California Midterm Elections 2018: What You Need to Know

California Midterm Elections 2018: What You Need to Know

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Last updated: May 28, 2018

It’s the question a reporter covering politics is bound to hear at dinner parties and gatherings of friends and family in an election year: Who is going to win?

That has certainly been the case this year in California, which — after years of being relegated to the sidelines during national campaigns — has found itself at the heart of the Democratic battle to take control of Congress. Then there’s the fight to replace Gov. Jerry Brown, who is retiring, and the challenge from the left to Senator Dianne Feinstein, who is not.

I have covered national politics for more years than I will admit to — let’s just say I have observed more than one “Jerry Brown for president” campaign — and as I rule, I avoid the who-is-going-to-win question. (Indeed, the one time I broke my no predictions rule was in the presidential election of 2016. Let’s just leave that at that.)

Still, this period in California politics is as fraught and interesting as any since Arnold Schwarzenegger moved from Hollywood to Sacramento and became governor in a wild recall election. Interest is about as high as it ever gets in California for a nonpresidential election.

It’s a little confusing — seven congressional races and a few dozen candidates. And the day to go to the polls is closer than you might think: A nonpartisan, open primary on June 5 will determine the lineup for the November ballot — and we will know a lot that night about Democratic hopes for posting the big gains they need on the West Coast. (A big reason for that is the unusual system California has for choosing candidates. You can read about it here.)

We are here to help. Below are state-of-play cards in races for Senate, governor and seven House seats, a handy glimpse at the candidates, districts and issues. We will be updating this throughout the week.

[Read our related coverage including a midterm calendar, Senate preview, and House preview.]

Top Races to Watch


Incumbent: None. Jerry Brown, a Democrat, is retiring.

The contenders: The main Democrats are Gavin Newsom, the lieutenant governor and a former mayor of San Francisco; Antonio Villaraigosa, a former mayor of Los Angeles; John Chiang, the state treasurer; and Delaine Eastin, the former superintendent of public education. The two main Republicans are John Cox, a business executive endorsed by President Trump, and Travis Allen, a State Assembly member.

How tough a race? By most measures — think money and poll numbers — Mr. Newsom is a clear front-runner going into the June 5 vote. The big question is whether this turns into a two-person race with Mr. Villaraigosa, a well-known figure in Southern California who could draw significant financial support. Mr. Newsom is doing what he can to make sure that it does not, running ads intended to boost the prospects of Mr. Cox. (In promoting Mr. Cox, Mr. Newsom finds himself in an unusual alliance with Mr. Trump.)

Big question: Will Mr. Cox make it to the November ballot against Mr. Newsom? If he does, the race pretty much ends when the votes are counted next Tuesday; California is overwhelmingly Democratic and Mr. Cox’s alliance with Mr. Trump — if valuable in a primary to win over Republican voters — won’t be particularly helpful in a general election. If Mr. Villaraigosa squeaks in to get a spot on the ballot, California is in for an interesting race.

U.S. Senate

Incumbent: Senator Dianne Feinstein

Résumé: Seeking a sixth term, Ms. Feinstein is, at 84, an institution in California politics. She is a former San Francisco mayor, a member of the Board of Supervisors, and one of the most powerful Democrats in Washington.

Main opponents: Kevin de León, the former Democratic leader of the State Senate. Are there any Republicans? Yes. But it does not appear that any of them will make it through the June primary to win a spot on the November ballot. We will let you know over the next week if it looks like that might change. Watch this space.

How tough a race? Not particularly tough at all. Ms. Feinstein is far ahead of Mr. de León in most polls and in fund-raising.

Big question: Mr. de León began his campaign on the hope that a wave of Democratic activism — and a sense that Ms. Feinstein is too moderate and has been around for too long — would translate into a surge of support for a newcomer. Might that happen in a two-person general election?

Congressional District 10: Central Valley

Incumbent: Representative Jeff Denham

Résumé: Seeking a fourth term, Mr. Denham is a Republican former state senator and an Air Force veteran who served in Operation Desert Storm.

Main opponents: Michael Eggman, a farmer making his third run against Mr. Denham; Josh Harder, a venture capitalist; and Virginia Madueño, a public relations executive.

How tough a race? Mr. Denham defeated Mr. Eggman in 2016 with 51.7 percent of the vote.

2016 results: Hillary Clinton won this district with 48 percent of the vote.

Big question: Can Democrats drive up the Latino vote in this Central Valley district?

Congressional District 21: Central Valley

Incumbent: Representative David Valadao

Résumé: Mr. Valadao, a rancher and former assemblyman, was elected in 2012.

Main opponent: T.J. Cox, a businessman.

How tough a race? He won re-election with nearly 57 percent of the vote.

2016 results: Mrs. Clinton thumped Mr. Trump with 55 percent of the vote.

Big question: Is the Trump drag big enough to pull down a Republican who otherwise should not have a difficult race, particularly against an opponent who doesn’t live in the district?

