Democratic leaders are hoping the state provides six of the 25 seats needed to win back the House majority. Money and national attention are being lavished on the races.

By Phil Willon, Los Angeles Times
June 2, 2012, 6:07 p.m.

The balance of power in Congress will hinge partly on the outcome of California’s demolition-derby elections this year, with new voting districts and Tuesday’s “top-two” state primary attracting Washington’s attention and money.

An array of congressional races here is critical to the Democratic Party’s effort to regain control of the House. Party leaders hope the state will give them six of the 25 additional seats they need to wrest away the majority won by Republicans in 2010.

Feeding the Democrats’ optimism is the party’s 13 percentage point advantage in state voter registration and the absence of a top-ticket race to energize conservatives in November — when both President Obama and Sen. Dianne Feinstein are expected to win handily here.

“The road to a Democratic majority in Congress runs right through California,” is the mantra repeatedly uttered by Rep. Steve Israel (D-N.Y.), the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee chairman.

Israel predicts the party will pick up seats in the Inland Empire and Central Valley, areas once considered Republican havens. He also expects Democrats to receive strong backing from independent expenditure committees, unlike in 2010 when Republicans were the prime beneficiaries of outside spending. Super PACs and other outside groups already have poured more than $4.2 million into California congressional races overall.

Unlike presidential and U.S. Senate races, contests for congressional seats tend to be steeped in local politics and hometown alliances, swayed more by yard signs than by television advertising. On that level, Republican leaders are confident their candidates will do well in California — and keep the GOP in control of the House.

Rep. Kevin McCarthy (R-Bakersfield) said that for many of the competitive races the GOP recruited candidates with deep local roots who would appeal to moderate Democrats and independents as well as members of their own party. Those include Long Beach Councilman Gary DeLong, whose opponents include Democratic state Sen. Alan Lowenthal, also of Long Beach, in a crowded race.

McCarthy said the party is confident that Republican John Tavaglione, who has been elected to the nonpartisan Riverside County Board of Supervisors five times, also will do well against his toughest Democratic challenger, Mark Takano, a teacher and Riverside Community College trustee, despite the Democrats’ slight edge in voter registration.

“Our candidates can reach across the aisle. Not all of them. But in these competitive seats they can,” said McCarthy, a top member of the House Republican leadership.

McCarthy almost gleefully noted that the race attracting the most Democratic money so far is the slugfest between Democratic incumbents Howard Berman and Brad Sherman in the San Fernando Valley.

The Democratic Party’s House Majority PAC also has spent more than $700,000 in hopes that Assemblywoman Julia Brownley (D-Oak Park) will survive a stiff primary election challenge by independent Ventura County Supervisor Linda Parks. The race also includes Republican state Sen. Tony Strickland of Moorpark, a favorite to secure one of the two spots in the November election, and six other congressional hopefuls.

“You don’t pick up seats when you’re worried about getting your candidate through the primary,” McCarthy said.

Still, the Democrats are expected to pick up at least a few — though it won’t be as easy as party leaders predict, said Nathan Gonzales, deputy editor of the nonpartisan Rothenberg Political Report, which follows congressional races.

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