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House Update: Democrats California Dreamin’

Reps. Howard Berman and Brad Sherman (both California Democrats) were put in the same district in redistricting, and they are locked in a knock-down, drag-out intraparty fight. But it’s possible that the upcoming primary is only a prelude to their real battle in November.

That’s because the Golden State now has a top-two “Jungle Primary” system. Instead of a traditional partisan primary system, all candidates run in the same primary, and the top two vote-getters advance to the general.

There’s no drama in this race in terms of which party will win it — either Berman or Sherman will be going back to Congress to represent the heavily Democratic Los Angeles-area 30th district. And Berman and Sherman — though they surely would tell you the opposite — aren’t all that dissimilar in terms of their voting records. For instance, National Journal rated Berman as the 69th most-liberal member of the House in 2011, and rated Sherman as the 85th most-liberal member. The American Conservative Union’s lifetime rating for Berman is 5 (on a 100-point scale where 0 is most liberal and 100 is most conservative); Sherman’s lifetime rating is 4.65.

But while Democrats are guaranteed to win this district (and the 44th, where two other Democratic incumbents — Reps. Janice Hahn and Laura Richardson — are squaring off), there is genuine, two-party competition in many of the other seats. And that’s where next Tuesday’s primary might provide some clues for November.

Thanks to nonpartisan redistricting — another new reform in California along with the top-two primary — about a quarter of California’s House seats are competitive at this point (13 of 53, according to our ratings). We’ve noted the statistic several times before in the Crystal Ball, but it’s worth mentioning again — under the map used in the 265 House elections held in California from 2002 through 2010, only one seat changed parties (the current CA-11, won by Democrat Jerry McNerney in 2006 over Republican Richard Pombo). Under the new maps, incumbents likely won’t be as safe.

In order to retake the House, Democrats will need to increase their 34-19 edge in the United States’ largest congressional delegation. If one assumes that Democrats will retain their 28 safe seats, and Republicans their 12 safe seats, then Democrats would need to sweep the 13 competitive districts to net a gaudy seven seats. That’s easier said than done when one considers the state of play in these seats:

District 3 (Garamendi, D): Rep. John Garamendi (D) is in seemingly comfortable territory — under the new lines, President Obama would have won this district with about 55% of the vote in 2008 — but in Garamendi’s old district, CA-10, Obama won 65%. That’s given Republicans hope that they can score an upset in this district that stretches north of Sacramento, and their preferred candidate is Colusa County Supervisor Kim Vann. Garamendi is the only Democrat in the primary field; Vann has other Republican challengers, but it would be a surprise if she finished below any of them. LIKELY DEMOCRATIC

District 7 (Lungren, R): There’s not much primary suspense here, because the only Republican in the field is Rep. Dan Lungren, and the only Democrat is physician Ami Bera. This is a 2010 rematch in a competitive Sacramento-area district: Lungren beat Bera by about seven percentage points in 2010, and the district got a few points bluer in redistricting. TOSS-UP

District 9 (McNerney, D): Just like CA-7, the general election matchup here is pretty obvious too: Rep. Jerry McNerney (D) vs. law student Ricky Gill. The Indian-American Gill is an impressive fundraiser, and he’ll criticize McNerney as a carpetbagger (McNerney recently moved into the district). However, this district is a touch more Democratic than McNerney’s old district: Not only did President Obama win it handily in 2008, but Democratic Gov. Jerry Brown and Sen. Barbara Boxer also would have won it in 2010. This is a race that the Democrats can’t afford to lose in November. LEANS DEMOCRATIC

District 10 (Denham, R): Republican Rep. Jeff Denham is a slight favorite in this race, but Democrats like their candidate: ex-astronaut Jose Hernandez. Political watchers will recognize another candidate in the primary field: Chad Condit, son of Gary Condit, the disgraced former congressman. Condit the elder, who is known for his affair with intern Chandra Levy prior to her mysterious disappearance (another man was convicted of her murder in 2010), was a Democrat; his son is an independent. It would be an absolute shocker if Condit made it out of the primary, but… LEANS REPUBLICAN

District 16 (Costa, D): Moving further down Interstate 5, this is a race that might not ultimately be all that competitive. Republicans came within about 3.5 percentage points of beating Rep. Jim Costa (D) in 2010, and the district Costa now inhabits is a little less Democratic than his old seat. But Republicans do not appear to have a top tier challenger. LIKELY DEMOCRATIC

District 21 (Open): While Republicans have rallied around a candidate they believe is a rising star in this district that extends from Bakersfield to Fresno — state Assemblyman David Valadao — Democrats have not had as much luck. Their preferred candidate, state Sen. Michael Rubio, dropped out several months ago. The two Democrats vying for the right to challenge Valadao in November are Fresno City Councilman Blong Xiong and Central California Hispanic Chamber of Commerce CEO John Hernandez. National Democrats appear to favor Xiong. If Republicans are to avoid a California wipeout, they need to win this seat. LEANS REPUBLICAN

