This week, one of the more notable bits of Congressional news was in California’s 26th Congressional District. Actor Antonio Sabato Jr. announced plans to run for Congress.
During the 2016 campaign, Sabato was an outspoken supporter of then-candidate Donald Trump; he even addressed the Republican Convention in Cleveland. While Sabato starts out with better name recognition than most first-time candidates, he’s also more controversial. In an interview shortly after his RNC speech, for example, he raised eyebrows in claiming that President Obama is ‘absolutely’ a Muslim.
Sabato has a pretty rough race ahead of him. He’ll be running against three-term incumbent Democrat Julie Brownley in a district that leans against him.
Geographically, CA-26 is a rather tidy seat. It takes in most of Ventura County, which is situated between Los Angeles and Santa Barbara:
The county seat, Ventura, is split between districts 24 and 26. With a population of just over 200K, the largest city in the district is Oxnard, which sits on the Pacific coast. Going inland, some of the larger cities are Camarillo, and Thousand Oaks; both are less Democratic than Oxnard. Simi Valley, on the western edge of Ventura County, is home to the Reagan Presidential Library and is mostly contained in the adjacent 25th district.
In recent decades, the area was represented by Republican Elton Gallegly. The 1990’s iteration of his district, known as CA-23 at the time, was essentially Ventura County minus Thousand Oaks. There, he was routinely reelected easily. In the 2001 redistricting, the theme was incumbent protection. In that vein, Gallegly’s seat lost heavily Democratic Oxnard but gained GOP-friendly inland of neighboring Santa Barbara County, while being renumbered CA-24.
In the 2011 redistricting cycle, which was governed by a nonpartisan board in CA, Gallegly’s district was again renumbered, to CA-26, and regained Oxnard. A problem for Gallegly was that Ventura County had been trending left. In the 1980’s, when he was first elected, it was heavily GOP. Ventura County went for Reagan by 38% in 1984 and Bush by 24% in 1988. From the 1992 to 2004, it became a swing county, voting narrowly for Presidents Clinton and Bush. In 2008, though, President Obama won it by 12%. Rather than run in a less-friendly district, Gallegly retired.
For 2012, Democrats recruited State Assemblywoman Julia Brownley, who represented the coastal part of the new CA-26. Republicans recruited State Senator Tony Strickland. In 2010, Strickland lost a race for State Controller by 20%, but was well-known in the area. Brownley won the seat by just over 5%, and became the first Democrat to represent much of the area; President Obama carried the seat by 10.3%, which certainly gave her a boost.
In 2014, Brownley had a tougher race. Republicans ran Assemblyman Jeff Gorrell, who represented a legislative seat similar to her old one. Still, Brownley held on to win by 2.7%.
Okay, Miles, enough of the history, show us some maps!
Well then, this brings us to 2016. Like much of southern California, Donald Trump was a decidedly poor fit for CA-26. While Governor Romney lost the district by just over 10%, Trump doubled that deficit, losing by 21%:
At the Congressional level, this race wasn’t really on either party’s radar. The GOP recruited Rafael Dagnesses, who actually had a good resume that included service in the Marine Corps and LAPD. Dagnesses ran in 2014, but took just 8% in the open primary (recall, CA uses a Louisiana-style jungle primary system). In the 2016 open primary, which was in June, Brownley won 64/36. In California, runoffs are required even if a candidate clears 50% in the primary. In November, Brownley was reelected by a wide 60/40:
Here’s a map comparing Brownley’s margins (blue) to Clinton’s (red). Given that their margins were similar, they were usually within a few points of each other. Brownley generally did better in the west, especially around the Ventura proper portion, while Clinton did better in the east, noticeably so around Thousand Oaks:
While it might not be as relevant to a partisan race, in the Senate contest in 2016 featured an intraparty runoff between State Attorney General Kamala Harris and Congresswoman Lorretta Sanchez. CA-26 almost exactly matched Harris’ 23% statewide margin:
One problem that Sabato will have is that CA-26 isn’t just Democratic-leaning in Presidential years. Let’s consider California’s current statewide officers; all seven are Democrats who were elected in 2014. Despite the unfavorable national mood, each Democrats won by at least 7%. All but one of them carried CA-26. The only Democrat to (narrowly) lose it, Betty Yee in the Controller’s race, was running against the highest-quality Republican opponent, Fresno Mayor Ashley Swearengin.
On average, CA-26 voted for Democratic candidates by 5% (similar to Brownley’s 3% win that year), though its average vote was 8.8% to the right of the state:
For better or worse (better, so far), Brownley has performed like a generic Democrat in her district. Like the other Democrats in 2014, she narrowly won CA-26, and in 2016, was elected by a large margin, but still matched that of Secretary Clinton.
If Sabato’s aggressive RNC speech was any indication, we’ll have quite a personality contrast in this race. Though Brownley has broken with her party on some issues, such as refugee resettlement, and emphasized her work on veterans issues, she’s kept a relatively low profile.
Given the district’s lean, and the environment that a Trump midterm will likely produce, we’re starting this off as somewhere between Lean and Likely Democratic.