Ratings Change: Open Seat Shifts California’s 39th District Race to Toss-Up

January 8, 2018 · 7:28 PM EST

Democrats have been targeting California’s 39th District ever since Hillary Clinton carried it over Donald Trump in the last presidential race. But GOP Rep. Ed Royce’s retirement announcement on Monday gives Democrats an opportunity to take over a seat without having to defeat an entrenched incumbent who had $3.5 million in his campaign account at the end of September. 

The scope of the Democratic opportunity in Southern California depends on whether Clinton’s performance is the new normal (she won 52-43 percent) or whether 2016 was an aberration. The 39th District could still be fundamentally Republican, considering 2012, when Mitt Romney carried it 51-47 percent for president and Republican Elizabeth Emken defeated Democratic Sen. Dianne Feinstein 51-49 percent, even though she lost statewide by 25 points. 

It’s possible that the upscale Republicans in Orange County still want to vote Republican (they re-elected Royce in 2016 with 57 percent) but couldn’t vote for Trump. It’s also possible that those anti-Trump Republicans could use 2018 to send a check-and-balance message to the White House. 

Under normal conditions, Republicans may even have an edge to hold the open seat. But with a staggering deficit in the national generic ballot (Democrats have a 48-37 percent lead, according to the RealClearPolitics average), it’s tough to give the GOP any sort of edge in this political environment.

Democrats also have multiple credible candidates running including self-funders Gil Cisneros (who won the lottery) and Andy Thorburn (an insurance executive). Wall Street analyst-turned pediatrician Mai-Khanh Tran, former Obama appointee Sam Jammal, and former Cal State Fullerton chemistry professor Phil Janowicz are also running. 

There is some risk Democrats get locked out of the general election if the crowd of candidates divides the vote evenly enough in the June 5 primary to allow two Republicans to finish in the top two. But that would require the GOP field to be limited to a couple candidates, which may not be known for a couple weeks. The filing deadline is March 9.

Some initial names mentioned include former Orange County Republican Chairman Scott Baugh, Orange County Supervisor Michelle Park Steel, former Royce staffer/Orange County supervisor candidate Young Kim, former state Senate minority leader Bob Huff, Assemblyman Phillip Chen, and former Assemblywoman Ling Ling Chang, according to GOP sources. But some of those candidates have their eye on the 48th District in case Republican Rep. Dana Rohrabacher leaves or loses. 

We’re changing the rating of the race for California’s 39th District from Lean Republican to Toss-Up. If Republicans don’t get a good candidate, the rating will shift further toward Democrats. And this is the type of seat and race Democrats have to win in order to win the majority.