California Congressional Races Changed by Top Two Primaries

Congress (Saul Loeb/AFP/Getty Images)

It may have seemed like this campaign season would never end, but we can now safely report that it will — on Tuesday night. And unlike past elections where voters chose between one Democrat and one Republican, eight congressional races in California are choices between two candidates of the same party. That’s because of California’s new top two primary system.

California Report host Scott Shafer looks at these races with reporters Tara Siler from KQED in San Francisco, Steven Cuevas who reports from the Inland Empire for KPCC and The California Report’s election editor Tyche Hendricks.

Scott Shafer, Host: One thing is certain for the first time in memory about a dozen Congressional races in California are actually, well, competitive, up in the air, or even toss ups. We’re going to take a look now at some of them, starting in Northern California and working our way south. Reporter Tara Siler is covering the 7th Congressional District, the suburbs of Sacramento and beyond. Incumbent Republican Dan Lungren fighting for his life there, it’s a rematch from the 2010 election against a Democrat physician Ami Bera. So Tara, tell us what makes this race so interesting.

Tara Siler: Well, what makes it interesting is you have a four-term Republican, conservative Republican, who is fighting for his life. And he’s up against Ami Bera for the second time. And this district has changed; it’s more Democratic under redistricting. And Democrats really see an opportunity here to pick off a conservative Republican, and an incumbent at that. It’s attracted a lot of money, $8 million dollars in outside money. It’s one of the most expensive races in the country. And a lot of it is being thrown at Lundgren by these outside groups.

Shafer: At him meaning on his behalf?

Siler: Against him. Against him by Democratic groups.

Shafer: And how is President Obama figuring into that race if at all? I mean, it’s not a super liberal district, it may be more favorable now to the Democrats than it was a couple years ago but to what extent, is President Obama a factor there?

Siler: Well his name isn’t exactly being bandied about by the candidates it doesn’t seem but the issues are. For example, affordable health care is an issue.

Dr. Bera has said it doesn’t go far enough and Lungren has called it “unconstitutional.” And they also have really starkly different views, not surprising, about the role of government. And as you can hear here, here’s Congressman Lundgren at a recent speech at the Chambers of Commerce:

Dan Lungren: There is a difference between the two of us. He has this great faith in the government. I have limited faith in the government; I have expanded faith in the people. Why? Because that is how it has been when we’ve been successful in the past.

Siler: And you know, for his part, Dr. Bera likes to play up his public school education and the need for more investment in education and infrastructure.

Shafer: Alright, and then finally Tara, just to the west in Alameda County, the 15th Congressional District, and unusual situation there, two Democrats facing off thanks to the top-two primary system that voters approved of. And the incumbent there is Pete Stark, one of the most liberal members of Congress. He’s been there 40 years.  Why is he so vulnerable?

Siler: Well, he’s vulnerable because he’s 80-years-old and he’s made some charges that he’s had to apologize for, a number of them. He talks off the cuff and gets himself in trouble a lot. And Swalwell is young. I see this as a generational challenge. But the interesting thing is that the endorsements for Stark are just lining up. The Democratic leadership is–

Shafer: Circling the wagon

Siler: Circling the wagon, indeed.

Shafer: Alright Tara Siler, thank you so much. Let’s go now to the Inland Empire, which is truly one of those purple parts of California. It includes Riverside and San Bernardino Counties and tends to go back and forth between Republicans and Democrats in the races for governor and president at least. And a few months ago, Democrats were hoping to pick up one, maybe two seats there, but it hasn’t quite worked out that way. Reporter Steven Cuevas covers the Inland Empire for KPCC in Los Angeles. And he joins us now.

Steven, what about that 31st Congressional District, San Bernardino. Two Republicans facing off at that race, tell us about it.

Steven Cuevas: Democrats were hoping that they would take this district in the June primary. Pete Aguilar, Mayor of Redlands, the favorite there, he came in third. So now you have Congressman Gary Miller, long-time Congressman serving in Washington, who actually represented the old 42nd District, he’s moved into Rancho Cucamonga to qualify to run in this District. He’s going up against State Senator Bob Dutton. Kind of a local favorite, former Rancho Cucamonga Councilman.

