Nine weeks before election day, here are the 12 California congressional races we're watching


Sarah D. Wire

With just over a month left before California starts sending out vote by mail ballots, congressional races are starting to heat up.

Voters in all of California’s 53 House districts will weigh congressional candidates this fall, but with a host of powerful incumbents, and districts shaped to benefit people in power, only a handful of those races are thought to be competitive or up in the air.

The state is currently represented in the House by 39 Democrats and 14 Republicans. Democrats are hoping to hold the four seats left open by retirements and perhaps flip one or two more to their column.

Most of the other races have been off of the average voter’s radar, as has the U.S. Senate race between Democrats Atty. Gen. Kamala Harris and Rep. Loretta Sanchez.

Thirty of California’s 49 House incumbents secured more than 60% of the vote in the June primary. All were Democrats, except for Republican Reps. Tom McClintock of Elk Grove, Ed Royce of Fullerton, and Devin Nunes of Tulare.

Nonetheless, the nonpartisan analysts at Cook Political Report consider seven California House Districts as having the potential to change parties — and just one of them a likely turnover.

Here’s a look at some of the races we’ll be keeping a particularly close eye on from now until election day.

Porter Ranch tossup

Democrats have targeted Rep. Steve Knight (R-Palmdale), who faces Democratic attorney Bryan Caforio in the 25th Congressional District that includes parts of north Los Angeles County and Simi Valley.

It’s the only California seat the Cook Political Report has deemed a “toss-up” that could be won by either candidate.

Still, Knight heads into the general election with the advantages of incumbency and being from a political family, said Nathan Gonzales, editor of the nonpartisan Rothenberg & Gonzales Political Report newsletter, which rates the race Republican favored. Knight, and his father, the late William J. "Pete" Knight, both served the area in the state Senate.

Caforio moved to the district last year and registered to vote there less than a year ago.

Gonzales said because it’s “an expensive place to get known,” Democrats are going to have to spend a lot of money to raise Caforio’s profile. His first ad began running on cable and online last week. 

Rep. Mike Honda, (D-San Jose), left, and his challenger, Democrat Ro Khanna. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call / Jim Genshwimer/San Jose Mercury News)

Tough fight for an incumbent in Silicon Valley

In the 17th Congressional District, Rep. Mike Honda (D-San Jose) faces a tough re-election fight against fellow Democrat and former Obama administration official Ro Khanna, who finished 1.7% ahead of the eight-term congressman in the primary.

With 37.4% of the vote, Honda had the worst primary showing of any California incumbent.

The two clashed for the Silicon Valley seat in 2014, with Honda squeezing out a win by 3.6 percentage points. This time Honda has a year-old ethics investigation over his head and Khanna has poached some of his endorsements. Gonzales said Honda is “in a really vulnerable position,” adding, “The race is not moving in the Congressman’s direction.”

Rep. David Valadao (R-Hanford) (Bill Clark / CQ Roll Call)

If it's a bad night for Republicans, keep an eye on the Central Valley

Democrats have worked to connect Republicans with GOP presidential nominee Donald Trump’s comments about Latinos and immigrants. What effect will that have down the ticket?

Consider Rep. Jeff Denham (R-Turlock) of the 10th Congressional District and Rep. David Valadao (R-Hanford) of the 21st District, who each represent areas with high Latino populations.

Valadao pulled 54% of the vote in the primary, and faces Bakersfield lawyer Emilio Huerta, the son of labor icon Dolores Huerta.

"If Trump is truly going to drag down incumbents regardless of their strengths, that will be a race to watch," Gonzales said. "Democrats are trying to get as many challengers into the ocean as possible in case a wave develops.”

The 21st District covers parts of Fresno and Kern counties. It is 71% Latino, according to the nonpartisan election guide California Target Book.

Denham is seeking to win a fourth term and defeat Democrat Michael Eggman, a beekeeper, whom he beat in the 2014 general election by 12 points.

The district is 26% Latino, according to the California Target Book, and includes Modesto, Turlock and parts of Stanislaus and San Joaquin counties. 

Cook Political Report considers both districts competitive, but says Republicans still have the advantage.

Republican Justin Fareed (Javier Panzar/ Los Angeles Times)

Replacing the retirees

No matter what happens, California will have four new members of Congress come January.

