For the first time in 70 years Ventura County, California is represented by a Democrat in the US House of Representatives. In 2012 Democrat Julia Brownley was elected in a hotly contested race for the newly-drawn district. Elton Gallegly (R) retired in 2012 after 16 years representing the 24th district, which included most of the more Republican-leaning parts of the East County. Throughout his career Gallegly easily carried the old district, with his vote share rarely dipping below 60%, and then only barely. The newly-drawn 26th was much less favorable to the incumbent who, nonetheless, believed that he could run and win in the new district; but he retired anyway.
The 2012 election was the first to occur in the context of two major statewide electoral reforms. Passed in 2010, Proposition 14 created a “Top Two Candidates Open Primary” in which the general election nominees are identified as the top two vote-getters in the primary, regardless of party affiliation. Reformers intend the new process to result in more ideologically-moderate nominees, and it creates the possibility that two members of the same party will run against one another in the general election.
Proposition 11, narrowly passed by California voters in 2008, created the California Citizens Redistricting Commission. It stripped the California Legislature of the power to draw state legislative districts, transferring the power to a bipartisan Commission composed of five Democrats, five Republicans, and four who are not affiliated with the two major parties. Members of the Commission were chosen in an extended public process. Supporters of Prop 11 argued that citizens would not engage in incumbent-protection schemes (as the Legislature presumably did), promote more competitive elections, and produce more ideologically moderate representatives. Passed by a much larger margin, Proposition 20 (2010) made the Commission responsible for drawing congressional districts, and directed the commission to maintain the integrity of “communities of interest” when drawing new district lines.
The combined effects of these reforms were fully felt in the 2012 election cycle. While the national media was transfixed by the race between two Democratic heavyweights, Howard Berman and Brad Sherman—who found themselves in the same San Fernando Valley district as a result of the new lines drawn by the Commission, and the blanket primary—north of Los Angeles in Ventura County the scene was set for a more interesting pair of elections in the new 26th Congressional District in the 2012 and 2014 electoral cycles.
Ventura County’s population centers are Oxnard and Ventura in the West County, along the California Coast; Thousand Oaks and Simi Valley in the inland East County. Prior to the 2010 Census, The 24th District (see Figure 1) was literally a textbook example of gerrymandering – it was used in the book Congress and Its Members to Illustrate the concept of gerrymandering. It carved up Ventura County, placing the more liberal coastal section—which included the cities of Oxnard and Ventura—of the district into a separate, Democratic-leaning district (Represented by Democrat Lois Capps), and creating a Republican-friendly district for Gallegly. When the Commission redrew the district (see Figure 2) it combined Oxnard and Ventura with the bulk of the county, placing Simi Valley and Thousand Oaks into the 30th and 33rd districts, respectively.
Despite a Democratic registration advantage in the new district (the current partisan breakdown is 40.8% Democratic, 35.2% Republican registration), 2012 was a nail-biter for district Democrats. Republicans united behind their only candidate, State Senator Tony Strickland, in the race were assured of a spot in the general election. However a popular Republican-turned-independent, County Supervisor Linda Parks, threatened to freeze out from the general election the Democratic favorite Brownley, who also had to fend off a handful of other Democratic aspirants. The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee stepped in with a barrage of negative advertising aimed at Parks. In the primary Strickland gained 44% of the vote, Brownley 27%, and Parks pulled 18%, with three Democrats sharing the remaining votes. In the general election Brownley bested Strickland 53% to 47%, almost exactly the same margin who supported President Obama in 2012.
Julia Brownley’s narrow win, her status as a first-term member of Congress, and the close partisan complexion of the district attracted the attention of the national Republican Party, who sensed an opportunity to pick up a seat. Andrew Clark, of the National Republican Congressional Committee, claimed the 26th district looked “to be one of our top pick up opportunities, not just in California, but in the country.” Republicans united behind two-term California Assemblyman Jeff Gorrell. In the primary Brownley narrowly bested Gorrell with 45.5% to his 44.5%, with the remainder of the vote going to another Republican and an Independent. Democrats are well-aware of the stakes. Steve Israel (D-NY) head of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee acknowledged that the race in the district will be “tightly contested.”
Turnout will be crucial in determining this race, and local Democrats are well aware of that. Over the past year they focused, first, on voter registration. Democratic registrations have increased in the county by about two percent. Voter registration efforts especially focused on the district’s Latino community, which makes up 44.7% of the district’s population, many of whom are employed working in the agricultural fields of the west county.
Voter registration does not matter unless registered voters turn out to vote in the election. Less than a week before Election Day former President Bill Clinton visited Oxnard College, in the heavily Latino city of Oxnard, to energize Democratic voter. Dolores Huerta—an ally of César Chávez who helped to organize agricultural field workers in the 1960s and 1970s, and a legend in Latino communities across the country—warmed up the multicultural crowd, leading them in a chant of “Sí, se puede!” (Yes we can!), the slogan of the United Farm Workers, which she co-founded with Chávez. Arturo S. Rodríguez, President of the United Farm Workers also spoke. The choice of speakers was no doubt intended to emphasize the historical linkage of Latino voters, agricultural workers, and the Democratic Party.
