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Farm Team: Embattled California GOP Eyes House Opportunities

Running for newly competitive House seats is suddenly the most attractive option for California Republicans, who are confined to a superminority in the legislature and have virtually no chance of winning statewide.

For the past decade, the Golden State was sparsely dotted with congressional vacancies and only featured the rare incumbent defeat. Punching a ticket to Congress in California was tantamount to a lifetime judicial appointment, thanks to carefully crafted incumbent protection maps.

As a result, Republicans are just now getting used to a newly viable avenue created by recent circumstances. One cycle removed from the implementation of the top-two primary format and the new congressional map drawn in 2011 by an independent redistricting commission, running for Congress is an increasingly alluring option for those in the GOP.

“Congressional seats are going to be the magnet for Republican talent,” GOP consultant Rob Stutzman said. “There is no incentive to run for state legislature, so people that are up-and-coming are looking at congressional seats, and it’s going to draw the best candidates Republicans have.”

To be sure, the party took a hit at the congressional level in 2012, under the new lines. The newly drawn districts gave Democrats more pickup opportunities. The GOP lost four seats in 2012 and now controls just 15 of California’s 53 seats in Congress.

But Republicans hope to regain a few of those this midterm cycle, when turnout will likely be more favorable to the GOP than in a presidential year. In some of the most competitive House districts, Republicans expect at least a couple of rematches and are hoping for better results.

Colusa County Supervisor Kim Vann is likely to challenge Rep. John Garamendi in the Sacramento-area 3rd District. Former state Sen. Tony Strickland is expected to run again, most likely forging a rematch with freshman Rep. Julia Brownley in the Ventura County-based 26th District.

There’s some talk that Strickland would take a look at the neighboring 25th District if GOP Rep. Howard “Buck” McKeon opts for retirement. One plugged-in GOP source said another person looking at a challenge to Brownley is baseball pitcher Jeff Suppan, who may run if he doesn’t make a Major League roster this season.

Elsewhere, former San Diego City Councilman Carl DeMaio is expected to challenge freshman Rep. Scott Peters in the 52nd District. Several Republicans are likely to consider a challenge to Rep. Jim Costa in the Central Valley-based 16th District, with Fresno County Supervisor Andreas Borgeas named as a top possible contender. There is no shortage of people looking at challenging freshman Rep. Ami Bera for his Sacramento-area seat, including former Rep. Doug Ose and state Sen. Ted Gaines.

In the Palm Springs-based 36th District, several sources mentioned Assemblymember Brian Nestande as a likely challenger to freshman Rep. Raul Ruiz. Nestande is a former campaign manager and chief of staff to both the late Rep. Sonny Bono and former Rep. Mary Bono Mack.

Future retirements in safe GOP seats — such as McKeon’s district north of Los Angeles, plus those held by Reps. Dana Rohrabacher and Darrell Issa in Orange and San Diego counties — are likely to invite crowded fields of Republican candidates.

“Almost every single member of the California Legislature would love the opportunity to serve in Congress, where they would double their pay and not have to deal with term limits,” GOP consultant Matt Rexroad said.

Orange County politicians — including state Sen. Mimi Walters and Curt Pringle, a former Anaheim mayor and state speaker — could run when Rep. Ed Royce steps down. Board of Equalization Member Michelle Park Steel and a couple of Assembly members from Orange County are cited as potential candidates when Rohrabacher retires. Assemblymember Marie Waldron, Assemblymember Rocky Chavez and state Sen. Mark Wyland could be future contenders in Issa’s district.

Other GOP state legislators believed to have bright futures include: state Sen. Steve Knight, who could run for McKeon’s seat; Assemblymember Melissa Melendez, who is expected to run when Rep. Ken Calvert retires; Modesto-area state Assemblymember Kristin Olsen; Central Valley-based state Sen. Tom Berryhill; and Ventura-based Assemblymember Jeff Gorell, who took a leave of absence in 2011 to be deployed to Afghanistan.

Fresno Mayor Ashley Swearengin would likely be a top recruit if she ever considered a run for Congress, sources said.

Farm Team is a state-by-state look at the up-and-coming politicos who may eventually run for Congress. Last week’s column looked at California Democrats. The column runs on Thursdays.

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