The four Republicans and two Democrats running in a California special election to succeed ex-Rep. Devin Nunes have something in common: They’re in the hunt for a dead-end job.
For whoever wins the race this spring in California’s 22nd District, it's a temporary gig that ends when the 117th Congress adjourns on Jan. 3. The winner will have no built-in advantage running for reelection as an incumbent for a full term because California lost one seat to reapportionment and the new map that shuffled district numbers also led to several incumbents running in new terrain.
Now considered a safe Republican seat, the 22nd District will morph into a much more competitive district in the November midterms, with GOP Rep. David Valadao running to defend it.
Nunes resigned effective Jan. 1 to run a new media enterprise of former President Donald Trump. The April 5 special primary for his unexpired term is being run under the same boundaries that gave Nunes an 8-point win in 2020. Early voting by mail ran from March 7 through Tuesday.
Under California law, the primary is open to voters of all parties, and if one of the contenders captures more than 50 percent, that person will head to Congress. Otherwise, the top two finishers will face off in a runoff on June 7, the same day as the statewide primary using new district lines for the next Congress. And some of the people running in next week's special primary are running in the regular primary in a different district.
None of the candidates running in next week's race have raised eye-popping sums, and no outside organizations had made any independent expenditures through last week, according to disclosures to the Federal Election Commission.
Voter turnout is expected to be relatively low. “This special election has been a very sleepy race,” said CQ Roll Call elections analyst Nathan L. Gonzales.
One top GOP contender for the unexpired term, former state Assemblywoman Connie Conway, is not running to stay in Congress next year. As a former Tulare County supervisor and Republican leader in the state Assembly, Conway has strong name identification. She has raised $83,000 and had about $50,000 on hand as of March 16, according to recent FEC filings.
Another top GOP contender is Elizabeth Heng, a Stanford- and Yale-educated technology executive who hauled in $215,000 and held more than $60,000 as of March 16, filings show. Her donors include Country First, a PAC affiliated with Illinois GOP Rep. Adam Kinzinger, one of the 10 House Republicans who voted to impeach Trump after his supporters stormed the Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021. Another supporter of Heng's campaign is the Value In Electing Women PAC.
“Elizabeth Heng represents the future of the Republican Party,” said Julie Conway, VIEW PAC’s executive director. “She’s so smart ... and brings a certain youth and diversity to this race, and she’s got a bright future.”
Heng previously worked on Capitol Hill and ran unsuccessfully in the 16th District against Democratic Rep. Jim Costa in 2018.
Whether Heng wins or loses, she will be able to draw from the experience, VIEW PAC’s Conway said. “I think it’s only positive that she’s running and running a good race,” she said.
Heng’s campaign did not respond to an interview request, but she is not listed as a candidate running in the June primary for a full term.
Under the new map, less than 10 percent of the 22nd District's current population will be in the new 22nd District. Some 55 percent of the new district will come from Valadao's current 21st District, and the rest from Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy's 23rd District, according to calculations by Daily Kos Elections.
About 41 percent of the current district will end up in the new 21st District, along with 45 percent of Costa's current 16th District. Costa is running for reelection in the 21st.
Another top GOP contender in the special primary is Matt Stoll, a Navy veteran and business owner, who disclosed the most money, with $221,000 in total receipts, including a $100,000 loan from himself. He had $114,000 on hand as of March 16.
Stoll is one of three candidates running in the 22nd District next week who will be on the June ballot seeking the nomination for a full term in the 21st District.
The others are Republican Navy veteran Michael Maher, who raised about $60,000 and held about $31,000 as of March 16, and Democrat Eric Garcia. A Marine Corps veteran, Garcia raised about $206,000 and had $1,700 in his account as of March 16.
‘Antics and talking points’
The other Democrat in the special primary is Lourin Hubbard, a state water department operations manager. Hubbard raised just shy of $60,000 and had $23,000 on hand as of March 16.
“I started this campaign because I wanted to see some Democratic representation,” Hubbard said during a recent phone interview. “I got really tired of Devin Nunes and all of his antics and talking points and not delivering.”
He said he had worked to build a coalition of conservative-leaning Democrats along with the party’s more progressive members, such as himself.
“That’s really the future that I see,” Hubbard said. “If we are going to have the reputation of a big-tent party, sometimes we’ve got to keep our tent together. Candidates that are able to do that tend to be successful.”
Hubbard said that even if he wins the special election, he did not expect to run again in November. His home will be in the new 21st District, he said, where Costa is seeking reelection.
Though the national party committees haven’t put much focus on the special election, the race in November for the new 22nd District will be another story.
State Assemblyman Rudy Salas is challenging Valadao for the seat, and the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee recently added Salas to its “Red to Blue” program. Inside Elections with Nathan L. Gonzales rates that race a Toss-up.
Inside Elections rates the race in the 21st District, where Costa faces Garcia, Stoll and Maher in the June primary, as Solid Democratic. If the new lines had been in place then, President Joe Biden would have carried the district by 20 points.