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2 California newcomers differ in bids to upend House races
October 7, 2018
LOS ANGELES (AP) — Two women in their 30s from different political parties are new arrivals on the California political scene, each trying to engineer a remarkable achievement on Election Day — defeating an established congressman.
Democrat Katie Hill is promising to end politics as usual in a district that cuts through suburbs and high desert in northern Los Angeles County. Republican Elizabeth Heng says she will be a new voice in Congress for a hardscrabble stretch of California’s farm belt.
The first-time candidates are part of a millennial vanguard making its mark in a state known for its graying political leadership — outgoing Gov. Jerry Brown, at 80, is the nation’s oldest governor, and Dianne Feinstein, 85, is the oldest U.S. senator.
But their promises for change in Washington mean very different things.
In an election season shaped by divisions over President Donald Trump’s agenda, the #MeToo movement and the Brett Kavanaugh Supreme Court hearings, Heng is focusing on ending poverty in her Fresno-area 16th District that is among the poorest in the state. Democratic Rep. Jim Costa has represented the area since 2005.
Hill wants to advance her party’s plans to take control of the House by replacing Rep. Steve Knight, who’s seeking a third term in the 25th District, the last Republican-held House seat in strongly Democratic Los Angeles County. She promotes universal health care and counts Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren among her supporters.
Across California, Republicans face the challenge of defending their shrinking turf in a state where Trump is unpopular and the party’s registration numbers have plummeted. Democrats hold a 3.7 million voter registration edge, and independents now narrowly outnumber Republicans.
Democrats are trying to pick up 23 seats nationwide to win control of the House. Part of their effort involves targeting a string of Republican-held districts in California carried by Hillary Clinton in the 2016 presidential election, including Knight’s district and four wholly or partly in Orange County, an expanse of suburbs, freeways and beaches that was once a byword for Republican power.
Those races include Republican Rep. Dana Rohrabacher against Democrat Harley Rouda in the 48th District and GOP Rep. Mimi Walters and Democrat Katie Porter in the adjacent 45th District. The retirements of longtime Republican Reps. Darrell Issa and Ed Royce have given Democrats hope in their districts, the 39th and 49th.
In the Central Valley, Democrat Josh Harder is seeking to take down Republican Rep. Jeff Denham in the 10th District, where Democrats hold a slight registration edge, while Democrat T.J. Cox is trying to oust Republican Rep. David Valadao in the 21st District.
And in the most Republican district in Southern California — the mainly San Diego County 50th — Rep. Duncan Hunter is under indictment on corruption charges and faces a far-closer-than-expected challenge from first-time candidate Ammar Campa-Najjar, 29.
Heng is a longshot but she likely represents the California GOP’s best chance to win a Democratic seat. She faced off with Costa in the June primary and got 47 percent of the vote, surprisingly close for a little-known, first-time candidate running against an incumbent.
Heng is the type of candidate the aging GOP has long sought: a youthful racial minority. She’s 33 and her parents came to the U.S. in the early 1980s after fleeing violence in their native Cambodia.
The former congressional aide to Royce and small-business owner has earned GOP comparisons to Democratic rising star Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, the 28-year-old who engineered an upset of 10-term U.S. Rep. Joe Crowley in a New York City Democratic primary.
In California’s primary, Heng finished just 4,400 votes behind Costa. The district, however, has a heavy Democratic tilt and Costa led in fundraising by a 10-to-1 margin at the end of June, the most recent data available.
Heng is undeterred. She said voters are eager for change. She calls the immigration system broken and is open to the possibility of building a wall as part of a comprehensive solution that strengthens border security. She supports the president but also breaks with the White House on issues like tariffs, which she said hurt the district’s farmers.
“I am my own woman,” she said.
Costa, who earlier spent a quarter-century in the Legislature, has started to run ads criticizing Heng for a spotty voting record in prior elections, a sign the contest might be growing more competitive.
Meantime, Hill is running in a closely divided swing district where Democrats hold a slight registration edge. Knight’s family has been involved in local politics for decades — a high school is named after his father, a former legislator and test pilot.
Knight, a former Los Angeles police officer, carried the district in 2016 even as Clinton won there by nearly 7 points. In the district, “those people know him,” says Knight’s campaign consultant, Matt Rexroad. “There is more than party label going on.”
Hill, 30, who worked as an executive for a group providing services for the homeless, is a local, too. Her centrist brand of politics reflects the home she grew up in: Her Republican father, a police officer, had never voted for a Democrat before her primary. Her mother, a Democrat, is a nurse.
She says any immigration policy must start with securing the nation’s borders, echoing a familiar Republican refrain. She’s a gun owner. Hill laments difficulties faced by small businesses and also backs universal health care. Her endorsements run from firefighters to unions to Equality California, an LGBT advocacy organization. Hill is married and openly bisexual.
In a politically moderate district, “I believe very strongly that you are responsible for representing your entire community,” she said in an interview.
Knight has been stressing his ability to work across the aisle, too, noting that most of his legislation has attracted bipartisan support. In the 2016 election, he mostly kept his distance from Trump but eventually said he voted for him.