Congress: What You Need To Know About The Key SoCal Races

Published Sep 30, 2020

Everyone likes a good rematch.

Remember the "blue wave" in 2018, when a pack of Trump-loathing political newbies unseated half of the GOP's California congressional seats in the largest nationwide Democratic Congressional blitz since Watergate? Now, Democrats want to protect what's theirs and also claw back a seat that flipped back during a special election. Buoyed by the president's persistent unpopularity in the state and high expected turnout, party optimists even hope to expand further into solidly Republican rural California.

But California's freshman Democrats now have a record -- on impeachment, Medicare for All, the Green New Deal, criminal justice and their perceived closeness with House Speaker Nancy Pelosi. Republicans plan to hammer them on it. Below, a recap of the most competitive, interesting or consequential contests in Southern California.

-- Ben Christopher | CalMatters

District 25

The 25th Congressional District spans parts of north Los Angeles County and eastern Ventura County, including Simi Valley, Porter Ranch, Santa Clarita, and the Antelope Valley cities of Palmdale and Lancaster.

Voters in this suburban and rural area are facing a decision: keep newly elected Republican Congressman Mike Garcia in the seat, or turn the job over to Democratic Assemblywoman Christy Smith?

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Before the pandemic upended commuting for some industries, many CA-25 residents spent hours of their day driving to and from Los Angeles. The district boasts relatively affordable housing and good schools, making it a magnet for a younger and more diverse population.

This demographic shift had been reflected at the ballot box: Hillary Clinton won the district by 7 percentage points in 2016. First-time Democratic candidate Katie Hill defeated Republican Steve Knight by nearly double digits in the Blue Wave election of 2018.

That was the start of a roller-coaster ride for constituents. (Appropriately, CA-25 includes the Six Flags Magic Mountain theme park's death-defying drops.) In Congress, Hill was a high-profile freshman and a fundraising dynamo seen as a future power player in Democratic politics. But she resigned last fall after nude photos of her were published online without her consent. She blamed a bitter divorce from her then-husband for the leak. Hill also admitted to having a romantic relationship with a campaign staffer.


The unexpected opening kicked off a series of elections, and Garcia was able to emerge from the March primary and win a special runoff election in May to take the seat back for Republicans -- the first time since 1998 the GOP had flipped a Democratic congressional district in California.

Garcia won decisively-- defeating Smith by about 10 points-- but the victory only guaranteed him about seven months in the House of Representatives. Both candidates kept campaigning and now meet again in the general election to decide the fate of the district for the next two years.


Mike Garcia, the incumbent Republican congressman, former Raytheon executive, and Navy fighter pilot (campaign website).

Christy Smith, a Democratic Assemblywoman, former Newhall School District board member, and policy analyst for the U.S. Department of Education (campaign website).

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Smith and Garcia spoke at a candidate forum hosted by the Santa Clarita Valley Chamber of Commerce in April. They also shared their positions on the COVID-19 pandemic with LAist and KPCC.


Large fires now regularly threaten homes and force evacuations in the 25th District -- most recently the Lake Fire, which started in August and burned more than 31,000 acres in the Lake Hughes area. Further east, the Bobcat Fire has topped 100,000 acres and burned homes in high desert communities in the Antelope Valley.

Christy Smith has repeatedly pointed to the growing impact of climate change, which has caused drought and weather conditions to exacerbate large fires.

"We are on the frontlines of this climate crisis," Smith said on Twitter. "Addressing climate change shouldn't be a partisan issue -- because we're all in this together."

She was a co-sponsor of an Assembly resolution endorsing the Green New Deal, swore off fossil fuel money in campaign fundraising, and counts environmental groups such as the League of Conservation Voters among her supporters.

Smith served as chair of the State Assembly's Joint Legislative Committee on Emergency Management from December 2018 until June of this year. In an endorsement statement, the International Association of Firefighters said, "Christy has partnered with California's firefighters to ensure that we have the tools and resources we need to combat wildfires and keep the public safe."

Mike Garcia says he wants to see greater investment in mitigation efforts such as clearing dead wood and other dangerous fuels -- and infrastructure like the power grid that has sparked major fires.

"We've got 100-year-old sage and undercover brush out there in our forests right now. And that's a lot of BTUs," Garcia said at a recent briefing with U.S. Forest Service officials. "That's a lot of fuel out there."

Experts say modern forest management policies and the displacement of native people who practiced prescribed burns have led to the buildup of fallen trees and undergrowth. These dry materials serve as tinder, letting massive wildfires grow quickly in areas that haven't burned in decades.

Last month, California and the Forest Service agreed to thin up to 1 million acres a year through logging and controlled burns.

Garcia calls himself a "conservationist" and says "we need to do everything we can to protect our environment."