Shafer: And how is the money lining up in that race? You have an incumbent Congressman, although he doesn’t represent that District, versus a pretty well-known Republican, but one who is in the State Legislator.

Cuevas: State Senator Bob Dutton is pretty much been swamped by the fundraising efforts of Congressman Gary Miller, who has actually gotten most of his money from the National Association of Realtors. They’ve poured close to $2 million into this race. Miller is also a home builder and he sits on the Congressional Committee that has oversight over the housing industry.

Shafer: And then Steven, let’s move over a little closer to the city of Riverside to the 41st Congressional District, again, no incumbent running in that District. Democrats have a slight edge in registration, how is that race shaping up?

Cuevas: This one could be a real squeaker. It’s getting a fair amount of national attention as well. You have a long-time Riverside County Supervisor John Tavaglione, the Republican, going up against the high school teacher and College Board Trustee Mark Takano. Both are well-known in the community, and both are well-respected.

Shafer: And Steven Cuevas, he is, Mark Takano, not only openly gay, but Japanese-American. Is that, in some way, helping him in that race do you think?

Cuevas: That’s a little harder to say. You have a fair amount of Asian-Americans in this area but I think what has really resonated with Latino voters, actually, is his family story. The story of immigration, how his family came here, how his grandparents were interned during World War II, and what happened afterwards.

Shafer: And of course, the Inland Empire a very much a growing Latino population so those votes will be important to the winner, I’m sure. Let’s move now to the Inland Empire, towards Palm Springs, a well-known Republican Mary Bono Mack, the widow of Sonny Bono who died while in office several years ago. KQED Politics Editor Tyche Hendricks to talk about that race. Tyche, just how vulnerable is she?

Tyche Hendricks: Right, Mary Bono Mack is a seven-term incumbent. She has easily won reelection in the past. And her opponent this year, Raul Ruiz, has no electoral experience. He was considered a long-shot. But the race is really tightening. Ruiz who is a Harvard trained emergency room doctor, the son of Mexican farm workers has attracted a lot of support from Democrats nationally. They’ve been pouring hundreds of thousands of dollars into the race. And over the course of the Fall the race has moved to really where it’s now a toss-up. And it’s Bono Mack’s to lose.

Shafer: So a case where a compelling biography might be helping Ruiz.

Hendricks: I think his biography resonates. A quarter of the voters in the district are Latinos. They tend to vote more Democratic. But also the district has been redrawn, as all districts have, and it’s less Republican. It still tilts Republican but less so.

Shafer: And let’s go to a race in Los Angeles, specifically the San Fernando Valley where you’ve got two incumbent titans, two Democrats, Howard Berman and Brad Sherman, and the battle of the “ermans” as they say. Lots of money being thrown around in that race. It’s been very tense personally between these two men, what are the dynamics there?

Hendricks: These guys were allies really in Congress, two established Democrats. More than $13 million spent there. One of the most costly races in the country. They’re not that different, it’s been a little hard to distinguish themselves. This is a case where the top-two primary has really given us a new dynamic in California politics. It’s something that we haven’t seen before. It’s going to be a difficult choice for voters but in the end they’re going to be assured of having a Democrat representing their district.

  • Juvenal451

    Well, Dan Lundgren was part of the GOP dominated regime that got us in this mess, and he was reportedly one of about 20 GOP legislators who spend Inauguration Day evening swearing a blood oath to obstruct Barack in any way possible. And they have. Where is that jobs bill, Congressman Lundgren?

