Baca May Challenge Gary Miller in California

Former representative Joe Baca (D-CA-43), who lost his 2012 re-election campaign to fellow Democrat Gloria Negrete McLeod in the post-redistricting 35th CD (California’s new election law now allows two members of the same party to qualify for the general election under certain circumstances), said last month that he would seek a re-match. Now, he may change targets. Instead of again battling Rep. McLeod, Baca might launch a challenge to Rep. Gary Miller (R-CA-31) in the adjoining district.

Under the 2011 redistricting map, California’s 31st Congressional District, fully contained within San Bernardino County, already possesses the most interesting voting history of any new Golden State seat. Despite it being heavily Democratic (Obama ’12: 57.2 percent, making it the most Democratic seat represented by a Republican in Congress), CA-31 qualified two Republicans for the general election. Rep. Gary Miller, coming into the seat from his redistricting-collapsed 42nd District, won a 55-45 percent victory over Republican state Sen. Bob Dutton last November. Miller’s performance in the 2012 election is rather extraordinary considering he literally represented no one in this new district during his previous service.

Originally, the 31st paired Baca with then-Rep. Jerry Lewis (R-CA-41), in what was viewed as a “lean Democratic” seat. With Hispanics constituting 49.3 percent of the population base, the seat appeared to be designed for a Democrat, but its previous voting history suggested a Republican could win. In addition to representatives Baca and Lewis, former Rep. David Dreier (R-CA-26) also represented a significant portion of the new 31st and it, for a time, was considered a potential landing district for him, too.

Baca’s decision to run in the new 35th CD, a district where just under 61 percent of the constituency hails from his old 43rd District, was a surprise. Despite him representing a large chunk of the new district, it was clear he would have to oppose a sitting state senator from his own party — remember, California state senators represent more people than congressmen — and do so in a district that did not include the city of Rialto, which is his home political base. The municipality, a city of some 98,000 people, was left fully contained within District 31. Hence, the congressman’s decision to leave his base for the other seat raised some eyebrows.

After Baca’s announcement, Rep. Lewis made public his intention to retire, as did Rep. Dreier. All of a sudden, after having three sitting members representing part of the new 31st, the district surprisingly transformed itself into an open seat. Miller, who was originally paired with Republican Rep. Ed Royce (R-CA-40) in the new 39th CD, then made his move over to CD 31, a decision that likely prolonged his congressional career.

Despite the heavy Democratic nature of the seat, the Ds failed to even qualify a candidate for the general election. Redlands Mayor Pete Aguilar was supposed to advance, but he stumbled and, coupled with a low Democratic first election turnout, found himself placing third in the jungle primary and out of the competition. He has already announced another run for 2014, so if Baca decides to run here, he will have Democratic competition. Additionally, attorney Eloise Reyes has also indicated that she plans to run. It is unlikely Rep. Miller will draw Republican opposition, so the early battle will be among Democrats to determine a qualifier for the second general election ballot position.

Since Baca did not take his defeat well, and still obviously has a desire to return to congressional service, it appears that targeting Rep. Miller in District 31 is his better move. Considering that he lost badly to McLeod when he was the virtual incumbent (she won 56-44 percent), his chances of unseating her in 2014 are likely quite poor. Against Miller, assuming he outpaces the other Democrats in the June primary, he would have the party registration advantage (41.2 percent Democratic – 31.4 percent Republican – 20.0 percent no party preference), has previously represented 44 percent of the constituency, and would return to his home base in Rialto.

There is no doubt that Rep. Miller will face a serious re-election test in 2014. It will likely become one of the most hotly contested races in the country with or without a Joe Baca comeback attempt.

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