Brownley’s committee assignments during her first term were to the committees on Science, Space and Technology, and Veterans’ Affairs. Hardly “prestigious” committee assignments, she has used her appointment to Veterans’ Affairs to great effect in the district. In her first two years in office she sought to emphasize veteran-friendly positions. From her perch on Veterans’ Affairs she is able to address issues of importance to local military veterans, and the active military interests at Naval Base Ventura, a major presence in the district. Brownley gained the endorsement of Vietnam Veterans of Ventura County, whose president expressed the organization’s support for her work for veterans on the committee at the rally. Her strong position with local military interests somewhat undercut her opponent’s own military experience, including being deployment to Iraq. Her committee assignments, though lackluster, also keep her well removed from direct involvement in more divisive policy issues.
Presumably the Democratic Party deploys its resources strategically. A top draw like Bill Clinton will be employed for maximum effect. Thus, his appearance in Oxnard (as opposed to elsewhere in Southern California) is pregnant with meaning. It is in a heavily Democratic part of the district; turnout in Oxnard will likely be decisive in this election. But Oxnard is also a part of the Los Angeles television market; his appearance was heavily covered by LA news stations. This helps to explain the presence of two other congressional candidates on stage. Raul Ruiz, also a first term incumbent, and Pete Aguilar who is competing for an open seat centered in Redlands, also joined the former president on stage. It seems as though the party believes that voters in the Brownley district needed the excitement of a Clinton visit, while the other two candidates would benefit sufficiently from the coverage they received in the LA media market.
So far there seems to be reason for mild optimism among Democratic activists. Statewide the Democratic Party invested in encouraging partisans to vote by mail According to a memo circulated by one group involved in the GOTV effort:
As of [10/30/2014] 44,558 people have voted early in this election, back to a slight increase on the 2010 early voting returns (this time in 2010 it was 42,131). Of these, 42% are registered Democrats and 39% are registered Republicans (compared to 39% Democrat and 44% Republican in the 2010 election). While the early voting returns are less than the same time as in 2012 (55,381), it is ahead of the 2012 figure in one aspect as in 2012 39% of early voters were registered Democrats while 41% were registered Republicans. 16% of early voters this election are Latino, a slight improvement to date on the 2012 figure of 15% of early voters being Latino and 14% of early voters in 2010.
The caution in these results is how they compare to total voter registration. Thanks to solid voter registration drives, the Democrats have extended the lead in voters registered as Democrat v Republican (a consistent 41% in 2010, 2012 and 2014, while for the Republicans it has dropped a point every two years from 35% in 2010 to 33% in 2014). When you compare registration proportions to those voting early, registered Democrats are voting early 1% higher than the registered total, while registered Republicans are voting 6% higher than their registered total.
In short, the voting so far is better than in 2010, but while the proportion of voters voting early being Democrat is strong, the total number of votes is only slightly better than in 2010, making GOTV for election day more critical.
For their part Republicans do not appear as concerned about turning out their voters. Their focus is on a media-heavy approach to defeating Brownley. Speaker Boehner visited the district about two weeks prior to Election Day, but the trip was more of a media availability than a rally. Republicans seem to be banking on depressed Democratic turnout. Gorrell ads seek to bolster support among women by focusing on his pro-choice position, and questioning Brownley’s commitment to women’s issues, an approach that the Democrats pushed back against. The Koch-affiliated American Future Fund has dedicated $834,000 to run ads critical of Brownley.
If Brownley wins chances are that the district will stay in Democratic hands, at least in the medium term. In 2016, with a Democratic presidential candidate on the ticket Republicans will likely not invest in California 26, and after three terms in Congress Brownley would likely be safe. If Gorrell wins chances are that he will face a very stiff challenge, and probably lose, in 2016. In a presidential election year energized Democrats probably will head to the polls with a decided advantage in the race, especially as the Democratic registration advantage continues to swell. In the short run, California’s electoral reforms created the sort of competitive district that reformers envisioned. In the long run California 26 will trend blue, and become a reliable Democratic district for decades.
Scott A. Frisch is Professor and Chair of Political Science at California State University Channel Islands. A native of New Jersey, Scott received his undergraduate degree at Lafayette College, his Masters at the University of Pennsylvania and his doctorate at Claremont Graduate University.
Sean Q. Kelly is also Professor at California State University Channel Islands. He earned his B.A. degree in political science from Seattle University in 1986, and his Ph.D. in political science from the University of Colorado in 1992.
Frisch and Kelly have coauthored several books: Committee Assignment Politics in the U.S. House of Representatives (University of Oklahoma, 2006), Jimmy Carter and the Water Wars: Presidential Influence and the Politics of Pork (Cambria, 2008), and Cheese Factories on the Moon: Why Earmarks are Good for American Democracy (Paradigm Publishers, 2011). They also co-wrote Doing Archival Research in Political Science (Cambria, 2012) with Douglas B. Harris and David C.W. Parker.