  • Dave Francis


    California is really in crisis with their
    public school system, because of the never ending unfettered influx of the
    children of illegal alien parents. It’s like talking to a brick wall in the
    Sacramento assembly. As usual they want more money for schools, because the
    schools are overcrowded with illegal alien kids. It’s just an endless conveyor
    belt of more taxes, to pay for the free education through K-12. I took my son
    out of the system because his class size was enormous and he wasn’t learning
    anything. The teacher’s attention was mainly on the progeny of children where
    English was a second language. I eventually left the state, because the state
    was overtaxing small business and the California debt was still rising. Once
    again Los Angeles and the whole state are being held financially hostage by the
    Democrats in the Capitol. State measures as the so called temporary taxes as
    30, for public safety and education are just an absolute travesty. In a similar
    measure are 38 to fund education and early childhood programs. The California public school system is
    dominated by a Teachers Union, which votes of corrupt lawmakers in the state
    assembly. California once had a education second to none, but now it is riddled
    with rot and 47 in performance. Once a model for all of America, the whole of
    the illegal alien “Sanctuary State” genuflects to the unions, which has
    devastated the structure.

    Of course the
    state government wants more money, because pregnant illegal alien Mothers
    smuggle their unborn in through unsuspecting airline routes and across large
    areas of open borders? Every year this country has to pander to hundreds of
    thousands of illegal entrants, adding to the 20 million plus already settled
    here. Forced by the courts we have to pay their living expenses for their
    children, because of automatic citizenship. President Obama has already
    condemned us to a rise in his taxes, as his administration will on his arrival
    back in the Capital will enact a full blanket amnesty for every individual that
    resides here illegally. I am not going to repeat the costs of the money paid in
    taxes to keep illegal aliens healthy, to educate their children, to put a
    section 8 shelter over their heads. The courts have determined that we should
    keep paying for foreigners, whether we like it or not. As yet there has been no
    attempt by any administration, in placing this illegal migrant or immigrant
    before the Supreme Court.

    California or any other state is demanding more money from taxpayers to pay for
    education of the influx of foreigners, then we should adamantly say NO to
    either measure 30 or 38. This situation is incredulous that illegal aliens can
    come here, with their offspring, whether conceived or not and the courts say we
    must be taxed, to pay for their welfare? The insurmountable problem is that
    this enigma is sees no light at the end of the tunnel. More taxes to pay for
    more Teachers. The Tea Party has a straight forward answer and that is a simple
    amendment to the 14th Amendment? THAT NO CHILD BORN TO A PARENT WHO
    will save the taxpayer over a hundred billion dollars annually and justifiably stop
    the never ending drain on state treasuries. With no foothold baby the parents
    can then be deported out the country, with the child and the schools can get
    down to educating our own. ALL PRUDENT AMERICANS SHOULD GET BEHIND “THE
    BIRTHRIGHT CITIZENSHIP LAW” and save billions of your tax dollars.

    While you
    about it, demand from all reluctant politicians that they vote for “THE LEGAL
    WORKFORCE ACT” That will make E-Verify a mandatory federal law that will begin
    the repatriation of illegal workers. If this law is passed from Washington,
    instead of a muddled mix of E-Verify across the 50 states, then people here
    illegally will begin to self deport. If ICE enforces this law with prosecutions
    of huge fines and prison, the unconcerned employers will be very leery of
    hiring foreign labor. Remember that the TEA PARTY is for both of these laws and
    will vote for them in the Congress. Unlike what the Liberal press declares the
    TEA PARTY is alive and well, with a growing membership of 41 million voters. They
    have crafted their agenda by gaining recognition in the Republican Party and as
    a moderate Conservative foundation, will have momentous influence in the coming
    four years. In both the Senate and House of Representatives they will not
    accept the tax and spend of the democrats, and will revise the rulings of the
    U.S. Constitution.

    According to
    reports thousands of officials will be out in force to guard against voter
    fraud. The problem as I see it, is how do they detect election irregularities
    when individuals are transported in from other counties to another where they
    once lived as the voter rolls may not have been purged or the easiest and
    simple serious shenanigans using the absentee ballot? It should be recognized
    that illegal aliens are going to be on the chopping block if Obama doesn’t win?
    Therefore, my opinion is that foreign nationals and other non citizens have
    much to lose, so they are likely to caste an illegal vote? In tight or close
    races especially in swing states, these will be a predominant hit, as this
    could change the direction of the election?