LOS ANGELES - House Republican leader Kevin McCarthy has predicted the GOP could seize control of the chamber in November by picking up seats in just one state: his own, California.
Home to 1 in 8 Americans, the nation’s most populous state is known as a Democratic monolith, but that distinction masks a more complicated political stew behind its national reputation.
No one disputes that California tilts to the political left — Republicans haven’t won a statewide race since 2006 and Democrats dominate the legislative and congressional delegations. But scattered pockets of conservative strength remain, particularly in rural and farming areas and sprawling Southern California suburbs.
McCarthy, who lives in Bakersfield, and other Republicans believe as many as five districts in California could swing their way next month — enough to give them House control in a year when voters typically punish the party that holds the White House. In a troubling sign for Democrats, President Joe Biden’s popularity nationally remains lackluster.
With mail-in ballots for the Nov. 8 election already sent to voters, many Californians are in an anxious mood, stressed by high prices at the grocery store and gas pump, an unchecked homeless crisis and rising crime rates spotlighted in Los Angeles and other big cities by smash-and-grab robberies and home invasions.
Republicans fault Biden and state Democrats for crime and inflation, while Democrats have been warning about threats to abortion rights, mirroring arguments that frame the national fight for the House majority.
In an acknowledgment of the risks, Biden visited California last week to shore up support for vulnerable Democrats and raise money.
About a half-dozen House contests are closely matched, and several others are competitive. There are 221 Democrats, 212 Republicans and two vacancies in the House.
The GOP, however, must overcome hefty Democratic registration advantages in some competitive districts. State Republican ranks have been withering for years and the GOP is outnumbered about 2-to-1 by Democrats statewide.
The main battlegrounds are Orange County — a suburban expanse south of Los Angeles that was once a GOP stronghold but has become increasingly diverse and Democratic — and the Central Valley, an inland stretch sometimes called the nation’s salad bowl for its agricultural production.
California is dropping to 52 House seats next year, from 53, because its once-soaring population growth has stalled.
Republicans hold just 11 of those seats.
Democrats want to claw back four House districts they lost in 2020 and hope to gain more. They’ve been stressing that reproductive rights are on the ballot and would be in jeopardy if Republicans take charge, after the Supreme Court in June stripped away constitutional protections for abortion. Former President Donald Trump’s continued influence on the GOP looms in the background — he’s widely unpopular in the state outside his conservative base.
"If we lose control of the House and Senate, we have a different world," Biden warned at a recent Democratic National Committee reception. "There’s so much at stake."
A look at key races:
A TRUMP SUPPORTER FIGHTS FOR HIS SEAT NORTH OF LOS ANGELES
You might not expect to find a Trump ally in a district anchored north of heavily Democratic Los Angeles. But Republican Rep. Mike Garcia has won two consecutive elections, the last, two years ago by just 333 votes.
He faces an even tougher challenge this year in his left-leaning district after it was redrawn and became more solidly Democratic.
However, the former Navy fighter pilot has shown he can beat the odds. He twice defeated favored Democrat Christy Smith for the seat. She is on the ballot again — this time in the new 27th District, which has a 12-point Democratic edge.
Smith, a former legislator, has been arguing Garcia is out of step with district voters: He was endorsed by then-President Trump in his 2020 contest, then joined House Republicans who rejected electoral votes from Arizona and Pennsylvania and opposed Trump’s impeachment after the Capitol insurrection.
Garcia, the only GOP congressman in the Los Angeles metropolitan area, highlights his military service and points to his vote supporting $2,000 stimulus checks as one example of his political independence. The district includes a large number of veterans and is home to defense industries, which could be an asset for Garcia. He’s also stressed local issues, including concern over illegal marijuana cultivation.
Smith has highlighted Garcia’s opposition to abortion rights, while calling for expanded access to health care.
A BATTLE FOR THE SOUL OF ‘REAGAN COUNTRY’
It was a shock in 2016 when then-Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton captured Orange County, a place long synonymous with conservative politics and known as "Reagan country" for its ties to former President Ronald Reagan. But the county that was once largely white and Republican has grown demographically diverse and increasingly Democratic.
This year brings a marquee matchup between Democratic Rep. Katie Porter, a national progressive star, and Republican Scott Baugh, a former state legislative leader and past head of the county GOP, in the coastal 47th District that includes Huntington Beach and other famous surf breaks.
The swing district is closely divided between Republicans and Democrats, and voters have a stark choice. Baugh is well known in the county but Porter boasts a huge financial edge: The most recent fundraising reports show she has nearly $20 million in the bank, compared to about $1 million for Baugh.
A DISTRICT WITH AN ASIAN TILT BRINGS A BITTER CONTEST
The 45th District anchored in Orange County was specifically drawn to give Asian Americans, who comprise the largest group in the district, a stronger voice on Capitol Hill. It has a Democratic registration edge and includes the nation’s largest Vietnamese American community.
