races next year than any other state, and with both parties planning to contest several districts, the state could play a key role in determining which party controls the House of Representatives.

Though Republicans remain favored at this point to retain their majority in the chamber, redrawn district boundaries and longer-term demographic shifts in California have put more of their House races in play.

According to the nonpartisan Rothenberg Political Report, at least half a dozen of California’s 53 House races could be competitive next year. The field of challengers is far from settled, and factors such as retirements could put even more districts on the list.

“Prior to this round of redistricting, we were almost always watching one to three races,” said Nathan Gonzales, deputy editor of the report.

A Field Poll released Friday shows that Californians are quite unhappy with the performance of Congress. A near-record low of 11 percent of the state’s voters approve of the job lawmakers are doing, while 84 percent disapprove. Even longtime Sen. Dianne Feinstein, a Democrat who’s not up for re-election for another five years, registered her lowest-ever approval number in the poll.

The survey shows a majority of Californians disapprove of the way both parties are doing their jobs in Congress, but voters like the GOP even less.

“People are very frustrated with Washington and the direction of the country,” said Daniel Scarpinato, a spokesman for the National Republican Congressional Committee, the party’s House campaign arm.

Democrats far outnumber Republicans in the state’s congressional delegation, 38 to 15, and it would seem that they have the most to lose. The party had a good year in California in 2012 with President Barack Obama on the ballot. But a year later, his popularity in California and nationwide has suffered amid setbacks to his health care law, including a broken enrollment website and surprise cancellations of policies people were promised they could keep.

“The big motivator at the moment seems to be Obamacare, and that works to the Republicans’ advantage,” said Jack Pitney, a political science professor at Claremont McKenna College in Claremont, Calif.

However, Covered California, the state version of the health care enrollment website, has been operating relatively trouble-free since its debut.

“I don’t think the national brouhaha about the problems with the website is as significant in California,” said Mark DiCamillo, director of the Field Poll.

Just as Republicans will hang health care around vulnerable Democrats, Democrats will be sure to return the favor on immigration. Republican House leaders have blocked a comprehensive immigration bill that the Senate approved earlier this year from moving forward, worsening the GOP’s already poor standing with Latino voters.

Reps. Jeff Denham and David Valadao are among only a handful of Republicans who support a comprehensive immigration bill. Both represent districts in California’s San Joaquin Valley with large numbers of Latino voters.

“They are where they need to be on that issue,” Scarpinato said.

But Democrats think they have a chance. Obama won both districts last year, in part with overwhelming support from Latinos.

The stakes on immigration are high for both lawmakers, particularly Valadao, whose district is 72 percent Latino, the second-most Latino-majority House district in the country represented by a Republican.

Of the six California House districts rated as competitive by the Rothenberg Report, Valadao’s is the only Republican seat classified as a “toss-up.” Polls show that Latino voters are more likely to blame Republicans if Congress fails to act.

“Saying you support immigration reform is not the same as actually pushing and fighting to get a bill passed,” said Matt Barreto, co-founder of the polling and research firm Latino Decisions.

In October, Denham became the first Republican in the House to co-sponsor an immigration bill introduced by Democrats. He was also one of 144 Republicans who voted against the deal that ended a two-week partial government shutdown that started when conservative House Republicans led a failed push to defund the president’s health care law. The shutdown was very unpopular in California, which has more federal workers than any other state.

“We won’t forget that, and neither will the voters next year,” said Eric Goldman, a spokesman for Democrat Michael Eggman, a farmer who’s running against Denham.

Establishment Democrats have recruited Amanda Renteria, a former Feinstein aide, to be their candidate in the Valadao race. But Renteria has to make it through the primary. John Hernandez, who lost to Valadao last year, is planning another run for the seat.

“Democrats will have to make sure they get the candidate they want,” said Gonzales of the Rothenberg Report.

Three Republican candidates have lined up to challenge Bera next year: Igor Birman, an aide to Rep. Tom McClintock; former Rep. Doug Ose; and Elizabeth Emken, who lost her bid last year to defeat Feinstein. Ruiz will face Republican state Assemblyman Brian Nestande.

Bera and Ruiz have tried to demonstrate their independence on health care. They joined another three dozen Democrats last month in favor of a Republican bill that their party’s leaders charged would undermine the law. Bera co-sponsored another Republican health care bill most of his fellow Democrats oppose. But Republicans will associate both Democrats with the law’s problems.

“Bera’s support for the failed law has been unwavering,” read a party statement earlier this month.

Roy Behr, a Ruiz campaign consultant, said both have “innate credibility” on health care.

“They both get to say, ‘Who do you trust, a doctor or a Washington politician?’” he said.

Behr also noted that both candidates actually outperformed Obama last year in their districts, Bera by nearly a percentage point, and Ruiz by more than two. The Rothenberg Report identifies both districts as “leans Democrat.”

Historically, Claremont McKenna’s Pitney said, the absence of the president’s name on the ballot in midterm elections tends to cost his party seats in Congress. Many of Obama’s core supporters stayed home in 2010, leading to big Republican gains. Strong turnout next year by voters frustrated with the Affordable Care Act could hurt Democrats again.

“If next year is a normal midterm cycle,” Pitney said, “Democrats will lose some ground.”

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