For the first time in a quarter century U.S. Representative Ed Royce won’t be running for the House. His constituents in the 39th Congressional District have a choice from 17 candidates. (Photo by Ed Crisostomo for The Orange County Register/SCNG)

By Jordan Graham | jgraham@scng.com | Orange County Register
Published: May 18, 2018 at 5:38 pm | Updated: May 21, 2018 at 11:32 am

The tit-for-tat political attack ads between two Democratic congressional hopefuls suddenly disappeared from the web this week in the race to replace retiring U.S. Rep. Ed Royce. So did their intraparty mudslinging websites.

Then came an announcement on Friday: California Democratic Party Chair Eric Bauman had brokered an armistice between the two wealthy candidates to stop their negative campaigning in the name of party unity and an effort to beat Republicans.

The abrupt ceasefire – following weeks of heightened infighting that included lawsuit threats and an allegation of voicemail forgery – underscores the delicate position Democrats find themselves in heading into the June 5 primary in the race to replace the 13-term congressman.

With a total of 17 candidates running, including three prominent Republicans, Democrats stand a chance of splitting the vote in a way that propels two GOP-hopefuls to the General Election, even if those Democrats, overall, get more votes. That’s feasible in California’s jungle primary, where the top two finishers advance, regardless of party.

Democrats hope to ride anti-Trump sentiment toward flipping the district, where Hillary Clinton won by nearly 9 percentage points over Donald Trump in the 2016 election. A win would give the party one of the 23 districts it needs to retake the GOP-controlled House of Representatives. Those goals have attracted more grassroots campaigning, national attention and outside money to the district than ever before. As of Friday, the contest had seen the fourth most money spent of any House race in the nation, according to OpenSecrets.org, which tracks political spending.

Meanwhile, top Republicans have campaigned chiefly on messaging resembling the President’s anti-illegal immigration platforms, calling for increased border security and an end California’s Sanctuary State law.

Seven competitive candidates have emerged in the race. The three top Republicans include former state Senate GOP Leader Bob Huff, former Assemblywoman Young Kim, and Orange County Supervisor Shawn Nelson. The leading Democrats are philanthropist and lottery winner Gil Cisneros, businessman Andy Thorburn, former congressional chief of staff Sam Jammal, and pediatrician Mai Khanh Tran.

Lay of the land

The 39th Congressional District sits mostly in northeastern Orange County but also stretches into the southern San Gabrielle Valley in Los Angeles County and into a small portion of southwestern San Bernardino County around Chino Hills.

It‘s by far the most diverse of Orange County’s four competitive GOP-held congressional seats, with Latino and Asian residents each comprising around a quarter of the district’s voter rolls, according to Political Data Inc. A quarter of all registered voters in the district also are foreign-born.

Of the four districts, it’s also the one where the GOP has seen its sharpest drop in voter registration. Six years ago, Republicans made up 40 percent of the district’s registered voters, holding an 8 percentage point lead over Democrats. By April, Republicans comprised only 35 percent of local voter rolls, narrowing the party’s advantage to less than a percentage point.

Despite that slim edge, Political Data Vice President Paul Mitchell said he projects Republicans will have a significantly larger voter turnout than Democrats in the district on Election Day – a boost that’s typical among GOP voters in a primary and midterm elections. On the other hand, the non-partisan Cook Political Report recently handicapped the district as “leaning Democrat.”

While the contrast between candidates from opposing parties is stark, the distinction between intraparty favorites often boils down to personal history and political experience.

Republicans

The leading GOP candidates all have held prominent public office and share similar campaign platforms. As evidence of their viability, all three candidates also have been heavily backed or attacked in the past week by out-of-district independent expenditures.

Kim, Huff and Nelson all support bolstering border security as a condition of immigration reform and have campaigned on ending SB-54, a California law that limits how local police work with federal immigration officials. All three have said they’d like to renew Trump’s tax cuts if such an extension restores state and local income tax deductions. That element of the tax cut currently hurts many Californians’ pocketbooks. And Nelson and Huff want to reverse some Obama administration environmental regulations that they see as business-unfriendly, while Kim is undecided on the matter.

Kim, who lives in Fullerton and served in the Assembly from 2012 to 2014, is the top Republican fundraiser and has been endorsed by Royce. She has touted her time working in the Congressman’s district office as giving her a firsthand experience with domestic and foreign policy issues. Kim’s campaign was buoyed this week by $178,000 in mailers and web ads from The American Future Fund, a conservative political nonprofit that doesn’t disclose its donors but which previously has been linked to the billionaire brothers Charles and David Koch.

Huff, of Diamond Bar, who served in the state legislature from 2004 to 2016, has highlighted his track record working in Sacramento’s “hyper-partisan atmosphere” as evidence that he could maneuver skillfully in Washington D.C.

And Nelson, who lives in Fullerton and has served in local government since 2002, noted that he’s the only Republican in the race who has taken action to oppose SB-54 by voting for the county to join the Department of Justice’s lawsuit against California over the law. That vote has earned Nelson significant airtime as a guest on national Fox News broadcasts.

Fearing an all-GOP November ballot, national Democrats have poured money into the district in an effort to consolidate Republican votes behind a single candidate, Kim, who their polling shows is the GOP frontrunner. In that aim, the independent expenditure arm of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee has spent $772,000 since May 7 on TV ads and mailers attacking Huff and Nelson.

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