Turning ‘Purple’ — The Inland Empire’s Shifting Voter Demographics

By Steven Cuevas, KPCC Radio

Mark Takano (D), newly elected representative from the 41st Congressional District in the Inland Empire. (MarkTakano.com)

Mark Takano (D), newly elected representative from the 41st Congressional District in the Inland Empire. (MarkTakano.com)

California’s Congressional delegation will include about a dozen new faces next year. Redistricting and the state’s “Top Two” primary system led to an unusual number of competitive races, as well as a few upsets — and Democrats are the beneficiaries.

Of the state’s 53 Congressional districts, 34 are currently represented by Democrats. With Tuesday’s voting, at least one more seat will turn blue, while three other races still appear too close to call.

For starters, parts of the Inland Empire are looking a lot more purple — with areas once seen as Republican strongholds giving way to a wave of Democratic newcomers.

Early on election night, Mark Takano wasn’t yet ready to claim victory as returns showed him ahead of his Republican opponent in the newly drawn 41st Congressional District. “So let’s be patient,” he said, “luxuriate in the feeling we have now and be hopeful that change has come to Riverside.” But within hours it was clear that Takano, currently a Riverside Community College board trustee, had become the first openly gay Asian American elected to Congress. He believes that his success was partly driven by a wave of younger voters he says are more accepting of gay candidates. Robert Melsh supported Takano in two prior unsuccessful Congressional bids in the early 1990’s — when opponents circulated anti-gay campaign flyers. That didn’t happen this time.

“That shows you that not only is Riverside getting ‘blue’ politically, but it’s growing up. Four years from now it will be more majority Hispanic, it’ll be diversified, and Republicans will be running for cover,” says Melsh.

In what’s shaping up to be one of the biggest upsets, political first-timer Democrat Raul Ruiz appears to have defeated veteran GOP Congresswoman Mary Bono Mack of Palm Springs. The county registrar’s office still has thousands of vote-by-mail ballots to tally. But registered Democrats outnumber Republicans by a narrow majority in the newly drawn 36th District. It’s the first time Bono Mack sought re-election in a district that was not more heavily weighted toward Republicans.

The congresswoman was also hurt by a comment she made referring to the city of Coachella as a “third world toilet.” The Coachella Valley is home to a large number of Latinos — who make up about a third of the district’s voters. During an election night interview with the Palm Springs Desert Sun, Bono Mack all but conceded the race with thousands of votes left to tally. “Historically the trend would say that the numbers will continue to go the way they are going, and that he [Ruiz] will win,” she said.

Republicans held ground in other parts of the Inland Empire, including the 31st Congressional District which includes San Bernardino. But by toppling the GOP in several other key races, Democrats might now see the region as a winnable battleground for future state and national candidates.