California was at the center of the 2018 Democratic “wave” election, typified by a Democratic gain of seven U.S. House seats, or half of the California Republican congressional delegation. So it’s fitting that the surprise Republican House gains of 2020 also depended in no small part on the Golden State, with the GOP winning back four of the seven lost seats from the midterms.
One seat, in the Ventura–Los Angeles County–based 25th District, was actually flipped in a May 2020 special election by Republican Mike Garcia after 2018 winner Katie Hill resigned following a sex scandal. In a rematch with Democrat Christy Smith, Garcia hung on again in November, though only by a few hundred votes.
Another was in the San Joaquin Valley, where former Republican representative David Valadao won a rematch with T.J. Cox by about 1,500 votes. Cox narrowly upset Valadao in 2018.
The other two “flips” were from the 2018 Democratic treasure trove in and near Orange County. Freshman Democrat Harley Rouda was upset by Republican Michelle Steel by just over 2 percent of the vote in a race influenced by anti-mask sentiment in that locality. Like Steel, Young Kim is a Korean American Republican woman who knocked off freshman Democrat Gil Cisneros in another rematch, winning by just over 4,000 votes.
Valadao isn’t the only familiar face returning to Washington: Controversial veteran House member Darrell Issa, who retired in 2018 as he faced likely defeat in the 49th District, won the more comfortably Republican 50th District seat vacated early this year by scandal-plagued Duncan Hunter, who resigned after a guilty plea to charges of heavy personal use of campaign funds.
Beyond their U.S. House wins, however, this wasn’t a great election year for California Republicans. Yes, Donald Trump seems to have reduced his losing margin in the state from 30 percent (61 percent–31 percent) in 2016 to 29 points (63 percent–34 percent) this year, though the final votes still being counted could change that slightly. But Trump still has two of the worst Republican presidential performances in California history (George H.W. Bush got only 33 percent in 1992, but that’s because Ross Perot won 21 percent; before that, you have to go back to Alf Landon in 1936 to find a Republican nominee who underpolled Trump’s percentages).
There were no statewide offices on the ballot in California this year. And in contrast to their performance in U.S. House races, Republicans failed to bust up Democratic supermajorities in either house of the state legislature.
On the other hand, Republicans’ business allies won some important ballot-initiative fights, defeating the vastly important Prop 15, which would have stripped commercial real estate of the ancient Prop 13 bans on increased tax assessments, and passing Prop 22, which removed employee benefits and labor protections from a wide range of “gig” workers. Ideological conservatives were pleased at the demise of Prop 14, which would have restored affirmative-action programs affecting college admissions and state employment and contracting.
There’s an important piece of unfinished business from the 2020 elections which is in the hands of Democratic governor Gavin Newsom: filling the U.S. Senate seat of Vice-President-elect Kamala Harris until her term ends in January 2023. There is endless speculation on the identity of Newsom’s choice, though the front-runners are probably Secretary of State Alex Padilla, Attorney General Xavier Becerra, Long Beach mayor Robert Garcia, and Congresswomen Barbara Lee and Karen Bass. Padilla, Becerra, and Garcia are Latino, while Lee and Bass are African American.
California remains a heavily Democratic state; aside from their weak position in the legislature, there are no Republicans currently serving in any statewide office. But this year’s U.S. House gains give them something to warm their typically comfortable hearths and bring a smile to their usually maskless faces.