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California’s Primary Races To Watch

Welcome to the busiest primary week of the year. On June 7, seven states will vote, more than on any other primary date in 2022. As a result, there are a lot of races to cover, but one state stands above the rest: California. Because of the state’s size, we will dig into 20 — count ’em, 20 — races. And never fear, we’ll be back tomorrow with a preview of the six other states that also have elections on Tuesday.

Before we run through California’s key races, there is one important twist to keep in mind: California has a top-two primary, in which all candidates run on the same ballot, regardless of party, and the top-two vote getters advance to the general election. This means it’s entirely possible that a party gets locked out from the general election in November, especially in deep red or blue seats where most voters will vote for candidates from one party. This even happens in competitive seats sometimes, too. When a party has many candidates running who split the party’s vote, two candidates from the other party can finish first and second. Finally, the top-two vote by party — the vote share for all Democrats running versus all Republicans — usually tracks relatively close to the general election vote, meaning that the state’s June 7 primary results can be used — albeit with caveats — as a harbinger.

With that, let’s dig into California’s vast array of races to watch.


Races to watch: Special election for California’s 22nd Congressional District; top-two primaries for U.S. Senate, 3rd Congressional District, 5th Congressional District, 8th Congressional District, 9th Congressional District, 13th Congressional District, 15th Congressional District, 22nd Congressional District, 27th Congressional District, 34th Congressional District, 37th Congressional District, 40th Congressional District, 41st Congressional District, 42nd Congressional District, 45th Congressional District, 47th Congressional District, 49th Congressional District, governor, attorney general

Polls close: 11 p.m. Eastern

Let’s start with the three statewide races of interest. In the primary for governor, Democratic Gov. Gavin Newsom’s political circumstances could hardly be more different than they were almost a year ago. Back then, Newsom faced a recall election, and polling suggested he might be in danger. But Newsom went on to easily defeat the recall, which helps explain why he only faces token Republican opposition now. A late May survey of likely voters from the University of California, Berkeley, Institute of Governmental Studies for the Los Angeles Times found Newsom comfortably in the lead. The poll also found GOP state Sen. Brian Dahle with the second-most support, potentially setting up Dahle for a November matchup with Newsom in a race the incumbent looks very likely to win.

That poll also looked at the U.S. Senate primary and found Democratic Sen. Alex Padilla is in good shape to advance in both (yes, both) U.S. Senate races he’s running in. Padilla, whom Newsom appointed to succeed Vice President Kamala Harris, will actually be on the ballot twice: first in a special election for the final months of Padilla’s current term, then for the seat’s next six-year term beginning January 2023. He is heavily favored to win both.

A statewide race with a bit more intrigue is the attorney general election, which could present the best chance for a non-Democrat to win a California statewide office in years (Democrats have won every partisan statewide election since 2010). Democratic incumbent Rob Bonta, whom Newsom appointed in 2021, is seeking a full term and appears on track to win. But with voters in California worried about crime, Bonta’s progressive approach to criminal justice in his previous role as a state legislator could present an opening for a more conservative alternative — albeit not necessarily a Republican.

Enter Sacramento County District Attorney Anne Marie Schubert, a former Republican running as an independent, whose profile as a tough on crime but socially liberal district attorney could make her a desirable alternative for liberal voters in California. Understandably then, Bonta would prefer to face one of the two Republicans running in the general election — attorneys Nathan Hochman and Eric Early — but should they split the GOP vote, Schubert could finish second and meet Bonta in the general election. However, the little polling we have suggests the November contest will likely be a Democrat versus a Republican: The Los Angeles Times/UC Berkeley IGS poll found Bonta leading with 46 percent, followed by Early at 16 percent, Hochman at 12 percent and Schubert at 6 percent.

Let’s now turn to — gulp — the 16 primaries to watch for the U.S. House of Representatives on California’s new congressional map. These include three Republican incumbents defending Democratic-leaning seats that Democrats aim to capture and four Democratic-leaning seats that are GOP targets in the fall (three have Democratic incumbents). There are also three GOP-leaning seats with two Republican incumbents that could potentially be competitive in November, and six safe seats (one Republican, five Democratic) with notable primary action.

