As the nation’s most populous state and with the largest number of congressional districts – 52 – California usually plays a significant role in national elections including pivotal midterms, but this year it’s not expected to make much of a difference, barring anything out of the ordinary – except when it comes to the Latino composition of the congressional delegation.
While incumbent Democratic Senator Alex Padilla is expected to sail through election for the first full six-year term as senator after his appointment to fill former Senator Kamala Harris’ seat, there’s a bit of political drama in the lower chamber.
California is already set to lose a Latina member of Congress with Rep. Lucille Roybal-Allard’s decision to not run for reelection. The longtime congresswoman from a storied Los Angeles political family was elected in 1992 as the first Mexican American woman in Congress and leaves a three-decade career as chair of the House Homeland Security Appropriations subcommittee – the first Latina in that powerful slot. Her district was redrawn and is now considered a good bet that Republicans will take it after GOP congresswoman Young Kim announced she would seek reelection in that district and has maintained a lead over political neophyte and physician Asif Mahmood.
It is interesting to see that while most political pundits have said that the new redistricting map drawn up last year keeps most of the California congressional delegation relatively “safe” for Democrats, whether it’s “safe” for Latino Democrats is another story. One particular case in point in the race between incumbent congressman Jimmy Gómez and immigration lawyer David Kim – a matchup that plays against the background of the recent controversy involving racist comments made by a now-former Los Angeles City Council member, Nury Martínez, and a two current members, Kevin de León and Gil Cedillo, who played along and have refused to step down.
While that happened thousands of miles from the nation’s capital, both Gómez and Kim had tried to take the moral high ground and call for unity in a district that includes a wide swath of immigrant groups – from Koreatown to Boyle Heights and Eagle Rock.
Kim has given Gómez a run for his money and has received the endorsement of some Latino community activists running as an “outsider” looking for “change.” The district was once home to former members Edward Roybal and Xavier Becerra and is still largely Latino but has a rapidly growing Asian American population and an even greater gentrifying population of white voters looking for more affordable housing in the city.
Let’s not forget that this is a rematch where Gómez won the first time by just six percentage points and all polls show a tossup. Like some political races nationwide, this one has even turned nasty, with a Kim supporter saying a Gómez canvasser going door-to-door made anti-Asian remarks. The Gómez campaign did act quickly, saying it was a volunteer not associated with the campaign on a regular basis who did not use “an approved campaign script” and is no longer working on the campaign. Clearly the seat will stay in Democratic hands, but whether it means that a Latino member of Congress leaves may not even be known on election night. That’s how close it is.
On the other hand, one possible Latino loss could be a gain in another district and the chance of the state’s agricultural powerhouse district to send its first-ever Latino to Congress and unseat an incumbent Republican. The Central Valley has never had a Latino representative in Washington, D.C., despite that community representing nearly 40 percent of the valley’s population.
While redistricting created three majority-Latino districts, betting minds give state Democratic Assemblyman Rudy Salas of Bakersfield a really good chance of unseating Republican incumbent Congressman David Valadao in District 22. Salas, who grew up working the fields with his family, was the first Latino on the Bakersfield City Council and credits his farmworker roots as helping him understand what is best for the community and their needs on the federal level. The district has suffered from low voter turnout in the past – an advantage for GOPer Valadao in a district that has a high percentage of Democratic voters. He was turned away by voters in 2018 when turnout was higher among Democrats, but he came back to Washington in 2020.
Another key race to watch involves incumbent Republican Congressman Mike Garcia against Democrat Christy Smith in a northern Los Angeles district that includes some of the San Fernando Valley, some of Antelope Valley, and Santa Clarita. The district has changed political sides more time than most, with Democrats and Republicans taking turns representing what was a conservative valley that with population shifts has also shifted with the political winds aided by redistricting. Garcia, the son of immigrants from Mexico and a former Navy pilot, won two years ago by just 333 votes – one of the closest congressional results in the country and has since voted against the certification of the 2020 election and compared the FBI to “the Third Reich” in criticizing their search of former president Trump’s Florida residence. Interestingly, redistricting moved Garcia out of one of the most conservative areas – Simi Valley – which gives Democrats a bit of an edge while representing another loss of a Latino congressional member.
As with several other key matchups nationwide, results for these races in California may not even be known on Election Night given how close they are and how much of a role mail-in ballots are playing, so it’ll be interesting to see where the number of Latinos representing the state finally end up and – importantly – if Latino voters had anything to do with it.