By Tom Elias
Democrats were gloating in mid-January, almost assuming victories in two once-solidly Republican California congressional districts and figuring that could help assure their retaking control of the House of Representatives after eight years of GOP domination there.
But hold on one minute. The twin departures of two longtime House grandees and committee chairmen also present some problems for Democrats, even if many don’t see it.
That’s because both those GOP retirees, Orange County’s Ed Royce and Darrell Issa, whose district includes most of northern San Diego County and some of Orange County, have had very prominent targets on their backs ever since Democrat Hillary Clinton carried both their districts in 2016, when Issa won reelection by the slimmest margin of any House incumbent.
Now Democrats will have no one local to target, likely making the campaigns there almost exclusively about how loyal the Republicans running might be to President Trump.
What’s more, the departure of the two incumbents opens both districts to the vagaries of California’s top two primary election system, where only the two leading primary vote-getters win spots in the November runoff regardless of party.
So neither Democrats nor Republicans can now feel absolutely assured of making the fall ballot.
With Issa and Royce on that ballot, Democrats would not have to worry about splintering their votes in the primary and possibly giving the GOP both runoff slots, as happened earlier in this decade in a predominately Democratic district in San Bernardino County.
In that district, now represented by Democrat Pete Aguilar, Republican Gary Miller got two additional years in office because so many Democrats ran. The same could happen in the two newly-open, incumbent-less districts, among 29 being vacated nationally by GOP retirees so far. Democrats need to hold onto all their seats and take 24 GOP slots in order to win back a House majority.
There is a chance the GOP could suffer from splintering this year, too, especially in Royce’s district, centered on Fullerton. The likes of former Assemblywomen Ling Ling Chang and Young Kim quickly entered this race, as did Orange County supervisor Michelle Steel and former state Senate Republican leader Bob Huff. Former county GOP chairman Scott Baugh and county Supervisor Shawn Nelson also might run. Half a dozen Democrats got in the race before Royce dropped out and more may now declare, with the March 9 filing deadline well over a month away.
Royce, whose tenure as chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee was due to end next December anyhow, quickly endorsed Kim, his former longtime aide. That may net her a big share of the $3.5 million war chest Royce possesses.
All this could see two candidates who each pull fewer than 20 percent of the primary vote facing off in November.
Things could also get complicated in Issa’s district, where Republican Assemblyman Rocky Chavez entered the House race within hours of Issa’s retirement announcement. Chavez, a moderate and one of seven GOP legislators who last year helped pass an extension of the state’s cap-and-trade system for cutting greenhouse gases, has a chance to win over some no-party-preference voters who might have turned thumbs down on Issa. Other prominent Republicans also could enter this race, including state Senate Republican leader Pat Bates and Diane Harkey, chair of the recently scandal-ridden state Board of Equalization.
Four Democrats were already seeking to oust Issa, a longtime ultra-conservative who as chairman of the House Oversight Committee incessantly dogged ex-President Barack Obama with unproven claims of wrongdoing. Among the Democrats is retired Marine Col. Doug Applegate, an Iraq war veteran who almost beat Issa in 2016. That forced Issa to adopt more moderate public stances in the last year. He even altered his conservative voting habits slightly, opposing Trump’s controversial tax changes at the last moment, after it had become clear they would pass without his help.
The GOP’s congressional campaign chief, Rep. Steve Stivers of Ohio, expressed hope Democrats would splinter in the June primary, leaving their eventual nominees “black and blue, and broke.” But there’s almost as much chance of the GOP splintering, which leaves plenty of uncertainty for both parties.