By Andy Cohen
On June 5, Californians will head to the voting booth — if they haven’t already mailed in their ballots — and choose, among other things, which candidates will move on to the general election in November. In the Congressional races, California is considered the epicenter of the Democrats’ chances of retaking the House of Representatives for at least the next two years. If the Democrats can manage to wrest control of some of the seats currently in Republican hands, it would seem likely — at least according to conventional wisdom — that nationally the Democratic Party will roll.
Some reminders about the California primary election system: In 2008 and 2010, voters chose to revamp our state’s election system in two key ways: First, was the way California draws its legislative and congressional district boundaries. Instead of a political process where the political party in control of the state legislature gets to draw the boundaries, California went to an independent redistricting commission with strict guidelines on how to fairly represent the voters in the state. No more gerrymandering.
Second, the state did away with political primaries, instead switching to a “top-two” primary system, where the top two vote getters — regardless of party affiliation — advance to the general election in November. This system was meant to foster a less polarizing, more representative field of candidates, and to a large extent it has been successful. In the past, this system has been relatively devastating for Republicans, shutting them out of many races statewide. This time, however, it could work in Republicans’ favor, particularly in the 49th District.
51st, 52nd, and 53rd Districts
In San Diego’s three currently Democratic held seats, none are considered endangered, despite the LA Times’ characterization of Scott Peters’ (52nd) race as the 13th most competitive in the state. Neither of the nationally recognized congressional handicappers, the Cook Political Report nor Larry Sabato’s Crystal Ball, list any of the three as competitive, and with good reason. The three incumbents, Juan Vargas (51st), Peters, and Susan Davis (53rd) are solidly entrenched with good reputations. None are facing a serious challenger in 2018, and none have done anything to draw the ire of their constituents. In fact, perhaps the most serious threat to Peters, Republican James Veltmeyer, lost to Susan Davis by 34 points in 2016.
Davis’ most serious challenger, Morgan Murtaugh, is a personality on the ultra-conservative, San Diego-based One America News cable network, which often makes Fox News look downright moderate in comparison. She’s raised a mere $28,000 (and spent $7,000) and does not at all fit the district she is running to represent.
In each race, the incumbent has vastly outraised each of their challengers. And since we still live with a system where money matters, barring catastrophe, expect the incumbents to cruise to victory in November.
Before Issa announced his retirement, there had already been a mass of Democratic challengers to the seat. But now a bevy of Republicans have jumped in like a pack of hungry hyenas on a meaty carcass.
Here’s where the top-two primary system could actually hurt the Democrats this time around: There are four legitimate challengers for the seat, including Doug Applegate, who is back for a second shot at the title; Sara Jacobs, granddaughter of Qualcomm founder Irwin Jacobs, who has the endorsement of Emily’s List; Paul Kerr, who has the endorsement of Scott Peters (D-52); and Mike Levin, who is touted as the progressive in the race, with the endorsement of Congressman Adam Schiff, the current ranking member of the House Intelligence Committee. All four have raised and spent tons of money. The problem is that with the primary system the way it is, the Democrats might end up diluting the vote to the point where Republicans finish in the top two slots.
On the issues, there’s really not much separating the Democratic field. They all support some version of Medicare for All; equality measures, particularly for women and LGBT community; they all oppose the Republican tax bill and the income inequality it exacerbates; and they all support comprehensive immigration reform and oppose Donald Trump’s border wall.
Rocky Chavez, the current Assemblyman from Oceanside, is probably the best known of the Republican field. He is a moderate and has represented the area in the state Assembly since 2013. On the issues — like the rest of his Republican counterparts — his website is sparse. He supports increased military funding, tax cuts, and … well, that’s about it. Kristin Gaspar, the current San Diego County Supervisor, supports the border wall, tax cuts, the repeal of “Obamacare” and lowering health care costs (though she gives no hint at how that would be done). Diane Harkey of the Board of Equalization supports the border wall and lowering taxes. Policy positions for the Republicans do not appear to be of great concern.
I know I’ve harped on this race continuously in the recent past, but it happens to be the most consequential Congressional race of the five San Diego area seats and is the one most likely to change parties.
Ordinarily, an incumbent under investigation by the FBI for campaign finance fraud would likely be better off retiring rather than suffering the embarrassment of defeat. But Duncan Hunter does not appear to be concerned by the “witch hunt,” and the sad fact is that Republican voters in the age of Trump are not deterred by Republican candidates who are potentially criminals. Registered Republicans in the 50th District outnumber Democrats by 47,000.
Hunter’s main Democratic opponents are Ammar Campa-Najjar, a small business owner and former Obama administration official; and Josh Butner, a former Navy SEAL medic. Campa-Najjar has outraised Hunter by nearly $50,000, and Butner by $110,000. Butner is more moderate, espousing far more middle-of-the-road positions on health care and national security (while not mentioning immigration and only touching on jobs and the economy). Campa-Najjar, like his counterparts in the 49th race, is detailed and a far more progressive-leaning candidate. In many other districts, although young, he’d probably be a rock star candidate.
Don’t expect Trump voters, however, to be at all turned off by Hunter’s ethically challenged tenure.
— Andy Cohen is a local freelance writer. Reach him at email@example.com.