[Read more about this district and others in farming communities.]

Congressional District 25: Los Angeles County

Incumbent: Representative Steve Knight

Résumé: He was elected in 2014. Mr. Knight, a Republican, has served in the State Senate, the State Assembly and the Palmdale City Council.

Main opponents: Bryan Caforio, a Los Angeles lawyer who challenged him in 2016; Katie Hill, the head of a nonprofit helping homeless people; and Jess Phoenix, a volcanologist.

How tough a race? He beat Mr. Caforio with 53 percent of the vote in 2016.

2016 results: Mrs. Clinton won this district with 50 percent of the vote.

Big question: Will Democrats end up with the person whom party strategists consider their strongest prospect in the November campaign after the multicandidate June 5 contest? In the field, Ms. Carafio or Ms. Hill are the most likely to end up the Democratic challenger to Mr. Knight; Ms. Hill is viewed as the stronger candidate.

Congressional District 39: Orange County

Incumbent: Open. Representative Ed Royce, a Republican, is not seeking re-election

Résumé: N/A

Top candidates: An open seat means there are Republicans and Democrats on the ballot. Republicans include Bob Huff, a former minority leader of the State Senate; Shawn Nelson, an Orange County supervisor; and Young Kim, a former member of the Assembly. Democrats include Gil Cisneros, a wealthy philanthropist, and Mai Khanh Tran, a pediatrician.

How tough a race? It’s probably tougher for Republicans without Mr. Royce, particularly if Mr. Cisneros gets on the ballot — he has the money to wage a strong campaign.

2016 results: Mrs. Clinton won 51 percent of the vote.

Big question: This is another one where California’s open primary system could prove decisive. Will the large field of Democrats allow Republicans to capture the top two positions and lock out Democrats from the November ballot?

Congressional District 45: Orange County

Incumbent: Representative Mimi Walters

Résumé: A Republican, she was elected to Congress in 2014, coming up from the California Assembly and Senate. She is a former investment banker.

Main opponents: Katie Porter, a consumer advocacy lawyer and professor at the University of California, Irvine; Dave Min, a law professor at U.C., Irvine; and Brian Forde, who worked as a science adviser in the Obama White House.

How tough a race? She won in 2016 with 58 percent of the vote.

2016 results: Mrs. Clinton won with 49.8 percent of the vote.

Big question: A good district to watch how the health care issue plays out: Ms. Walters voted to repeal Obamacare in favor of Trumpcare, and Democrats are using it as an issue against her.

Congressional District 48: Orange County

Incumbent: Representative Dana Rohrabacher

Résumé: An Orange County institution, the Republican has been in Congress since 1989.

Main opponents: Mr. Rohrabacher has drawn a Republican challenger, Scott Baugh. Two Democrats are Harley Rouda, a businessman, and Hans Keirstead, a biomedical researcher.

How tough a race? Presumably quite tough. Mr. Rohrabacher is very close to Mr. Trump, and there have been a series of reports tying him to Russia and Julian Assange, the WikiLeaks founder.

2016 results: Mrs. Clinton won with 48 percent of the vote.

Big question: Will this race — which had been a top target for Democrats — slip away because of California’s top-two primary system? Mr. Baugh, a former Orange County Republican leader, is running a very strong campaign and this could end up being a Rohrabacher-Baugh race in November.

Congressional District 49: Orange and San Diego Counties

Incumbent: Open. Representative Darrell Issa, a Republican, is not seeking re-election.

Résumé: N/A

Main opponents: An open seat means there are Republicans and Democrats on the ballot. The Democrats include Doug Applegate, a Marine veteran who ran against Mr. Issa last time; Sara Jacobs, a former foreign policy adviser for Mrs. Clinton’s 2016 campaign and the granddaughter of the co-founder of Qualcomm; Paul Kerr, a businessman; and Mike Levin, an environmental lawyer. The Republicans include Rocky Chávez, a State Assembly member, and Diane Harkey, a member of the Board of Equalization.

How tough a race? This was a big Democratic target when the always controversial Mr. Issa was on the ballot (he won by 1,700 votes in 2016). His decision to step aside has made it tougher for Democrats.

2016 results: Mrs. Clinton won here with 50.7 percent.

Big question: This is another district where Democrats have a crowded field and are in danger of getting shut out of the November election.

Congressional District 50: San Diego County

Incumbent: Representative Duncan Hunter

Résumé: Elected in 2008.

Main opponent: Josh Butner, a former Navy SEAL officer.

How tough a race? Mr. Hunter is facing an investigation for the improper use of campaign funds, putting an otherwise safe Republican seat in play.

2016 results: Mr. Trump drew 54.6 percent of the vote here.

Big question: Will corruption allegations hovering over this campaign, along with the problems the Republican Party is experiencing in California, give Democrats a chance at capturing this seat? And will Mr. Hunter be indicted, giving Republicans an opportunity to put a stronger candidate on the ballot this November?

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