District 24 (Capps, D): Rep. Lois Capps’ old district was a thin, gerrymandered line that ran along parts of the famous Highway 1, taking in Santa Barbara, San Luis Obispo and other parts of some of the most beautiful terrain in the United States. Redistricting unwound the gerrymander, making the district many points more Republican (though it is still a district that Obama would have won with 56% of the vote). Republicans want ex-Lt. Gov. Abel Maldonado to grab the nomination, but he first needs to finish ahead of actor Chris Mitchum in the primary. LEANS DEMOCRATIC

District 26 (Open): This is the most important primary of the night. Democrats fear that their top candidate, Assemblywoman Julia Brownley, might not finish in the top two. That’s because there are three other Democrats on the ballot, plus one Republican (state Sen. Tony Strickland) and one Republican-turned-independent (Ventura County Supervisor Linda Parks). If Parks and Strickland advance, Democrats would be shut out of a district that Obama would have won by 15 points (although which the Republican candidates for Senate and governor in 2010 would have narrowly won). This is a TOSS-UP, but only if Brownley advances.

District 31 (Miller, R): Rep. Gary Miller is the most tenuous of incumbents. He does not live in his new district, but after redistricting’s musical chairs, it became his best bet to remain in Congress even though he’s never represented the area. That means he’s not a sure thing to finish in the top two; state Sen. Bob Dutton (R) could beat him out, though Miller is the favorite. While there are several Democrats in the field, Redlands Mayor Pete Aguilar is also favored to advance. LEANS DEMOCRATIC

District 36 (Mack, R): If Democrats were to somehow sweep all 13 of these seats, this one — stretching roughly from Palm Springs to the state border — would be their heaviest lift. They like their candidate, physician Raul Ruiz, but Rep. Mary Bono Mack (wife of Republican Florida Senate contender Rep. Connie Mack) will be very hard to beat. These are the only two candidates in the field. LIKELY REPUBLICAN

District 41 (Open): Community college trustee Mark Takano (D) and Riverside County Supervisor John Tavaglione (R) are favored in this primary, and Democrats have a seven-point voter registration edge in this potentially swingy seat. LEANS DEMOCRATIC

District 47 (Open): State Sen. Alan Lowenthal (D) should emerge from the pack and be favored in the November battle for this Democratic-leaning Long Beach seat against his Republican opponent, who will likely be either Ex-Rep. Steve Kuykendall or Long Beach City Councilman Gary DeLong. LEANS DEMOCRATIC

District 52 (Bilbray, R): Rep. Brian Bilbray, a frequent Democratic target after taking over for the disgraced ex-Rep. Randy “Duke” Cunningham, saw his San Diego-area district made a shade more Democratic in redistricting. While there is a crowded primary field, Bilbray is likely to face either Port Commissioner Scott Peters or ex-Assemblywoman Lori Saldana. TOSS-UP


If one assumes that Democrats will pick up the seven seats they are currently favored to win, that would be a net gain of one seat in California. But in order to really turn California Blue (hat tip to Roy Orbison), they’ll need to grab several more of the less favorable seats described above.

P.S. — Tweaking the House

Whenever we make changes to our Crystal Ball House ratings, we’ll let you know. Since our last update, we’ve made a few tweaks.

Two Republican-held seats — in Florida, where Reps. Sandy Adams and John Mica are battling in a primary; and Rep. Tim Walberg’s Michigan seat — are now in safe territory. Neither contest has attracted a top Democratic challenger. Likewise, we’re switching Rep. Rick Larsen (D-WA) to his party’s safe category for the same reason.

The June 12 special election to replace Gabrielle Giffords in Arizona’s 8th District has tightened to the point where it appears to be a toss-up between Democrat Ron Barber and Republican Jesse Kelly. Although the district (re-numbered as District 2) will become more Democratic in the fall, if Republicans can capture the district now they would seemingly have an advantage going into the fall.

Brad Harriman, the Democratic candidate to replace Rep. Jerry Costello (D) in a southern Illinois seat, has dropped out of the race for health reasons. Until we see who the Democrats select as a candidate to replace him, this potentially competitive seat falls back into toss-up territory.

Meanwhile, Rep. John Tierney (D-MA) seems to have a real fight on his hands against Republican Richard Tisei. The camps have been fighting over internal polling, but the bottom line is that this seems like a competitive race, albeit one where Tierney, who has been hurt by his family’s legal trouble, still has the advantage.

Our full House ratings are available here.

Chart 1: Crystal Ball House rating changes