There are two reasons that California plays an outsize role in determining the makeup of the House of Representatives next year. The first is that California itself is outsize, making up one-eighth of the country in terms of population and about the same proportion of the legislative body. The second is that California strongly rejected Donald Trump’s candidacy in 2016, hinting that the blue state might punish state Republicans for their unpopular party leader in this year’s midterms.
If the preliminary results of Tuesday’s primaries are any indicator, that punishment might not be very severe.
It’s hard to overstate how important the word “preliminary” is to this article. California is notoriously slow at counting ballots, given that voters can postmark ballots on Election Day and have their votes count. On average since 1990, it has taken 39 days to certify the state’s vote, meaning that Tuesday’s vote would be finalized in the middle of next month. What’s more, a printing error meant that nearly 200,000 voters in Los Angeles had problems voting. The initial results tallied from polling places, even with 100 percent of precincts in, could change dramatically.
But, still. Those preliminary results are what we have to work with, and they’re not what Democrats would want to see.
A quick recap: There are 14 House seats in the state held by the Republican Party. Of those, seven were won by Hillary Clinton in 2016. Cook Political Report rates nine of those 14 seats as in play, seven as toss-ups. (It also rates one Democrat-held seat as possibly in play.)
We also know that primary results can give us a sense of how voting in November will go. California’s unusual primary format allows voters to cast votes for any candidate on the ballot, with the top two advancing to the general, regardless of party. In races where a Democrat and a Republican both advance — apparently the case in the contested races in California — tallying the total votes for candidates of each party in the primary gives us a sense of how each party will fare in November.
Here’s a comparison of the primary and general votes in the last two federal elections in the state.
Between the primary and the general, Democrats gained an average of 2.5 points in 2014 while Republicans lost 1.3 points. In 2016, the difference was narrower, probably because more Democrats turned out to vote in the contested Democratic presidential primary. That year, Democrats lost a bit less than a point, and Republicans gained two between the primary and the general. The net effect, in both years, was an average difference of less than four points.
Keep that in mind when considering the cumulative totals by party in contested races as of 9 a.m. Wednesday. (There were only two candidates in the 21st District, so both advance to the November runoff.)
Democratic candidates got more than half of the vote in two races, in the 7th District — a Democrat-held seat — and the 49th District, left vacant when Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Calif.) announced his retirement. In every other race, Republican candidates got more than half of the vote.
According to preliminary results. Preliminary.
Let’s assume, though, that the final tallies from the primary don’t differ from these percentages by much. What about the shift we saw between the primary and the general in 2014 and 2016?
Let’s take the most optimistic scenario. In races where the final margin was less than 15 points in 2014 (that is, in relatively close races), Democrats gained an average of 2.7 points between the primary and the general, and Republicans lost an average of 2.2 points. (Remember that there are third-party and nonpartisan candidates who got some votes in the primary but won’t be on the ballot in November.) That’s a swing of nearly five points.
If we apply those shifts to the preliminary totals in our contested races, what happens?
Democrats pick up only one other seat, the 10th District — and that’s by less than a point. They also narrow the margin in the 25th District to less than a point, with Republicans still winning.
Assuming these preliminary results hold and assuming the generous shift seen in 2014, the Democratic wave in California is a net gain of two House seats.
This is not what Democrats were hoping to see in the state.