Republican Candidates Still in Play in the Most Democratic of Districts

California’s 31st Congressional District, the country’s most Democratic congressional district represented by a Republican, lies in the heart of California’s Inland Empire and it’s an open seat once more. In 2012, President Obama captured 57 percent of the vote here against Republican Mitt Romney. The party registration breaks down 41-34-21 percent, Democratic, Republican, and Declined-to-State (Independent), respectively, according to the pre-primary official totals. Hispanics comprise 42 percent of the total population.

Two years ago, a statistical oddity occurred in the state’s first regular jungle primary. Due to an abnormally low Democratic turnout and because they had the more established candidates, Republicans were able to qualify two candidates for the general election, thus taking a seat right out of the Democrats’ hands. With incumbent Rep. Gary Miller (R) retiring this year, the 31st District again appears primed, at least on paper, for a Democratic conversion. The primary is set for June 3.

A new poll, however, suggests that at least one Republican will advance to the general election, making the Democrats’ victory path a bit more rocky than first perceived.

According to a Tulchin Research survey conducted for the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee (May 7-8; 400 CA-31 registered voters), it is Republican businessman and former Naval officer Paul Chabot who commands first place, claiming 23 percent of the vote. In second, the original favorite to win the seat, comes Redlands Mayor Pete Aguilar (D) at 15 percent, followed by both ex-Rep. Joe Baca (D-CA-43) and attorney Eloise Gomez Reyes (D) who each post 13 percent. In single digits are consultant Ryan Downing (D), former congressional aide Lesli Gooch (R), and San Bernardino School Board Trustee Danny Tillman (D). Downing attracts seven percent, while Gooch and Tillman pull six percent apiece.

In a recent Roll Call story reporting on this poll, the analysis suggested that Democratic officials are concerned that a repeat of what happened in 2012 might re-occur, meaning that both Chabot and Gooch could advance, thus edging all of the Democratic candidates who would almost evenly divide their party’s much larger vote.

Bluntly, the Tulchin poll gives no such indication. For Gooch, who had raised just $200,000 through the end of March, to leap frog four people in the short time remaining before June 3, all of whom have superior funding and/or name identification, is almost unfathomable. Though Mayor Aguilar is again falling way short of expectations in his second congressional race, Baca is gaining steadily and Reyes has raised over $1 million. Though the potential of too many candidates splitting the Democratic pie to such a degree that one Republican slips through to the general is a real possibility, it almost cannot happen for two under this candidate configuration.

After the redistricting map became set in 2011, Baca decided to run for re-election in the adjacent 35th District instead of this district that hosts his home city and political base, Rialto (population just under 100,000). Thinking that his chances were better of beating a fellow Democrat in a district where he represented 60 percent of the constituency instead of in a seat where he was better known but opposite a strong Republican, proved disastrous.

In the end, then-state Sen. Gloria McLeod Negrete stomped Baca. He now returns to the seat where he probably should have remained, and his making the 2014 general election is a scenario that cannot be dismissed. Though not raising much money ($143,000 through March 31), Baca’s name identification is virtually universal in San Bernardino County and he has won 11 elections from this region for the state Assembly, Senate, and US House.

Though the idea of again qualifying two Republicans is not feasible, Chabot’s early showing suggests that he could be a viable general election candidate. Should a Republican wave develop, as some believe will, a Chabot general election victory in CA-31 may well be within the realm of possibility. Though this district likely remains one of the Democrats’ top two national conversion targets, a much more competitive campaign is likely on tap for this Inland Empire CD than originally forecast.

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