No state figures more prominently in Democratic plans to retake the House than bright blue California.
With 25 seats separating them from the speaker’s gavel, Democrats have settled on a blueprint targeting nearly a dozen seats across the Golden State — a yawning figure that highlights the emphasis party officials have placed there.
Success would further strengthen the party’s vise-like grip on the nation’s largest state — and accelerate the GOP’s plunge toward political irrelevance there. But Republicans, sensing some opportunities of their own on the California electoral map, aren’t conceding without a fight.
In a briefing with reporters last week, Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee Chairman Steve Israel of New York identified 10 open and Republican-held California seats the party would invest in and predicted that Democrats, who currently hold 34 of the state’s 53 seats, could ultimately gain as many as six seats there.
Israel said three other states — Florida, Illinois and New York — presented House Democrats with potent opportunities in November. But none, he said, offered the party as many possible pickups as California.
“We will be playing massively in California because we need to run up the score there,” Israel said.
With a little less than six months before the election, the House playing field remains fluid. Democratic officials say they are still in the opening phase of determining where to allocate their resources and that their current view of the national landscape could still shift.
But California is clearly a focal point. House Majority PAC, a Democratic-aligned third-party group, says it will raise and spend $8 million in the state through the election, with the aim of targeting up to nine seats there. In the coming months, the group plans to hold a series of political briefings for top California donors highlighting the party’s prospects in the state.
“It’s a big deal,” said California Democratic Party Chairman John Burton, a former congressman and longtime power broker in state politics. “There are a lot of potential seats — I think more than any state in the nation.”
Democratic prospects in California were boosted last year after an independent redistricting commission redrafted the state’s congressional map. The bipartisan group, which was initially proposed by then-GOP Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger and later approved by voters, dismantled a system designed to protect incumbents, putting many of them in jeopardy.
In most cases, it was Republicans who found themselves in trouble — in large measure, a reflection of California’s shift away from the GOP over the past two decades and the exploding numbers of minority voters. After the 2010 elections, Republicans held 19 of the state’s 53 seats. When the mapmakers put the finishing touches on the state’s new congressional plan, just 15 of the state’s districts favored Republicans.
“I think that the prospects look very good,” said Rep. Zoe Lofgren, chairwoman of the California Democratic congressional delegation. “It doesn’t mean we’re going to win every seat we’re targeting. But we have some pretty poignant options.”
“This is now a pretty blue state,” she said. “I think that some of it is the Democratic demographic trends in the state. I think some of it is the new lines.”
Democrats say they are eyeing races across California, particularly in the Central Valley and southern portion of the state, where the commission refashioned districts to accommodate the rise in Hispanic population. Top Democratic prospects include Redlands Mayor Pete Aguilar, who is seeking an Inland Empire-area seat, and Mark Takano, a local community college official who is running for a Riverside County-area seat.
Perhaps no Democrat has taken as much personal interest in California as House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, who cut her teeth in politics as a chairwoman of the state party. Pelosi has spoken to individual candidates about their races and in some cases has offered her assistance. Next week, she will host a San Francisco fundraiser for Jose Hernandez, a former astronaut who is seeking a Central Valley-based seat.
“The road to the majority runs through California,” Pelosi wrote in a statement provided to POLITICO. “After California’s non-partisan redistricting, there are more competitive Republican House races than ever before and Californians are energized, mobilized, and ready to win.”
Democrats are betting their California candidates will benefit from President Barack Obama’s expected strength at the top of the ballot. They also argue that an anticipated lack of investment from Mitt Romney’s campaign and the Republican National Committee will leave Republican congressional candidates in the state without needed air cover.
Republicans are also not seriously competing against Democratic Sen. Dianne Feinstein, making the vacuum even more pronounced.
“I don’t think national Republicans are going to do any investments in California because California cannot be won by Republicans under any circumstances,” said former San Francisco Mayor Willie Brown, a longtime Democratic leader in the California Assembly. “That’s leaving the House playing field to the playground of the local Democratic congressional candidates, and they are taking full advantage of it.”
But Democrats have some tripwires. The party must defend several vulnerable incumbents, including Reps. Lois Capps, John Garamendi and Jerry McNerney, a third-term member who has been outraised by his Republican challenger, 25-year-old law school student Ricky Gill.
Democrats are also trying to defend a competitively drawn, Central Valley-area seat that one of their incumbents, Rep. Jim Costa, vacated to run elsewhere.
Democrats are facing complications in the Gold Coast-area district of retiring GOP Rep. Elton Gallegly. Under California’s newly implemented jungle primary system, where the top two vote-getters advance to the general election regardless of party affiliation, there is the very real possibility that the June 5 primary could send two non-Democrats, Republican Tony Strickland and independent Linda Parks, to the November election.
The leading Democratic candidate, Julia Brownley, is competing for votes with several lesser-known Democrats. Recognizing the danger, national Democrats have rallied to Brownley’s aid, with House Majority PAC running ads supporting the Democrat and Pelosi penning a fundraising letter for her.
“I don’t see where Democrats are going to get the advantage,” said California Rep. Kevin McCarthy, the House majority whip. “They’re going to be on defense before they get to November.”
Republicans are taking California seriously, viewing it as a critical avenue for stopping the Democratic push to regain the majority. This week, the National Republican Congressional Committee dispatched its political director, Mike Shields, to the state to huddle with campaigns there. Next week, NRCC Chairman Pete Sessions (R-Texas) will head to California to host a fundraiser for Kim Vann, a Colusa County commissioner who is challenging Garamendi, and Ricky Gill.
McCarthy, for his part, is hosting a fundraiser this week for three vulnerable GOP incumbents: Reps. Dan Lungren, Mary Bono Mack and Jeff Denham. McCarthy also recently hosted an event for a trio of GOP candidates in the state — David Valadao, Doug LaMalfa and Strickland — who served with him in the state Legislature. He said he would assist them in the coming months.
“It’s kind of like The Blues Brothers,” he joked. “We’re putting the band back together.”
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