Along the Central Coast’s 24th District, the candidates are Democrat Santa Barbara County Supervisor Salud Carbajal and Republican former Capitol Hill staffer Justin Fareed.

In the 20th District, Monterey County Deputy Dist. Atty. Jimmy Panetta, whose father, Leon Panetta, once held the seat, is the strong favorite. He won 70.8% support in the primary, and has raised three times as much as Republican opponent Casey Lucius.

Cook Political Report lists both seats as likely staying Democratic.

The other two open seats, like the Senate contest, highlight the unusual nature of California’s top-two primary system.

The race in the 44th Congressional District in Los Angeles’ port communities pits attorney Nanette Barragán against state Sen. Isadore Hall. Theirs has been a nasty fight from the beginning.

Voters in central Orange County's 46th Congressional District will pick between former state Sen. Lou Correa, whom Rep. Loretta Sanchez backs to replace her, and Garden Grove Mayor Bao Nguyen, who eked out a second place win in the primary over better funded opponents. This race is a test of the Vietnamese American community

Rep. Darrell Issa of Vista (Bill Clark / CQ Roll Call)

Possible surprise for a well-known Republican

In recent weeks Democrats have increasingly focused on the 49th District held by Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Vista), who finished with a surprisingly low 50.8% of the vote in the primary.

His opponent, retired Marine Colonel Doug Applegate, earned 45.5% of the vote. He hasn’t held office before, and it could take a lot of money to knock the wealthiest member of Congress from the seat.

The district includes parts of Orange and San Diego counties and includes Camp Pendleton, San Clemente, Oceanside and Vista.

Gonzales called it a long shot, but worth keeping an eye on the size of any potential Democratic “wave” on Nov. 8. 

Cook Political Report considers the seat competitive but likely to stay in Republican hands.

U.S. Rep. Ami Bera of Elk Grove (Rich Pedroncelli / Associated Press)

Trouble up north?

Republicans have repeatedly tried to connect Rep. Ami Bera (D-Elk Grove) with his father, Babulal Bera’s, guilty plea in May to illegally funneling more than a quarter of a million dollars to his son's 2010 and 2012 campaigns.

The elder Bera was sentenced in August to one year and one day in federal prison for the scheme.

The congressman has said that neither he nor campaign aides knew of his father’s activities until they were contacted by federal prosecutors.

The district has been among the nation’s most contested. Bera bested Republican Sacramento County Sheriff Scott Jones with 54% of the vote in June, and they will square off again this fall.

Jones has had his own struggles. The Sacramento Bee reported in July that in a court deposition 13 years ago, a female deputy at the Sacramento County Sheriff’s Department accused Jones of making unwanted sexual advances, groping and kissing her, an allegation he denies. Democrats also are trying to tie him to Trump.

Also worth keeping an eye on

Ethics questions are lingering in the 29th Congressional District race between U.S. Rep. Tony Cárdenas (D-Los Angeles) and former Los Angeles City Councilman Richard Alarcón.

Cárdenas has poured more than $300,000 into legal services with five Los Angeles law firms in the last year after an aide disclosed she had been subpoenaed by federal investigators, but his attorney says there is no indication the congressman is the subject of a rumored federal investigation.

Still, Cárdenas pulled 61.4% of the primary vote, and Alarcón has been fairly quiet since getting the second spot on the ticket.

In April, prosecutors announced plans to retry Alarcón and his wife, Flora, on perjury and voter fraud charges. Their conviction for lying about where they lived so that he could run for the council was thrown out over improper jury instructions from the trial judge.

Republicans also are keyed in on the 31st District, where Rep. Pete Aguilar (D-Redlands) faces Republican Iraq war veteran Paul Chabot after a weak showing in the primary. Aguilar won just 43.1% of the vote, Chabot captured 22.7% to advance to the general election. It’s a rematch: Aguilar narrowly pulled out a win over Chabot in 2014.


25th Congressional District candidate attorney Bryan Caforio (D), left, gives his opening statement in a debate against candidates Rep. Steve Knight (R-Palmdale), middle, and LAPD Lt. Lou Vince (D), at Hart Hall in Newhall. (Gina Ferrazzi / Los Angeles Times)