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Democrats, GOP set to battle for CA House seats

Posted: June 7, 2012 5:04 a.m.
Updated: June 7, 2012 5:04 a.m.
 

LOS ANGELES (AP) — A handful of unusually competitive contests in California in November could help determine the balance of power in the U.S. House, where Democrats face an uphill fight to capture the 25 seats the party needs to reclaim the majority.

The GOP has been growing weaker in the nation's most populous state for years, and independents now outnumber Republicans in 14 of California's 53 congressional districts. Democrats believe the fading registration numbers, along with retooled district boundary lines, could open the way for the party to flip as many as six seats in November.

Even House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, has warned that Republicans could lose ground in California, in part because GOP House candidates in hotly contested districts could be hurt by the top of the ticket.

It's been more than two decades since a Republican carried California in a presidential election, and polls show President Barack Obama with a commanding edge over Mitt Romney.

Tuesday's primary election results pointed to several House battlegrounds where the outcome is far from assured.

In the 10th District in the center of the state, Republican Rep. Jeff Denham is locked in a November runoff with former space shuttle astronaut Jose Hernandez, a Democrat.

Registration in the district tilts narrowly Democratic — an edge of less than 2 percent — and the party sees the seat as a potential pickup this fall. But Denham grabbed nearly half the vote Tuesday, according to preliminary returns, easily besting Hernandez, another Democrat and two independents who divided the remainder of the vote.

Denham "is in the fight of his life," Hernandez said Wednesday, confidently predicting he could carry the seat. He said a critical issue would be winning the votes of independents, who typically lean to the political left in the state.

Another tight matchup will be in Ventura County's 26th District, where Republican Tony Strickland topped a field of five other candidates and set up a November runoff with Democrat Julia Brownley, who trailed him by 17 percentage points, according to unofficial returns.

A Democratic SuperPAC spent over $700,000 to boost Brownley's candidacy and help her fend off Linda Parks, a former Republican who was trying to become the first independent in the state's congressional delegation. Parks finished third.

The Congressional Leadership Fund, a SuperPAC supporting GOP House candidates, depicted Brownley as a struggling candidate who needed a flood of outside PAC dollars to survive the primary. "You know Democrats are in trouble" in the district, the group said in a statement.

Left-leaning California is an afterthought in the presidential race — there is no sign Mitt Romney intends to mount a costly campaign in the state, even though it has the largest cache of electoral votes. Obama carried the state in 2008 by 24 percentage points.

But it's different in key House races. National Democrats and Republicans are raising money furiously to contest individual seats in the state, including through political committees that can accept unlimited donations.

Candidates were running Tuesday under first-time changes in the primary election system designed to advance more moderate officeholders who could break — at least in theory — the partisan gridlock that has beset Congress and the California Legislature for years.

New district boundaries drawn by an independent commission — a power once held by state lawmakers and party insiders — opened the way for more competitive contests. Nine of the 53 districts have no incumbent on the ballot. The scenario was further shuffled by a new primary system for congressional and state legislative races in which voters, regardless of registration, could select candidates from any party.

The two candidates who received the most votes advanced to the November general election, even if it was two Republicans or two Democrats. And that's what voters will see in a handful of districts.

Republicans Paul Cook and Gregg Imus appeared headed for a runoff in District 8, which runs through inland Inyo, Mono and San Bernardino counties, and voters in San Bernardino County's 31st District will pick between Republicans Bob Dutton, a longtime legislator, and Rep. Gary Miller, according to preliminary returns.

The marquee showdown in California is between Democratic Reps. Howard Berman and Brad Sherman in Los Angeles' San Fernando Valley area, a contest that has already seen more than $5 million in spending. Democratic Rep. Fortney (Pete) Stark will face off against fellow Democrat Eric Swalwell, a county prosecutor, in Northern California's heavily Democratic 15th District.

Democrats are preparing to witness a vicious battle between Sherman and Berman, who ended up sharing a district under newly drawn boundaries.

"We always knew this was going to be a tough fight," Berman said in a statement. "Brad has continuously distorted my record and taken credit for things that I delivered for the Valley. No more."

U.S. Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., will be an overwhelming favorite to take another trip to Washington. She will face a virtually unknown Republican, Elizabeth Emken, who mustered about 12 percent of the vote in a crowded primary field Tuesday.

Other House districts to watch include the Central Valley's 9th, where 25-year-old Ricky Gill, a recent law school graduate who snagged endorsements from former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush and South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley, headed for a November tussle with Democratic incumbent Rep. Jerry McNerney. National Republicans consider Gill one of their top hopes for defeating a Democratic incumbent this year.

The tightly divided 7th District in the Sacramento area will see a rematch between Democrat Ami Bera and incumbent Republican Rep. Dan Lungren. Republicans hold a mere 202-vote edge in registration over Democrats in the district.

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