He said he doesn't dispute that temperatures have risen in the past half-century. "I'm not going to get into a debate about whether global warming is real, I can see that the planet has warmed," Garcia added.

But he contends climate change is not the primary driver of the record-setting wildfires ravaging the state.

"We are most vulnerable right now because of the human-to-wildland interface, and the fact that we have so much fuel right now in the hills around us," Garcia said.



Both candidates supported funding and re-upping the relief money for small businesses available through the Paycheck Protection Program in the federal CARES Act.

"If we can't get those small businesses whole, there's going to be folks losing jobs every day," Garcia said.

Garcia applauded measures taken by the federal government to combat coronavirus, such as the Trump administration's decision to shut down most travel from China in late January. "That was an aggressive move that was criticized at the time for being xenophobic," he said.

Garcia also disagreed with critics of the Trump administration who called the feds' rollout of testing and decentralized procurement of personal protective equipment (PPE) too slow.

He said the federal government ramped up production of ventilators quickly, and pushed to expedite potential therapies and vaccine trials.

"It's a shame that it's become a political and a very partisan argument," Garcia said. "This is an uncharted crisis. This is something our nation hasn't seen before, similar to 9/11."

Smith emphasized the public should follow health officials' advice.

"The most important thing we can do is to remind people to continue to stay safe at home until their respective county or community orders expire," Smith said, adding that everyone should wear a face covering in public.

She said she's been working in the Assembly to ramp up the state's testing capacity.

Smith called the Trump administration's response to the coronavirus outbreak "scattershot." She also criticized the president's decision to halt U.S. funding of the World Health Organization.

Smith added more investment is needed in the CDC and "our research infrastructure that we are going to need to shore up testing, and to have systems in place that allow us to establish whatever the new normal will be."


Health Care

In the past, Rep. Garcia has advocated for repealing the Affordable Care Act.

"There should be safety nets. But I don't want the federal government to be the safety net," he said last year during an interview with the Talk of Santa Clarita podcast, while adding he supports Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid at certain levels. "I want the churches, I want the local community nonprofits, I want our neighbors to be the safety nets."

But Garcia admits Republicans must have a better plan before jettisoning the current system, and that roadmap should protect Americans with preexisting conditions. "You have to have a plan in place before you repeal [the Affordable Care Act]," he said earlier this year.

On the campaign trail, Smith often brings up Garcia's support for President Trump and the administration's efforts to repeal or undermine the Affordable Care Act.

Before the May special election, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee spent $1 million on a local ad touting Smith's defense of coverage for preexisting conditions.

"She's working with both parties to ensure everyone has access to the affordable health care they need," the narrator intones.

-- Libby Denkmann | LAist

District 39


Diverse, well-educated and suburban, this may be the archetypical example of the once-solidly-GOP district in Orange County that has slipped from Republican fingers in the Trump era.

The Republican share of registered voters has been trending down for years, and Democrats now outnumber Republicans by four points. Even so, the 2018 election pitting a Latino veteran political novice against a well-known Korean American former legislator was a nail-biter. It took two weeks of ballot counting before anyone was ready to declare the Democrat the victor.


You've seen these two before: The lotto winning ex-Republican versus the former Assemblymember with the backing of the Orange County establishment. After a squeaker in 2018 to fill the post former held by Republican Ed Royce, this is the rematch.

Gil Cisneros (Democrat)

Key Endorsements: California Teachers Association, Everytown for Gun Safety

Cisneros was an actual lottery winner. He was also lucky enough to make it past the 17-person primary and eke out a three-point victory in one of 2018's closest Congressional races. Having those millions to spend on the race helped. A former Republican who became an education philanthropist after winning $266 million in 2010, he ran as a moderate.

In Congress, Cisneros is on the Armed Services and Veterans Affairs committees, bolstering his foreign policy cred. After news of Trump's Ukraine affair broke, Cisneros joined six fellow freshmen House Democrats -- all veterans of the armed services or intelligence agencies -- to call for an impeachment investigation. It was a turning point in the saga. (campaign website)

Young Kim (Republican)

Key Endorsements: Retired Congressman Ed Royce, National Federation of Independent Business

Kim's loss in 2018 caught many by surprise. It was hard to imagine a Republican candidate better suited to the area. She was a Korean immigrant in a district with a large Korean community, and a skilled retail politician with electoral experience and connections to the Orange County party establishment. With experience in the state Assembly and close ties to the outcoming incumbent, Kim also had a knack throughout the campaign for saying as little as possible about President Trump, who lost the district by nine points.

Republicans evidently still see her as their best chance in 2020, with donors rushing to her financial aid. Befitting an underdog hoping to unseat an incumbent, she's been on the offensive. The barbs she's directed at Cisneros have been less about policy and more about the company he keeps. Kim's attack ads have criticized Cisneros for supporting San Francisco Rep. Nancy Pelosi for House Speaker, and for taking campaign contributions from lobbyists and labor-affiliated political action committees. (campaign website)


Cisneros has reason for optimism, given the power of incumbency and the typically higher Democratic turnout of a presidential year. But a lot has happened since November 2018 and the incumbent no longer has the luxury of running as an outsider looking to shake up the system.


