Democrats in key California House races are running to the center

There’s a word that isn’t often heard, much less bragged about, at gatherings of the top Democrats in California. 

And that word is “centrist.” 

But some California Democrats running in some of the most important House races in the country are dropping the “c” word. 

Sure, some Democrats typically move a little toward the center in the general election if they’re facing a more moderate Republican. But four prominent House candidates are talking up their moderate qualities now, roughly three months before voters start casting ballots in the March 5 primary. 

The California Democratic Party has endorsed all four, a sign that it believes they are key to flipping five seats to wrest control of the House back from Republicans. The state party may be way left of Democratic voters in California on some issues — see its 2018 endorsement of state Sen. Kevin de León over Sen. Dianne Feinstein — but they’re betting on centrists to help them win next year.

The party’s challenge is that two of these candidates ran against the same Republican opponents last year as centrists — and lost. Another is running in a district where a Democrat ran as someone who could appeal to both moderates and progressives — and lost. And the fourth is trying to succeed someone who is one of the most outspoken progressives in Congress.

Yes, the centrist positioning may help Democrats in more conservative-leaning Central Valley and Southern California districts. But these candidates also are counting on three more practical factors to help them win. 

First, that next year’s electorate will resemble what it is like in most presidential years — larger and more Democrat-friendly. Two, that the desire to expand abortion rights will continue to pull moderate and no party preference voters to Democrats. And third, in the last presidential election, Democrats did very little of the in-person, door-to-door campaigning that is a strength of their party because of the pandemic. Next year, Democratic canvassers will be back on doorsteps. 

And through Election Day, the c-word will be a mainstay.

“I don’t play a centrist on TV. I’m a real authentic centrist,” former Democratic Assembly Member Adam Gray told me at this month’s California Democratic Party convention, whose delegates lean further left than the state’s voters.

“It’s where my head is and my heart is,” said Gray, who is likely to face off again against Rep. John Duarte, R-Turlock (Stanislaus County), who beat him by 564 votes last year. “And I’m proud of the fact that I’ve taken on my own party when I needed to.” 

And it has cost Gray. When he served in the Legislature from 2012 to 2022, Gray lost two committee assignments after challenging the party’s position on issues where he felt it would mean less water flowing to farmers and others in his district. 

“My voters know after 10 years of service for them, that if push comes to shove and I got to choose between their best interests and the Democratic Party’s best interests, I will choose them every time,” Gray said. “And that’s not talk. That’s a record.”

And it is a record that has made him more popular than Califorrnia Gov. Gavin Newsom in a district that includes all of Madera and Merced counties along with parts of Fresno, San Joaquin and Stanislaus counties. Gray won nearly 50% of the vote in his 2022 loss to Duarte, 4 percentage points better than what Newsom did in his district during his reelection campaign last year.

Gray is with his party on abortion rights, which will be the issue Democrats push to the forefront of every campaign through Election Day. 

But Gray is no more centrist than he was last year when he lost to Duarte.

Ultimately, what may propel Gray to Washington is a higher turnout in his district in a presidential election, which President Joe Biden won by 11 percentage points over Donald Trump in 2020. Only 136,254 voters in that House district cast ballots in last year’s midterms, far fewer than the 252,852  who voted there in the 2020 presidential race. 

Farther south, in a Los Angeles County district represented by Republican Rep. Mike Garcia of Santa Clarita, Democrats endorsed George Whitesides, who has never held political office. 

Whitesides was CEO of Virgin Galactic and before that served as NASA’s chief of staff. He uses a phrase that Republicans from the business world frequently invoke in describing their political bona fides: “I’m a job creator.”

“I’m somebody who’s worked well with folks from all different parts of the political spectrum,” Whitesides told me. “The folks in this district want somebody who’s going to just honestly address the biggest challenges that we’ve got in our communities and in our country. And I honestly believe that we can provide that perspective and bring a perspective of problem-solving.”

Yes, of course, he’s going to point out to voters in the district — where Biden won by 12 percentage points in 2020 — that Garcia voted with Trump 84% of the time. More importantly, Garcia voted not to impeach Trump for inciting the 2021 insurrection against the Capitol and opposed certifying presidential electors from Pennsylvania and Arizona. 

