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Farm Team: Many Democrats Size Up Increasingly Tempting House Seats in California

A confluence of events made 2012 the time to strike for ambitious California Democrats considering a bid for Congress, but a new wave of party talent should find open avenues to Capitol Hill in the next few years.

A survey of Democratic strategists in the state unearthed a long list of politicians who would likely jump at the chance to run for Congress.

“As California’s demographics continue to trend in a direction that is supportive of the Democratic Party, you should look to see Democrats begin to size up seats that they can take these next couple of elections,” said Eric Bauman, chairman of the Los Angeles Democratic Party.

For instance, unprompted, every operative who spoke with CQ Roll Call named Assemblyman Henry Perea as someone expected to run for Congress in the Central Valley one day, presumably when Democratic Rep. Jim Costa retires. And in San Diego, City Council President Todd Gloria, a protégé of Democratic Rep. Susan A. Davis, is widely seen as a top contender to seek her seat when his mentor retires — whenever that day comes.

In 2012, an aging delegation mixed with a fresh round of redistricting and a reformed primary process resulted in an extensive new crop of California members of Congress. In all, the largest state in the country elected 14 new House members last cycle, a 26 percent turnover rate in a state known over the past decade for its dearth of competition.

Despite losing one of their own seats last year, Democrats netted four new seats, expanding their delegation majority to 38 of the 53 seats. And with two-thirds of the state legislative seats, there are plenty more Democrats in the pipeline ready to move up at the next opportunity.

Even though a few longtime Democratic members lost last cycle, including Pete Stark and Joe Baca, a line of veteran Democratic House members remain. They include Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi and Reps. Lois Capps,
Michael M. Honda, George Miller and Anna G. Eshoo, to name a few. None have publicly professed intentions to leave Congress soon, but they can be sure plenty of Democrats will be ready when they do.

Capps, 75, survived last year in a Santa Barbara district redrawn as more competitive. Democrats in the state pointed to Assemblyman Das Williams, a former two-term Santa Barbara city councilman, as someone who could run for her seat when she retires. Another potential candidate is state Sen. Hannah-Beth Jackson. Both she and Williams represent districts that overlap with Capps’.

Pelosi, who turns 73 this month, has represented her San Francisco district since 1987. When she retires, state Sen. Mark Leno, a gay rights advocate, is viewed as a natural successor. But he may have to compete with Assemblyman Phil Ting for one of the safest Democratic seats in the country.

Farther down the peninsula, Honda, 71, is looking over his shoulder at a potential challenge from fellow Democrat Ro Khanna, a former Obama administration official with more than $1 million in the bank.

Khanna hasn’t announced his plans yet and could ultimately opt to challenge Rep. Eric Swalwell, who defeated Stark last year. State Senate Majority Leader Ellen Corbett could also make a run for Swalwell’s seat.

As Stark and Baca learned last year after losing to fellow Democrats, the new top-two primary format means even incumbents in safe districts can’t take their re-elections for granted anymore. The change also prompted a stampede of congressional candidates, with at least 15 sitting state legislators or local elected officials advancing to compete in a congressional general election.

“As a result of top-two, dozens of electeds saw their opportunity to run for higher office and took it,” one Democratic operative said. “Those reverberations are still being felt, because you’ve got others coming up behind them running to fill those vacancies and still others behind them.”

Assemblywoman Norma Torres, who considered running for Congress last year, is favored to win Rep. Gloria Negrete McLeod’s former state Senate seat in the May runoff. Meanwhile, Assemblyman Ben Hueso took more than 50 percent of the vote Tuesday to win Rep. Juan C. Vargas’ San Diego-based state Senate seat outright.

Both Torres and Hueso could be congressional contenders some day, as could the candidates who run to replace them. In San Diego — where Democrats last year picked up a House seat and won the mayoral race for the first time in two decades — that could be Lorena Gonzalez, head of the San Diego and Imperial Counties Labor Council, who is running for Hueso’s seat.

Some Democrats who unsuccessfully ran for Congress last year could be gearing up for second bids. They include astronaut Jose Hernandez, who lost to GOP Rep. Jeff Denham, and Redlands Mayor Pete Aguilar, who lost the primary for a seat that GOP Rep. Gary G. Miller went on to win.

With 2014 in mind, Bauman said, “the party apparatus will begin to focus on these races in earnest very shortly.”

There will likely be a free-for-all when Rep. Doris Matsui, a Democrat, decides to retire from her Sacramento-area seat, with state Insurance Commissioner Dave Jones and state Senate President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg mentioned as possible contenders.

And there is no shortage of elected officials in Los Angeles ready to pounce on a new challenge, including state Speaker John Perez and state Sen. Alex Padilla, who is among a long line of people who could run when either of the state’s two Democratic senators, Dianne Feinstein and Barbara Boxer, retire.

Other future Senate contenders could include Attorney General Kamala D. Harris, Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom and Sacramento Mayor Kevin Johnson, a former NBA player.

“California has a deep Democratic bench and there are no term limits in Congress,” the Democratic operative said. “There’s no shortage of candidates who are looking to make that next jump.”

Farm Team is a state-by-state look at the up-and-coming politicos who may eventually run for Congress. The column runs on Thursdays.

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