The fight for the seat has evolved into a hostile confrontation between Republican Rep. Michelle Steel, a South Korean immigrant looking for a second term in Congress, and Democrat Jay Chen, a Navy reservist and the son of immigrants from Taiwan.
Both have made inflation and hate crimes against Asian Americans key issues. They’ve also kept up steady attacks against each other. Chen’s advertising depicts Steel as an extremist who would threaten abortion rights, while Republicans accused Chen of "racism" after he told supporters an "interpreter" was needed to understand Steel’s remarks, arguing that Chen was mocking her accented English.
Chen has said he was referring to "convoluted talking points" that he said Steel uses to sidestep issues, not her accent. Steel has also distributed flyers depicting Chen as a communist sympathizer, while Chen has said his grandmother fled China to escape communist rule.
The race is being watched nationally for what it will say about the preferences of the Asian community.
REPUBLICAN SEEKS TO BEAT THE ODDS IN FARM BELT SHOWDOWN
On paper, California’s 22nd District in the state’s farm belt looks like a Democratic fortress. The party holds a 17-point edge in voter registration. But it’s here that Republican Rep. David Valadao is trying to win a return trip to Washington.
He’s proven resilient. Valadao, who emphasizes a bipartisan streak, has won in a heavily Democratic, largely Latino district before. He held his seat from 2013 until January 2019, lost it for a term, then won it back in a 2020 rematch with Democrat T.J. Cox.
He’s facing Democrat Rudy Salas in a newly redrawn district. Salas, a state assemblyman who is considered a moderate, has been dueling with Valadao over gas taxes, the opioid overdose crisis and health care. Registration numbers can be deceiving in the Central Valley.
DEMOCRATS SEE POTENTIAL BREAKTHROUGH IN CHANGING DISTRICT
Rep. Ken Calvert is the longest-serving Republican in the California congressional delegation, having held office for nearly three decades in a district east of Los Angeles. But that changed with the once-a-decade redrawing of congressional boundaries, which transformed his formerly safe seat into a battleground about equally split between Republicans and Democrats.
Calvert brings the benefits of incumbency and a fundraising edge to the 41st District race, but his conservative credentials and support from Trump pose a challenging fit in a district that now includes many transplanted Los Angeles residents and liberal Palm Springs, which has a large concentration of LGBTQ voters.
He’s facing Democrat Will Rollins, a former federal prosecutor who is gay. Rollins calls Calvert an extremist and places safeguarding democracy and protecting abortion and LGBTQ rights among his top priorities.
DEMOCRATS DEFENDING DISTRICT ON THE SOUTHERN CALIFORNIA COAST
Republicans see a pickup opportunity in the 49th District, which runs through Orange and San Diego counties and only has a slight Democratic registration edge.
Democratic Rep. Mike Levin is seeking another term after first capturing the seat in 2018, and he’s facing businessman and former San Juan Capistrano Mayor Brian Maryott, who was defeated by Levin in 2020.
Levin has focused heavily on veterans affairs, as well as climate change and the environment, in the coastal district that straddles Camp Pendleton. Maryott says he will resist "fringe socialist interests" and argues its time for a change with families and businesses "feeling the squeeze of inflation, higher interest rates, higher gas and energy prices."
OPEN SEAT SETS STAGE FOR TOSS-UP CONTEST IN FARM BELT
A new district in the Central Valley could go either way. Like other districts in the farm-belt region, the 13th District has a prominent Democratic tilt and a large Latino population. But the most likely voters tend to be white, older, more affluent homeowners, while working-class voters, including many Latinos, are less consistent in getting to the polls. That provides a possible opening for the GOP, despite the 14-point Democratic registration advantage.
The top finisher in the June primary was Republican John Duarte, a businessman and major grape and almond farmer whose top priorities include obtaining adequate water supplies for farmers in the drought-wracked state — a perennial issue in the Central Valley — along with addressing inflation and crime.
His opponent, Democrat Adam Gray, is a state legislator known as a moderate. In a region heavily dependent on agriculture, he’s been critical of state water management and puts water and agriculture at the top of his issues list. He has also stressed his willingness to work across party lines, and promised to make improvements in public safety and education.
POSSIBLE SURPRISES IN A TURBULENT YEAR
Beyond the tightest races, several others are considered competitive and could provide election surprises. Republican Rep. Young Kim is the favorite to win a second term in the Republican-leaning 40th District anchored in Orange County, where she is facing Democrat Asif Mahmood, a physician. Although Kim, who was born in South Korea, is the incumbent, she’s a new face to many voters in the redrawn district but its GOP bent gives her an edge.
In the Central Valley, Democratic Rep. Josh Harder jumped into the Democratic-heavy 9th District after boundaries were reshaped, where he enjoys a 15-point registration advantage. In a challenging year for Democrats nationally, Republican Tom Patti, a county supervisor, is looking for an upset, but Harder has an upper hand given the district’s political breakdown, which includes a growing number of commuters with tech jobs in the San Francisco Bay Area.