Yesterday, Rep. Gary Miller (R-CA-31) announced that he would retire at the end of this Congress and not seek re-election in his San Bernardino County US House district. The 31st in California is the most Democratic CD in the country to elect a Republican congressman. Against national GOP nominee Mitt Romney, Pres. Obama scored 57.2 percent of the vote here, providing a clear example of its partisan leanings.
The now open CA-31 becomes the best Democratic conversion opportunity in the country. With registration in their favor and a weak Republican presence post-Miller, chances are strong of a double-Democrat general election, meaning a sure Democratic gain.
Here’s why: The 2012 congressional result was quirky in the fact that this decidedly Democratic district sent two Republicans to the general election under California’s new jungle primary law. Passed as a voter initiative in 2010, the new electoral system allows the top two finishers, regardless of political party affiliation, to advance to the general election. Because of an exceptionally low CD-31 Democratic turnout in the 2012 June qualifying election, and due to a split amongst the Democrats running for Congress, both Rep. Miller and then state-Sen. Bob Dutton (R) advanced to the general election.
The result was surprising in two ways. First, for two Republicans to advance in a district that registers 41 percent Democratic, 34 percent Republican, and 20 percent Declined to State (party preference), is mathematically improbable and, second, Rep. Miller qualifying for, and then winning the general election became an impressive political feat considering he previously represented literally no one in the district. In the redistricting plan of 2011, Miller’s former 42nd District was cut into pieces by the California Citizens’ Redistricting Commission, forcing him either into a pairing with fellow Republican Rep. Ed Royce (R-CA-39), or starting from scratch in a completely new district.
Looking at 2014, though the midterm turnout model would be better for Miller than the higher presidential voter participation rate, winning again would have been a formidable task. With no other Republican on the ballot, Miller would certainly face a Democrat in the general election, meaning his re-election chances would not be as great.
In November, it is now likely that the exact opposite will happen in comparison to 2012. Without Rep. Miller in the race, it is most probable that two Democrats will advance, instead of two Republicans, meaning that the general election voting populace will again choose between members of the same party.
Rep. Miller’s departure also means that the candidate field will likely change before the candidate filing deadline passes on March 7. Currently, Redlands Mayor Pete Aguilar (D), former Rep. Joe Baca (D), attorney Eloise Gomez Reyes (D), and San Bernardino City School Board member Danny Tillman (D) are the announced candidates.
Mayor Aguilar was the leading Democrat in 2012, and should have made the run-off. The fact that he didn’t, despite having what should have been a stronger partisan base than the two Republicans, suggests he ran a poor campaign. At the end of 2013 he had raised over $649,000 for his new effort, giving us a clear indication that his candidate skills are improving.
Former Rep. Baca was defeated for re-election two years ago in the adjacent district against fellow Democrat Gloria Negrete McLeod (D-CA-35), who was then a sitting state senator. Baca represented 60 percent of the 35th CD, but his hometown and political base of Rialto was placed in the 31st. So far, after announcing for this contest, Baca has mostly been a no-show candidate. His $112,809 in year-end receipts is indicative of his lack of activity.
But the rising candidate is Reyes. Obtaining over $617,000 as a first-time contender, and attracting the important EMILY’S List endorsement makes her someone to watch. Now in an open seat configuration, Reyes chances of advancing to a Democrat vs. Democrat general election are considerably higher.
Tillman was originally elected to the San Bernardino school board in 1995 and has been re-elected three times. The only African-American candidate in what is now a heavily Hispanic district, his strategy is to unify the black base, gain a share of the Hispanics, and hope that the remaining votes are evenly dispersed. With a 10 percent African-American population segment, such a configuration might be enough to qualify him for the open seat general election. Raising only $15,739 through year’s end, however, makes Tillman a long-shot candidate at best.