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California Special Election Features Democratic Face-Off

The election is to fill former Rep. Xavier Becerra’s seat in Congress

California Rep.-elect Jimmy Gomez will be sworn in July 11. (Courtesy Jimmy Gomez for Congress)
California Rep.-elect Jimmy Gomez will be sworn in July 11. (Courtesy Jimmy Gomez for Congress)

For the first time since President Donald Trump took office, there is no doubt that a Democrat will win a special election for the House.

That’s because Tuesday’s election in California’s 34th District, which is centered in Los Angeles, features two Democrats, the result of the state’s unique primary process where the top two finishers advance to a runoff regardless of party.

The race has been dominated by a fight over which candidate is a “true progressive” change agent. But it has also touched on a key question facing Democrats: whether to fight or work with the Republicans who control government.

State Assemblyman Jimmy Gomez and former Los Angeles City Planning Commissioner Robert Lee Ahn are facing off to replace former Democratic Rep. Xavier Becerra, who resigned in January to become the Golden State’s attorney general. Gomez, who is backed by Becerra, party leaders and liberal groups, is considered the front-runner. But Ahn is looking for an upset to become the only Korean-American in Congress.

Resist or compromise?

Since the race features two Democrats who generally agree on policy, they have worked to differentiate themselves in other ways. Ahn has cast himself as a political outsider with roots in the district, while Gomez has described himself as the able lawmaker willing to fight the Trump administration.

“Capitulation will lead to failure,” Gomez said in a May 25 debate. “So that’s why I think there’s a big difference between my opponent and myself.”

Gomez said he understands the politics of Washington: “You need to hold firm, you need to work with your colleagues and you need to throw elbows.”

Asked if he viewed himself as a resister or a compromiser, Ahn said he would be open to opportunities that would help the district.

“I’m pragmatic,” he said. “I will not compromise my values or my principles. But when I see opportunities to improve the lives of the residents of the 34th District, I’m going to look at those opportunities when that happens.”

That distinction between the two candidates was evident in their committee preferences voiced in the debate.

Gomez said he would like to work on a Health and Human Services Appropriations Subcommittee and on Natural Resources. But he also added Oversight and Government Reform “because that’s where we can keep Republicans’ feet to the fire.”

Ahn said he would rather be on House Foreign Affairs. If elected, he said he could bring a unique perspective to the conflict with North Korea. He also noted in an interview that he would be interested in joining the Judiciary Committee.

One California Democratic consultant said a harder line against the Trump administration would resonate in the district, which is home to many immigrants.

“Everybody was anti-Trump in the primary,” Andrew Acosta said. “I have to assume in that district where Trump and immigration — it’s a different conversation than in other districts. In terms of [U.S. Immigrations and Customs Enforcement] raids, people really worry about that in that district.”

Wendy Carillo, a former undocumented immigrant who ran in the primary, said she did not see any room for compromise with the current Republican policies.

Carillo is backing Gomez, despite criticizing the Democratic endorsement process after the party leaders lined up early behind him. She said because the district is Democratic, its representative has a unique opportunity to be “a loud, bold progressive voice.” 

Carillo spoke with Gomez before endorsing him “to make sure he also felt that he could be that [voice] in Congress.”

The race is rated Solid Democratic, according to Inside Elections with Nathan L. Gonzales. Democrat Hillary Clinton carried the district by more than 70 points in November, according to calculations by Daily Kos Elections. But Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., carried the district in the last year’s Democratic presidential primary, besting Clinton by nearly 4 points.

That could present a problem for Ahn, who the Los Angeles Times reported was a registered Republican until 2012.

“I would think that that matters for people especially in this hyper-partisan age of Trump,” Acosta said.

Ahn said he registered as a Republican because that was his parents’ party, but his views evolved as he worked in the community. He said he voted for Sanders in the presidential primary. Gomez supported Clinton.

But Gomez is the “relatively heavy favorite,” according to Mac Zilber, a California Democratic consultant.

Gomez’s state Assembly district overlaps with the congressional district, so he has high name recognition. He also has the backing of liberal groups such as Our Revolution, which was founded by former Sanders campaign staffers.

“When Jimmy is matched up against a person who doesn’t have a lot of track record on those issues and who used to be a Republican, it’s a lot easier for a lot of these progressive groups to recognize that he’s going to be with them on the major issues,” Zilber said.

Gomez has also been endorsed by the Congressional Progressive Caucus, and a handful of current lawmakers have donated to his campaign including House Minority Whip Steny H. Hoyer and California Rep. Judy Chu, the chairwoman of the Congressional Asian Pacific American Caucus.

All about turnout 

With low turnout expected in the Tuesday race, both campaigns are working to get their bases to the polls.

Only 14 percent of registered voters participated in the April primary, which featured 24 candidates. And Carillo expressed concern of additional voter fatigue in the runoff, given the municipal elections that have been interspersed with the special election.

Gomez was seen as the front-runner in the primary. He took 25 percent of the vote in the crowded election.

Ahn garnered 22 percent of the vote by energizing the district’s Korean-American population.

Roughly 6 percent of voters had already cast mail-in ballots as of Friday, according to Political Data, a voter data firm. Forty percent of the early votes came from Asian-American voters while roughly 25 percent were from Latinos. 

Political Data’s Paul Mitchell said the early voting breakdown could signal a more competitive race. 

But Democratic consultants noted that Ahn would hit a ceiling with Asian-American voters, so he would have to earn votes from other communities in the diverse district — which the candidate acknowledged.

“It’s not about race,” Ahn said. “It’s about who’s from here, who understands this district, and who has the track record of problem-solving.”

Ahn said he believes his message is resonating. He has also attempted to cast his opponent as beholden to special interests, pointing to Gomez’s fundraising.

In the pre-runoff fundraising report, nearly 45 percent of Gomez’s receipts came from political action committees. Ahn’s report shows no PAC funds, with 64 percent of money raised coming from individual donations. The rest of the funds came from a loan Ahn made to his own campaign. 

Gomez said he is not beholden to special interests, pointing to his record in the state legislature. He also emphasized that he would represent every community if elected.

“I’m going to make sure that I’m going to defend our values,” Gomez said in the debate. “And I’m not going to back down on any issue, not now, not ever.”

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