Democrats have controlled California’s legislature for decades, but the Nov. 3 election offers a chance for the party to cement its supermajority and take its power in the state Capitol to a new level.
The majority party is on the offense this year, targeting statehouse seats in historically conservative areas of Southern California. State party chairman Rusty Hicks says Democrats hope two things will give their candidates an edge in this year’s election: California’s changing demographics and energy around the presidential election.
“On the whole, I think Californians are looking for Democrats and Republicans to step forward and move forward policies that improve their lives,” he said. “Clearly, in cases where Democrats begin to pick up seats, it’s really proof that the Republican Party hasn't done that.”
In 2018, Democrats flipped legislative and congressional districts in the Central Valley, Orange County and the outskirts of Los Angeles. While many of those races are hotly contested again this year, Hicks said he hopes to pick up even more seats. The party is banking on Californians’ distaste for President Donald Trump — who is currently polling well below Democratic nominee Joe Biden — to boost down-ballot Democrats.
“The conversation at the top of the ticket sucks up all the oxygen,” Hicks said. “But also, it drives what happens on the state and local levels.”
For California’s Republican candidates, that has often meant distancing themselves from Trump and the national political scene in order to focus on local issues.
“We’ve known from day one that this was going to be a presidential year,” said Bryan Watkins, deputy executive director of the California Republican Party. “So we wanted to build an operation that — whether the president had 90% approval or he had 10% approval — could provide the best possible operation for our legislative candidates that it could.”
That has meant a heavy focus on recruiting and training tens of thousands of volunteers to contact voters, as well as focusing on what Watkins says are the failures of California’s controlling party.
“Democrats have just shown — whether it’s Governor Newsom or some of these Democrats that are in the legislative seats — that when given this unilateral power, they’re not able to use it well,” he said, pointing to issues like homelessness as the state’s backlogged unemployment system.
But Republicans are also hoping for a presidential year turnout boost. Watkins said the party is on track to “not only exceed our 2018 total but knock it out of the park” — despite the challenges of campaigning on-the-ground during a pandemic.
The California Democratic Party has pumped nearly $15 million into statehouse races this cycle, while the state GOP has spent more than $4 million.
There are also a handful of Democrat-versus-Democrat races for the statehouse this November.
Here are some of the seats that could switch party hands:
Seats in Play
Assembly District 38
Republicans can count on at least one State Assembly seat to come under their control this cycle. Assemblywoman Christy Smith (D-Santa Clarita) flipped the district in 2018 but is now running for Congress. The top two finishers in the primary race to replace her — Lucie Lapointe Volotsky and Suzette Valladares — are both Republicans.
Assembly District 74
This Orange County seat flipped blue in 2018 when Assemblywoman Cottie Petrie-Norris ousted incumbent Republican Matthew Harper. She won a majority vote in the March primary and has raised more than $3 million — far ahead of GOP challenger Diane Dixon’s $962,000. But the district gives Dixon a slight edge: registered Republicans outnumber Democrats by 0.4%.
Senate District 29
Incumbent Sen. Ling Ling Chang (R-Diamond Bar) is defending this seat, which straddles portions of Los Angeles, Orange and San Bernardino counties, from a familiar opponent. She lost to Democrat Josh Newman in 2016 but won the seat after Newman was recalled in 2018 (following his vote in favor of a gas tax hike). The two are facing off in another rematch — Newman has the mark of being recalled, but he’s raised over $4 million — more than twice as much as Chang.
Senate District 37
Another incumbent Republican facing a well-funded challenger is Sen. John Moorlach (R-Costa Mesa). The former Orange County Supervisor and Treasurer-Tax Collector has raised $2.1 million to opponent UC Irvine law professor Dave Min’s $3 million.
Senate District 21
This is one race where the Republican has a cash advantage. Santa Clarita Republican Scott Wilk is one of the more moderate members of the GOP caucus and has amassed $2 million this cycle to defend his Antelope Valley seat from labor lawyer Kipp Mueller, who’s raised nearly $1.8 million.
Senate District 23
Term-limited Sen. Mike Morrell (R-Rancho Cucamonga) is vacating this seat, which covers southwest San Bernardino and northwest Riverside Counties. The two women battling for the seat — Republican Rosilicia Ochoa Bogh and Democrat Abigail Medina — are both school board officials who have raised more than $1.1 million, though the district leans Republican.
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