California’s House races to watch

U.S. House seats by incumbent, incumbent party, the share of the new district that comes from each incumbent’s old district, median race rating and district partisan lean

District Incumbent Party % POP. OLD DISTRICT Median rating* Partisan lean
CA-05 Tom McClintock R 42% Solid R R+17.1
CA-03 Likely R R+7.7
CA-41 Ken Calvert R 74 Likely R R+6.6
CA-40 Young Kim R 20 Likely R R+4.1
CA-45 Michelle Steel R 16 Toss-up D+4.6
CA-49 Mike Levin D 91 Lean D D+5.5
CA-47 Katie Porter D 41 Lean D D+5.9
CA-13 Lean D D+7.2
CA-27 Mike Garcia R 81 Toss-up D+7.5
CA-09 Josh Harder D 27 Likely D D+8.5
CA-22 David Valadao R 57 Toss-up D+10.1
CA-42 Solid D D+43.5
CA-08 John Garamendi D 21 Solid D D+50.4
CA-15 Solid D D+53.9
CA-34 Jimmy Gomez D 86 Solid D D+63.4
CA-37 Solid D D+71.9

*Based on race ratings from Inside Elections, Sabato’s Crystal Ball and The Cook Political Report

Partisan lean is the average margin difference between how a state or district votes and how the country votes overall. This version of partisan lean, meant to be used for congressional and gubernatorial elections, is calculated as 50 percent the state or district’s lean relative to the nation in the most recent presidential election, 25 percent its relative lean in the second-most-recent presidential election and 25 percent a custom state-legislative lean based on the statewide popular vote in the last four state House elections.

Sources: Inside Elections, Sabato’s Crystal Ball, The Cook Political Report

Let’s start with the three Republicans running in Democratic-leaning seats. First, Republican Rep. David Valadao is seeking reelection in California’s 22nd District, a heavily Latino seat in the Central Valley. But despite the district’s D+10 lean, according to FiveThirtyEight’s partisan lean,1 the GOP-leaning national environment and Valadao’s moderate reputation could secure him a victory. Valadao will also face an easier primary than many expected last year, when he sparked outrage among Republicans by voting to impeach then-President Donald Trump. But unlike most of his GOP compatriots in the same situation, Valadao never attracted a high-profile Republican challenger. His strongest Republican foe is Chris Mathys, a former Fresno city councilman who lost a primary for a House seat in New Mexico in 2020. 

While we have no polling, the lack of involvement by pro-Trump groups (and the man himself) suggests Mathys — who has loaned his campaign more than $320,000 — has made little headway. However, two different outside groups have gotten involved late in the campaign. On Friday, the Congressional Leadership Fund, the principal GOP House-focused super PAC, launched a roughly $250,000 ad buy attacking Mathys as “liberal” and “soft on crime.” This came not long after the CLF’s Democratic counterpart, the House Majority PAC, began a $275,000 ad and mail campaign on behalf of Assemblyman Rudy Salas, the only Democrat running. With low turnout expected and the potential for greater-than-expected backing for a further-right Republican alternative, Democrats probably want to make sure their candidate doesn’t finish third and lock the party out from competing for this blue-leaning seat in November.

Meanwhile in the northern Los Angeles suburbs, the big question in the new 27th District is whether Republican Rep. Mike Garcia will face former state Assemblywoman Christy Smith for the third straight time. Garcia defeated Smith in a May 2020 special election for the recently vacated seat, then beat her again that November by just 333 votes. But a third rematch might not be in the cards as Smith also has to contend with fellow Democrat and Navy veteran Quaye Quartey, who has run even with Smith in fundraising and actually entered the last weeks of the race with three times as much cash on hand. 

Quartey has endorsements from the Congressional Black Caucus and VoteVets, which has spent a little over $100,000 boosting Quartey. But Smith has endorsements from a number of California Democrats, suggesting something of a D.C.-California split over the best choice to defeat Garcia, who has a pretty conservative profile despite representing a blue-leaning district.

In the Orange County-based 45th District to the south, Rep. Michelle Steel is the last GOP House member running in a blue-leaning seat. The new district’s voting-age population is about 40 percent Asian, and the candidate field reflects this. Steel, who is Korean American, faces fellow Republican and former Orange County Board of Education trustee Long Pham, who is Vietnamese American, and community college trustee Jay Chen, who is Taiwanese American and the lone Democrat in the race. It is Steel and Chen, though, who are likely to advance, as Pham’s attempt to run to Steel’s right looks like a long shot at this point.