-- Ben Christopher | CalMatters

District 45


Hugging the west side of the Santa Ana Mountains, this inland Orange County district runs from Yorba Linda's edge to Mission Viejo. Republicans still narrowly outnumber Democrats district-wide, with dark blue clusters around UC Irvine. And as with much of Orange County, President Trump and his flavor of GOP politics are unpopular with this affluent, highly educated electorate. Since 2014, the GOP share of the electorate here has declined seven points -- a more precipitous drop than in any other congressional district on this list.


A banker-bashing progressive might not seem the most obvious fit for this district. But viral stardom and far more cash than the other candidate make the incumbent the clear favorite.

Katie Porter (Democrat)

Key Endorsements: Barack Obama, Sen. Elizabeth Warren

Katie Porter is among the best-known members of the 2019 freshman class. The UC Irvine bankruptcy law professor with an Elizabeth Warren-inspired left-leaning populism has a knack for dissolving bankers and presidential appointees into humiliating meme-able soundbites from her perch on the House Financial Services Committee. In fact, Sen. Warren was Porter's professor at Harvard Law, and Porter was a co-chair of her presidential campaign.

Porter's virality has been good for fundraising -- always a helpful thing inside the eye-poppingly expensive Los Angeles media market. But as a Medicare for All proponent, she is an unusual fit in a district where Republicans still outnumber Democrats. (campaign website)

Greg Raths (Republican)

Key Endorsements: Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Association, State Senator Pat Bates

After 30 years in the Marine Corps and a stint at the White House Military Office, Raths ran for Congress twice unsuccessfully before finally winning a seat on Mission Viejo's city council in 2018. That regular presence on the ballot might be the reason behind Raths' second-place finish during the primary. He won 18% of the vote, splitting the GOP share with five other candidates. He wasn't the pick of the party establishment, and given Porter's formidable fundraising advantage, it's not clear GOP donors are willing to put enough behind Raths to make a real go of it. (campaign website)


Can a progressive keep winning in a right-leaning district by ginning up enough enthusiasm from its bluest corners? Here's the test case.


-- Ben Christopher | CalMatters

District 48


This 50-mile stretch of Orange County coastline represents the high-water mark of the blue wave. In no California congressional district represented by a Democrat are the Dems outnumbered by a larger spread (5%) or did President Trump receive a higher share of the 2016 vote (46%).

So how did a Democrat capture the seat? Democrats are hoping it was due to a strong candidate and a lasting shift of otherwise conservative voters away from the Trumpified GOP.

But Republicans are counting on a simpler answer: Dana Rohrabacher.


In one of Orange County's last Republican bastions, a fortunate Democrat hangs on for his political life while Republicans rally around a well-known challenger.

Harley Rouda (Democrat)

Key Endorsements: California Labor Federation, League of Conservation Voters

In the lead-up to the 2018 election, nowhere was anti-Trump electoral enthusiasm as concentrated as in Orange County. Harley Rouda, a wealthy real estate executive with no political experience, was one of eight Democrats to join the race. Their target: Rep. Rohrabacher, a mainstay of Orange County GOP politics whose preference for warmer U.S.-Russia relations earned him the derisive nickname, "Putin's favorite congressman."

Despite a pugnacious Twitter presence, Rouda, a former Republican, has gone out of his way to convey his moderate politics to the still GOP-leaning voters in his district. In the 2020 presidential primary, he was the first California member of Congress to endorse New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg. (campaign website)

Michelle Steel (Republican)

Key Endorsements: Orange County Sheriff Don Barnes, Former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich

The once indomitable Orange County GOP political machine is still a force to be reckoned with and Steele sits at its center. A county supervisor going on six years, and the board's current chair, she previously represented the region on the state's Board of Equalization. The Korean immigrant is married to former Republican National Committeeman and ex-state party chair Shawn Steel. No surprise that since the beginning of the election season, she has had the backing of the state party and every California Republican member of Congress.

Since the beginning of the pandemic, Steel has also been a central figure in Orange County's resistance to the Newsom administration's COVID-19 public health orders. In May, Steel authored a county resolution declaring churches "essential" services -- controvening more restrictive state standards -- and publicly pressured the county's public health director to relax a mandatory mask regulation. (campaign website)


On paper, this is the Democrats' most vulnerable congressional seat. If Republicans are able to take it back, it will indicate that their previous loss was more about Rohrabacher's unpopularity than anything else. If Rouda holds on here on Nov. 3, it's a sign that Democrats are probably having a very good night.


-- Ben Christopher | CalMatters