Republicans are on the brink of ending 20 years of futility in the state of California. Since 1994, not a single Democratic House member in the state has failed to win reelection against a Republican challenger.
As of Wednesday morning, however, no fewer than three Democratic incumbents are trailing with 100 percent of precincts reporting, though their narrow margins mean that none of the races has been conceded yet. In a fourth race, a Republican trails by under half a percent with almost all votes counted, within range of a recount or final absentee ballot surge. By this time next week, the Republicans may have picked up as many as four new seats in the Golden State.
Of the three districts where a Republican challenger leads, the most shocking by far is James Costa’s seat in California’s 16th congressional district, located in the state’s agricultural heartlands around Fresno. Costa, in the House since 2004, was expected to coast to victory in the majority-Hispanic district, but instead has been stunned by dairy farmer Johnny Tacherra. With all precincts reporting, Tacherra is leading by about 700 votes, a lead of almost exactly 1 percent. Tacherra was easily outspent by Costa, but hit back with an inspired grassroots effort.
Should the lead hold, it would be the biggest House upset of the year for Republicans, as the 16th had almost universally been regarded as a safe Democratic district. In contrast to other Republican challengers who raised millions of dollars with the help of the party apparatus, Tacherra had to make do with less than $500,000 and primarily campaigned by personally meeting thousands of voters.
While down, Costa is unlikely to concede quickly. In 2010, he trailed by over a thousand votes on election day but came back to win in the days afterwards as provisional and absentee ballots were counted. A similar possibility exists here, meaning it could be over a week before the final result is known.
The potential defeat of Ami Bera in the 7th congressional district near Sacramento is more likely to hold up, but is also less of a shocker, as he represents a swing district that closely mirrors the national mood and was a top target for Republicans nationally. With 100 percent of precincts reporting, challenger Doug Ose has a lead of over 3,000 votes, enough to put him close to three percent above Bara. To hold his seat, Bera will need a major surge from absentee ballots, and likely the help of a recount as well. Such a swing, while not impossible, must be regarded as an unlikely possibility.
Should Bera go down, it will mean the defeat of the only Indian American currently in Congress, but ironically Bera would owe his downfall in part to other Indian Americans. A group calling itself American Sikhs for Truth sharply attacked Bera for declining to respond to a questionnaire sent to him asking if he acknowledged a violent wave of persecution conducted against Sikhs by the Indian government in the 1980s and whether he planned to seek justice for the families of victims. While the issue may seem arcane (there are fewer than 10,000 Sikhs in the 7th district), the final vote difference will be so close that the concerns of even a tiny group may prove decisive.
The last district where an incumbent Democrat trailed Wednesday morning was the 52nd in San Diego’s northern outskirts, where freshman Scott Peters finished about 750 votes behind Carl DeMaio, an openly gay Republican. Like in the case of Tacherra’s pending upset, the margin is close enough that the final result may not be known for several days or even a week or more.
A fourth race that will take a while to resolve is the 26th congressional district, where Democrat Julia Brownley has a lead of about 600 votes over challenger Jeff Gorell, with 99 percent of the vote counted. Like Bera’s seat, Brownley’s was one targeted by the national party as a potential pickup, and while it seems likely Gorell will come up just short, he can benefit from a recount or a late surge of absentee ballots just as much as the Democrats in the other three races.
Should Republicans get lucky, they’ll defeat four or more Democratic incumbents in California for the first time since 1980. Even if Gorell falls short, if the three currently leading candidates hold on, Republicans will have their best showing in California since 1994, the year of the much-heralded Republican Revolution.
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