Next up, the four primaries in blue-leaning but still likely very competitive seats. First, there’s Democratic Rep. Katie Porter, who is seeking reelection in the new 47th District, also based in Orange County. Known for her withering questioning in committee hearings, Porter is one of the most impressive fundraisers in the House, having brought in $15.2 million this cycle. But she may need to use much of that war chest to reintroduce herself, as she currently represents only about 40 percent of the new district’s constituents, which could make it challenging for her to win a D+6 district in a Republican-leaning cycle. The GOP candidate most likely to advance is former state Assembly Minority Leader Scott Baugh, who has raised $1.5 million so far and whose background as a former chair of the Orange County GOP should make him a familiar face to many Republicans in the district.

At the border of Orange and San Diego counties is the 49th District, where Democratic Rep. Mike Levin is defending a D+5 seat. The leading GOP contender to move on with Levin may be former San Juan Capistrano Mayor Brian Maryott, who Levin defeated by 6 points in the 2020 election. But while Maryott has raised $1.2 million in contributions and loaned himself another $1 million, a Levin-Maryott rematch is far from certain. Maryott must contend with two other noteworthy Republicans: Oceanside City Councilman Christopher Rodriguez, who has raised $1.2 million ($100,000 from his own pocket), and Orange County Supervisor Lisa Bartlett, who has brought in $489,000. Additionally, Rodriguez has also enjoyed more than a half million dollars in outside spending support from the American Patriots PAC. The only poll we’ve seen was a survey conducted by co/efficient on behalf of Rodriguez’s campaign, which found Rodriguez running just ahead of Maryott and Bartlett, but the results were too close to say anything definitive.

Moving north, Democratic Rep. Josh Harder is running in the new 9th District, which sits in the Central Valley around the city of Stockton. The roughly D+8 seat contains only about a quarter of Harder’s current constituents, but Harder decided to run here after fellow Democratic Rep. Jerry McNerney announced his retirement in January. Harder doesn’t appear to have serious Democratic opposition, and he’s raised $4.8 million to try to retain the seat in the face of midterm headwinds. The Republican most likely to join Harder in November is San Joaquin County Supervisor Tom Patti, who has raised $549,000.

Finally, there’s the seat Harder initially planned to run in, the 13th District, a D+7 seat that lies south of the 9th District. The open-seat race has attracted two notable candidates from each party. On the Democratic side, financial advisor Phil Arballo has raised $1.5 million, and is trying to build off his failed 2020 campaign against now-former Republican Rep. Devin Nunes. Arballo could also benefit from the district’s demographics (he is Latino seeking to represent a majority Latino district) and by running as the more progressive Democratic choice, which has earned him the backing of the California SEIU. That sets up a contrast with Assemblyman Adam Gray, who has a reputation as one of the leading moderate Democrats in Sacramento. But while Gray has raised less money than Arballo, he does have the official endorsement of the California Democratic Party and major party leaders like Newsom and Padilla. Moreover, Gray’s also received outside support from business-friendly and centrist groups, including almost $250,000 in spending by the California Association of Realtors.

Meanwhile, Republican agribusinessman John Duarte and businessman David Giglio have run pretty close on fundraising, as Duarte has brought in nearly $800,000 to Giglio’s $734,000. But Duarte appears to be the national party’s preferred candidate, as he’s part of the National Republican Congressional Committee’s Young Guns program and has benefited from $172,000 in spending on his behalf from the Congressional Leadership Fund. But beyond the likely competitive general election it’ll set up, this top-two primary is worth monitoring because, with four serious candidates, it’s possible that one party’s pair of candidates narrowly finishes first and second, shutting out the other party from the general election.

Next up, the trio of Republican-leaning House seats that could still see some serious competition in the fall. First, Republican Rep. Young Kim has decided to seek reelection in the new Orange County-based 40th District, but she currently represents only 20 percent of the new district’s population. Physician Asif Mahmood, the only Democrat on the ballot, has tried to capitalize on that by running ads that indirectly encourage Republicans to back Mission Viejo City Councilman Greg Raths, a Republican running to Kim’s right. Raths would likely be a much weaker opponent for Mahmood than Kim, who’s raised $5.4 million to Rath’s $136,000. But Republicans are taking this threat seriously as the Congressional Leadership Fund dropped nearly $450,000 in ads attacking Raths. Despite Mahmood’s efforts, the most likely outcome is a Kim-Mahmood faceoff in the general election.

Meanwhile, east of Los Angeles, the new 41st District is an R+7 seat where two Democrats are jockeying to face 15-term Republican Rep. Ken Calvert in November. Former federal prosecutor Will Rollins has raised just over $1 million to engineer Shrina Kurani’s $491,000. We don’t have any recent public polls of this race, so it’s hard to know which Democrat will advance, but allies of Rollins at the Welcome PAC did release a survey three months ago from Tulchin Research that showed him running about even with Calvert in a hypothetical general election matchup. 

