A string of U.S. House races in California remained undecided Wednesday but Republicans had slim leads in a handful of closely fought districts, even as President Donald Trump was thrashed by Joe Biden in the heavily Democratic state.
In Orange County, Biden outpaced Trump by 10 points, according to preliminary counts. But Republican House candidates Michelle Steel and Young Kim were narrowly ahead of Democratic Reps. Harley Rouda and Gil Cisneros, respectively, though a large number of votes remained uncounted.
Former Republican Reps. Darrell Issa and David Valadao also were leading their races.
Memories of 2018 remained vivid, when Republicans ended election night leading in key House fights but eventually lost seven seats, including four all or partly in the one-time GOP stronghold of Orange County, after late-arriving ballots tilted in favor of Democrats.
It remained unclear which way those uncounted votes would break this year. However, the Republican campaigns were encouraged to see Steel and Kim outperforming Trump, who is broadly unpopular in California outside his loyal base.
If 2018 was a referendum on the Republican president “the congressional races were more about whether the incumbent members of Congress were serving their constituents well or not,” said Sam Oh, general consultant to the GOP candidates in both races.
Based on results so far, “It was very clear to voters they deserved better,” Oh added.
Democrats, meanwhile, remained optimistic in a state the party dominates, controlling every statewide office and both chambers of the Legislature. Republicans hold just seven of the state’s 53 U.S. House seats.
Nationally, House Democrats were looking at a smaller majority next year, as they lost at least seven incumbents without ousting a single Republican lawmaker.
“We expanded this party that reflects America, that looks like America,” House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., said in a conference call with reporters.
California’s GOP has been fading years but the party was hoping for a comeback in House districts the party lost to Democrats two years ago.
Among Democrats perhaps most at risk was Rouda, who was narrowly trailing Steel in a district with a 5-point Republican registration edge.
Rouda seized the seat in 2018 in an upset over longtime Republican Rep. Dana Rohrabacher. The loss carried symbolic weight in a county known as a foundation block in the Reagan revolution.
In other close races:
—Republican U.S. Rep. Mike Garcia was narrowly trailing Democrat Christy Smith in the 25th District north of Los Angeles.
—In the Central Valley’s 21st District, Valadao was leading Democrat TJ Cox, who unseated him two years ago by 862 votes.
_The 50th District anchored in San Diego County, saw Issa, a prominent Trump supporter, build about a 12,000-vote lead over Democrat Ammar Campa-Najjar.
While Democrats worked to link GOP candidates to the unpopular Trump, Republicans sought to make Sacramento’s lopsided government a defining issue, faulting Democrats for the homeless crisis plaguing big cities, high taxes and government coronavirus orders that shuttered businesses and closed gyms, beaches and parks.
Rouda’s district is entirely in Orange County, which was once so reliably conservative it was known as “Reagan country.” But in Cisneros’ 39th District, a large piece of it stretches into heavily Democratic Los Angeles County, which could benefit the Democrat. The district also runs into a small section of more conservative San Bernardino County.
Democrats performed strongly in other seats the party captured two years ago.
U.S. Rep. Katie Porter won re-election in Orange County’s 45th District, while U.S. Rep. Mike Levin captured another term in the 49th District that straddled San Diego and Orange counties and was represented by Issa until 2018.
Republicans believed their chances were strengthened this year by a crop of candidates with notable personal stories. Garcia, the son of a Mexican immigrant father, is a former Navy fighter pilot. Steel is a South Korean immigrant, Kim is a former state lawmaker who was born in South Korea and grew up in Guam.
It’s been a rarity in recent years for a Republican to claim a House seat from Democrats in the state.
When Garcia captured the 25th District in May, it marked the first time in over two decades that a Republican won a Democratic-held California congressional district.