By Mackenzie Weinger
Special to Calbuzz
Beltway prognosticators sound ever more certain about Republicans seizing control of the House in a national electoral tsunami, but in California, only three of 53 congressional districts feature competitive races.
While today’s conventional wisdom suggests a GOP pick up of perhaps 50 seats nationally, which would end the reign of Speaker Nancy Pelosi of San Francisco, California Democrats are not expected to lose more than a seat or two, if that, from their current 34-to-19 majority in the state’s House delegation.
National attention remains focused on the close race between incumbent Senator Barbara Boxer and Republican challenger Carly Fiorina, of course, but the House partisan breakdown is unlikely to change much, because of a combination of California’s Democrat-trending demographics and the incumbent-friendly reapportionment that followed the 2000 census.
“We’re a Dem-leaning state and President Obama’s approval ratings are a bit higher here than they are elsewhere, and in some ways that insulates us from that backlash,” said UC San Diego political science professor Thad Kousser. “And secondly, the post-2000 redistricting means there are a lot less competitive seats.”
The races in play: Perhaps the most surprising race, given the national political atmosphere is the Third Congressional District in Northern California. It’s here that the Democrats may be able to snatch a seat from a Republican incumbent.
As one of the few races going against the Republican trend this year, the contest between Rep. Dan Lungren (R) and physician Ami Bera (D) is one of the Democrats’ few pickup opportunities of this cycle.
Bera — who has consistently outraised Lungren, raked in $550,000 in the third quarter, giving him $2.1 million this cycle, while Lungren brought in $480,000, for a total of $1.7 million. Pres. Obama eked out a win here in 2008, giving Democrats hope for a potential midterm success.
Even as it goes against this year’s pro-Republican tide, this campaign shares the same overall narrative of many GOP-leaning races around the country: a political newbie taking on an entrenched career politician.
“Lungren has been around politics his whole life,” Bera said. “He’s certainly not from this district. It’s a clear contrast. Lungren is representing corporate America… And our narrative has always been on rebuilding the middle class.”
Bera traced his campaign’s ability to buck the anti-Democratic trend to his ground-up organization and his background as a physician.
“There’s a couple reasons why this race is moving against the current,” Bera said. “We built this campaign from the very beginning from the grassroots, holding house parties where neighbors opened up their living rooms. We’ve literally done hundreds of these conversations. We’ve had a lot of individual donors and built on word of mouth. That insulated us a little bit. It’s certainly a perfect year to be a doctor running for Congress.”
Bera, who noted his campaign has over 3,000 volunteers, insisted Democrats could still use the final weeks before the election to make a successful push to hold the House: “The House of Representatives isn’t lost,” Bera said.
Also in Northern California, Rep. Jerry McNerney (D), faces a threat from attorney David Harmer (R) one of the National Republican Campaign Committee’s “Young Guns” in the 11th Congressional District. CQ-Roll Call, RealClearPolitics and Cook Political Report all have this race as a toss-up.
Somewhat less competitive is Rep. Loretta Sanchez’s (D) seat in the 47th Congressional District in Orange County, where a a win by Assemblyman Van Tran, California’s other Republican “Young Gun”, would spell a huge victory for the GOP.
Sanchez’s recent gaffe on Univision’s Sunday show, “Al Punto” — where she accused “the Vietnamese” and Republicans of trying to take her seat in Congress — has added fire to Tran’s campaign in the final month.
“It speaks for itself,” Tran’s campaign manager George Andrews said. “For her to come unglued on that TV show just shows how nervous she is. She knows times are changing in her district, and being a DC insider, she’s lost touch with the reality of the voters in Orange County.”
Andrews said this year’s GOP wave has definitely hit the 47th district: “Absolutely it’s a factor,” he said. “We’re going door-to-door in Loretta’s backyard and people are sick and tired of poor representation. She’s only passed one bill after the past 14 years — and it was to name a post office.”
In the Senate race, polls show Boxer still ahead of ex-Hewlett Packard CEO Fiorina, but the National Republican Senatorial Committee, the Chamber of Commerce and other national GOP groups continue pouring in money, which has kept the challenger financially competitive.
CQ-Roll Call and Rothenberg Political Report rate the race as leaning Dem, but RealClearPolitics, Cook Political Report and Sabato’s Crystal Ball are calling the race a toss-up.
UCSD political scientist Kousser said the Senate race is a “microcosm of the national scene – a liberal Democrat very much tied to President Obama” coupled with a case of the “Republicans nominating someone on the right end of the political spectrum.”
“If it had been Tom Campbell who won the primary, he would have had a chance in this environment,” Kousser said. “But we haven’t seen a pro-lifer win a top of the ticket race here in California for two decades. Carly Fiorina still has a shot, but if she wins this race, that’s going to be the signal that the House and Senate are really turning over.”
Washington-based political reporter Mackenzie Weinger is the former Editor-in-Chief of The Daily Nexus at UC Santa Barbara.