But Whitesides stressed that “what will matter most in this district is honestly kitchen-table issues.”

“It’s going to be who can help bring more jobs to the Antelope Valley, who can improve the infrastructure of the Antelope Valley to make commutes easier, who can help improve education and who can help protect communities from the risks of wildfires,” he said. 

But Christy Smith, a former state legislator who lost to Garcia last year, pitched a similar message. From her campaign website: “Smith has a unique ability to appeal to progressive Democrats as well as moderate and independent voters by focusing on the issues affecting her district and all Americans.”

Smith blamed a lack of support from the Democratic Party and other political action committees for her defeat, tweeting, “Our campaign got next-to-zero outside resources to fight this battle.” It was her third consecutive loss to Garcia, who defeated her  in a special election in 2020 and again later that year for a full term by 333 votes. 

Whitesides believes that the increased turnout, along with a focus on kitchen table issues, can help him defeat Garcia. 

Will Rollins thinks the same formula can help him, too, in another Southern California race. The former federal prosecutor is taking on Republican Rep. Ken Calvert of Corona in a rematch of their 2022 race. Though he’s supported by retired progressive Sen. Barbara Boxer, Rollins may have been the only Democratic candidate at the state party convention last weekend to duck out briefly to attend a gathering of alumni who worked for former Republican Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger.

“As I see it in California, and broadly, the problem with the country too, is we don’t have a center right,” Rollins said. “And so we’re stuck with sort of one-party control. And that’s not the healthiest for our democracy in general.”

Rollins, who is gay, supports abortion rights and has hammered Calvert for his conservative views on LGBTQ issues. Even though Calvert has changed his position and now supports same-sex nuptials, he voted against the Equality Act in 2021 that would have banned discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity. The measure died in the Senate.

Rollins originally decided to run after Calvert joined most California House Republicans in voting not to certify state election results in a bid to derail Biden from being inaugurated. But he thinks his argument for replacing Calvert goes beyond that, given the nation’s low unemployment rate has dropped and inflation is flattening.

“We Democrats have a really strong argument on the economy,” Rollins said. “I think we just have to do a better job of appealing to those sort of small business owners and center-right people who care deeply about seeing prosperity for themselves and their families and tying that equality of opportunity to their own and our collective success as a country.”

Rollins believes that a presidential election year turnout will help him. The nonpartisan Cook Political Report rates his race as “toss up Republican,” meaning it gives Calvert a slight edge.

The most curious to talk up his moderate tendencies is state Sen. Dave Min of Irvine. He’s running to succeed Rep. Katie Porter in an Orange County district that she spent $28 million to win in 2022. Porter is running for the Senate.

Porter endorsed Min to replace her, saying that she had “every confidence that his campaign will ensure that California’s 47th Congressional District continues to be represented by a progressive Democrat.” 

Oops. 

But Min said that Porter — a member of the Congressional Progressive Caucus — has provided “a blueprint” for how to win in a purple district like theirs. But as Min sees it, that blueprint wasn’t because she was progressive. It was due in part to viral videos of Porter grilling wealthy CEOs when they testify before Congress — like when she explained to JPMorgan Chase CEO Jamie Dimon that it is impossible for one of his bank tellers to live on what he pays them. 

When Porter spoke at a Senate candidate forum at last week’s state party convention, she sought to distinguish herself from the moderates.

“You can count on me to stand up for regular Californians and never be one who does the bidding of corporate America,” Porter said. “But that’s not just about being a Democrat. That’s about the kind of Democrat you are and you can count on me.”

Min told me that “what Katie has shown is that people want elected officials who will fight for them and engage on issues they care about.”

Min puts climate change, education and standing up against hate crimes at the top of his agenda for his district, which Biden won by 11 percentage points. 

To stress his moderate support, Min emphasized his endorsement from law enforcement groups like the Los Angeles Police Protective League, the Association for Los Angeles Deputy Sheriffs and the Peace Officers Research Association of California, which represents 950 public safety unions. 

“The biggest hits any Democrat will get is going to be around public safety and homelessness,” Min said. “But having the police behind me is a big validator that I think helps rebut that argument in a big way.”

Click here to read the full article in the SF Chronicle