Democrats succeeded Tuesday in winning back a majority in the House of Representatives, and they claimed victory Wednesday in at least two closely watched Southern California congressional races, while holding a narrow edge in a third.
The bulk of the seats targeted by Democrats in Tuesday’s election were in the once-reliable Republican stronghold of Orange County, which has seen a liberal political shift over the years.
Two years ago, Democrat Hillary Clinton beat President Donald Trump in Orange County, the first time a Democrat won the county since Franklin Delano Roosevelt. That encouraged Democrats, and for the first time the national organization sent professionals to Orange County to help elect more Democrats to Congress.
In the 39th District in northern Orange County, Republican Rep. Ed Royce is stepping aside, and fellow Republican Young Kim finished on top of the race to replace him in Tuesday’s balloting. With all precincts reporting, Kim had 51.3 percent of the vote, holding a roughly 3,900-vote lead over Democrat Gil Cisneros.
Election officials noted, however, that there are more than 418,000 provisional, late or mail-in ballots that still need to be tallied countywide.
Orange County Registrar of Voters Neal Kelley said a “trickle” of votes will be tallied Wednesday, but the bulk of the counting of absentee and provisional ballots will begin Thursday.
Cisneros, a noted philanthropist, won a $266 million Lottery jackpot in 2010 and injected $9 million of his own money into the race. Kim, a South Korean immigrant, worked for Royce for about 20 years before winning a seat in the state Assembly, where she served a single term. She is looking to become the first Korean American woman to win a congressional seat.
In the 49th District, which straddles Orange and San Diego counties and includes cities such as San Clemente and Oceanside, Republican Rep. Darrell Issa is stepping aside after an unexpectedly narrow reelection win two years ago.
Mike Levin, a Democratic environmental lawyer, defeated Republican state Board of Equalization member Diane Harkey in the race to replace Issa.
Levin has never held political office, but he has served as the executive director of the Democratic Party of Orange County. Prior to sitting on the Board of Equalization, Harkey served in the state Assembly from 2008 to 2014, representing southern Orange County. She also served on the Dana Point City Council. Harkey received Trump’s endorsement in August and is a major backer of the campaign to repeal the state gas tax.
Republican Rep. Mimi Walters was targeted by Democrats in the 45th District, which covers a wide swath of Orange County, including Irvine, Lake Forest and Mission Viejo. But she appeared to fight off a challenge from Democrat Katie Porter, a UC Irvine law professor who was critical of the Republican tax cuts and touted her role as a consumer advocate.
Semi-official results show Walters victorious with 51.7 percent of the vote, with a roughly 6,000-vote margin over Porter. The final figures will await the likely weeks-long process of tallying the still-outstanding ballots.
Orange County Republican Chairman Fred Whitaker said Democrats in that race outspent the Republicans “easily 4 to 1, almost 5 to 1.” He added there’s “no way” Democrats can make up the 6,000-vote deficit with uncounted ballots.
Walters has represented the district since 2014, and while it has become more Democratic, she easily won re-election in 2016 — even as the district’s voters supported Clinton over Trump. She has continued to preach tax cuts, backing the Republican-engineered tax cuts.
Meanwhile, Democrat Harley Rouda, a real estate investor, held a razor-thin lead over Republican Rep. Dana Rohrabacher in the coastal 48th District in Orange County. Rouda, who portrays himself as a political moderate, is a former Republican who says he wants to protect health-care coverage and Social Security and Medicare. Rohrabacher, who has been criticized by Democrats for his close relations with Russia, opposed the Trump tax-cut package but backs the president’s vocal stances on immigration. Rouda has raised significantly more money in the race, saying he needs to spend heavily to have a chance at unseating a 15-term incumbent.
The tight nature of the race — about 2,600 votes separated the candidates with all precincts reporting — means the result also likely won’t be known for weeks as provisional and mail ballots continue to be processed.
“Until the last vote is in we’re not giving up hope on that race,” Whitaker said.
But Democrats scored a victory in the northern reaches of Los Angeles County, where Democrat Katie Hill emerged victorious in her contentious battle against Republican Rep. Steve Knight in a district that stretches into Ventura County. The area is historically Republican, but 25th District voters went for Clinton in the presidential race two years ago.
The race remained tight throughout the vote-counting process, but when final figures were released Wednesday, Hill wound up with a roughly 4,000- vote edge, and Knight called Hill to concede the race.
Knight is an Army veteran and former Los Angeles police officer who supported the Trump tax cuts and efforts to repeal the Affordable Care Act, known as Obamacare. Hill is a former executive for a homeless-services nonprofit agency, and she has expressed support for improvements in security on the U.S.-Mexico border and additional middle-class tax cuts.
“This is absolutely incredible,” Hill told cheering supporters Tuesday night as votes were still being tallied. “… We’re at a moment in history … where Americans are standing up, where young people are standing up, where women are standing up. And we’re regular people who say it is not OK for us to have a political system that only represents the wealthiest people in our country and big corporations … and it leaves the rest of us behind.”