Finally, the new 3rd District is an open R+8 seat that runs from central to northern California along the Nevada border. Democrats have coalesced behind Navy veteran and physician Kermit Jones, so he’ll likely advance out of the primary with either one of two Republicans: Assemblyman Kevin Kiley or Sacramento County Sheriff Scott Jones. Kiley may have the upper hand thanks to an endorsement from Trump and his fundraising edge, as he’s brought in $1.5 million to Jones’s $510,000.


Having covered the 10 primaries in competitive or potentially competitive House seats, we’ll wrap up with some rapid-fire coverage of six safe seats, as some of these races feature interesting intraparty divides. There’s just one safe Republican seat of note: the 5th District in the northern Central Valley and lower Sierra Nevadas, where GOP Rep. Tom McClintock is running for reelection. This seat is a safe R+17, but because McClintock currently represents only 42 percent of this seat, it’s possible fellow Republican and Fresno County Supervisor Nathan Magsig could advance to November and unseat him. As of May 18, both men had about the same amount of money on hand.

By contrast, there are five safely blue seats where Democrats are duking it out. First up, two Democratic incumbents who could face a fair bit of opposition. In the 8th District, Democratic Rep. John Garamendi has seemingly little-known opponents, but his new seat is deeply blue — D+50 — which is a stark change from the light blue district he’s held over the past decade. As a result, Garemendi’s moderate voting record might be out of step here. So it wouldn’t be shocking to see the other three Democrats on the ballot pick up more than a little support, even if they don’t beat Garamendi. And in Los Angeles’s 34th District, the primary will likely feature an all-Democratic rematch between Democratic Rep. Jimmy Gomez and immigration attorney David Kim. Gomez beat Kim by 6 points in the 2020 general election.

Finally, there are three dark blue open seats where two Democrats will likely advance to the November election. First, the primary for the 15th District on the southeastern end of the San Francisco Peninsula in the race to succeed Democratic Rep. Jackie Speier. This race features three major Democratic contenders in Assemblyman Kevin Mullin, San Mateo County Supervisor David Canepa and Burlingame Councilmember Emily Beach. Mullin has somewhat outraised the others, but Beach, an Army veteran, has received $169,000 in outside support from veteran-focused groups, and it’s hard to really suss out who has the upper hand. The Los Angeles-based 37th District has a crowded field, but state Sen. Sydney Kamlager is the likely front-runner to succeed Rep. Karen Bass. Kamlager has endorsements from Bass and EMILY’s List, and has gotten close to $1 million in outside spending support, mostly from crypto-aligned groups. Lastly, in the 42nd District, Long Beach Mayor Robert Garcia and Assemblywoman Cristina Garcia (no relation) seem likely to advance to the general election. The former definitely has a fundraising advantage, as he’s raised $1.1 million to her $420,000. He’s also garnered $1.2 million in outside support from crypto-aligned groups, while the American Israel Public Affairs Committee’s new super PAC has spent more than a half million dollars attacking the assemblywoman.

To close, there’s also a special election in the 22nd District for the last few months of Republican Rep. Devin Nunes’s term, as he resigned in January after redistricting obliterated his district. (The new 22nd district discussed earlier barely contains anything from this district.) No candidate won a majority in the initial special election on April 5, which by California law necessitated a second round of voting. But as the GOP candidates won about two-thirds of the initial vote — much more than Trump’s 52 percent in 2020 — it seems likely that Republican Connie Conway, a former assemblywoman, will defeat Democrat Lourin Hubbard, a water resource manager, to serve out the last months of this district’s existence. Neither candidate is running for a seat on the new House map.


Whew, that was epic. Please look out tomorrow for the preview of the other six states voting June 7, and join us on our live blog Tuesday evening as we track the ins and outs of what’s happening in primaries across the country.

Footnotes

  1. FiveThirtyEight’s partisan lean is the average margin difference between how a state or district votes and how the country votes overall. This version of partisan lean, meant to be used for congressional and gubernatorial elections, is calculated as 50 percent the state or district’s lean relative to the nation in the most recent presidential election, 25 percent its relative lean in the second-most-recent presidential election and 25 percent a custom state-legislative lean based on the statewide popular vote in the last four state House elections.

Geoffrey Skelley is an elections analyst at FiveThirtyEight.

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