California voters wait in line to cast their ballots in the primary election minutes before the ballots close in the Echo Park Recreation Center in Los Angeles Tuesday, June 7, 2022
( AP Photo/Damian Dovarganes
Melissa Harris-Perry: Welcome back to The Takeaway. I'm Melissa Harris-Perry. Voters in California headed to the polls last Tuesday, or at least some did. Turnout was low, and even with 2.5 million votes still being counted statewide, just 21% of the state's eligible voters cast ballots. In Orange County, the race for the 40th district of the US House of Representatives heated up in the 11th hour as the Republican incumbent spent more than a million trying to keep her seat in a newly redrawn district.
Now, Representative Young Kim, who flipped the seat in 2020, will face off against Democrat Asif Mahmood this fall in one of the nation's few truly swing seats. Here to walk us through it is Marisa Lagos, the politics correspondent at KQED in San Francisco. She also co-hosts the podcast Political Breakdown. Marisa, welcome back to The Takeaway.
Marisa: Thanks so much for having me.
Melissa Harris-Perry: All right. Let's just talk about the midterms more broadly here. How has redistricting affected these House races in California?
Marisa: It's really interesting. I think it really shows how an independent commission can change things. When I started covering politics here 15 years ago we didn't talk about congressional races. They weren't competitive. Now we have, depending on your count, five to seven races that really could go either way. Particularly Orange County, of course, has become this hotbed in recent years. Young Kim, who you mentioned, had flipped that seat back after a Democrat took it in 2018.
I think it's going to be really fascinating to see how that seat and another one nearby, Michelle Steel's seat, in that district, which was drawn to really give Asian American voters power. We now have a Democratic Asian American running, Jay Chen, against incumbent Michelle Steel. I think that it's going to be a real question coming into November of what are the issues in these races? Are they national issues or are they more local issues?
Melissa Harris-Perry: Let's stick with that intersection there between identity and ideology for a moment because it is, for example, quite different than what districts look like in the Southeast, for example, where race and partisanship so often coincide. Not absolutely, but so frequently coincide. What does it look like in terms of the robustness, for example, of Asian American politics to see cross-partisan battleground within the very broad umbrella identity of AAPI?
Marisa: You know this as well as anybody, but I always have to have this asterisk, which is groups don't vote as a monolith. Women don't vote as a monolith, Latinos don't, but I do think that there are trends we can see. For one, in Orange County, for example, you do definitely see generational differences in some of these races because there's a big Vietnamese community, for example. Communism can play big there. Issues of China and how we're interacting with them over questions like Taiwan can actually at least come up in these congressional races, which isn't totally out of school.
I guess it's more important than in a city council race, but it is interesting because as we know one member of Congress has limited input on foreign policy. Then certainly we've seen some dustups occur over this. Jay Chen, the Democrat in District 45 challenging Michelle Steel made some comments about the way she speaks that she took as an attack on her accent, and she went really hard after him over that. Basically saying his parents are immigrants too, he should know better, and he was saying, "No. I was just saying that she's not speaking clearly and being clear with constituents," and it was this fascinating moment.
We've never really seen that high-profile dustup where you have two folks who are bringing in what amounts to almost racist accusations, and both of them being from the AAPI community.
Melissa Harris-Perry: There was that interesting moment during the national Republican presidential primary in 2016, where Marco Rubio and Ted Cruz did have a little moment around Latino identity and Spanish-speaking capacity. I remember thinking at the moment that that was indicative of a growing kind of diversity that maybe wasn't entirely what we expected diversity or racial ethnic identity diversity would do within American politics.
Marisa: Absolutely. I'll bring up another race here that I think is going to be fascinating, and in part should or could turn on the Latino community which is in the Central Valley, a seat held by David Valadao. Really a more moderate Republican, one of the 10 to vote to impeach Donald Trump. He is in a district that before redistricting and continues to be majority Latino and also just a shade more Democratic than Republican, but he's managed to keep that seat despite actually being Portuguese - Valadao is a Portuguese name - because of deep ties.
This year we see an assembly member, Rudy Salas, who is, I think, just a serious Democratic candidate than in recent years in the sense that he's been in the state assembly. He has ties to the Democratic Party here. He has a lot of support. I think that's another race where potentially identity comes in. Then particularly how do you activate the voters that matter to you when they might be busier working their jobs? Especially, that's a farming community. It is hard sometimes to get folks to vote even if the important questions in front of them are on the ballot.
Melissa Harris-Perry: I got to tell you, I've been following Orange County for a while, and it all goes back to a lecture I gave more than a decade ago in Orange County. It was the first time that I'd met a really large, really enormous group of pro-choice Republicans. At the time I thought, "Okay, something interesting is going on here," so I've been following Orange County politics ever since. What is going on in Orange County? Given that that was the place where I met this really large proportion of pro-choice Republicans, I wonder if you think anything that's going on with the upcoming Supreme Court decision may have any effect on this race.
Marisa: That's such an interesting question. I am having a hard time sitting here right now in June predicting what we'll care about because there are so many issues. You mentioned the Roe decision, which of course will be, whatever it is, a political earthquake. We're thinking a lot about inflation here. There's questions around obviously gun control really percolating. Then public safety seemed to be such a big issue in some of the local races I was following around California.
I do think in a place like Orange County Roe could play, and here's why. We've seen in the past some of these swing districts really turn on the votes of women. I think that that is a group Republican or Democrat that has slightly different approaches and thoughts about choice potentially than their male counterparts, even more conservative women. I do think that that has the potential to be a potent political message in a place like Orange County.
We discussed the Asian American vote there that's, again, not a monolith, but there is definitely, I think, a strong set of, not just in the Asian American committee but in general Orange County, evangelical in particular churches. There's that side of things, but yes, Roe is really one of those wild cards that could make the difference, at least in a small number of voters. Honestly, in a lot of these congressional races that can be the difference between winning and losing.
A little further north in Northern Los Angeles County, we're seeing a rematch between pretty conservative Congressman Mike Garcia and a former Democratic Assemblywoman, Christy Smith. This is the third time they'll face off because they ran in a special election. Last time she lost by like 333 votes, so I think it's fair to say any one issue could make the difference in some of these races.
Melissa Harris-Perry: In addition to issues there's also money, and that 40th district race was the most expensive in the state. Kim spent, according to NBC reports, 1.4 million. Some of that has to do with the Republican Party really wanting to hold this seat. Why is it so important to them?
Marisa: Part of that is her fending off a potential challenge from the right, a local Republican who is not well known nationally but did have some name and ID down there. It seemed like the National Republican Party got a little fire in their pants at the end and went, "Oh wait. No, we need this to be on Kim." That speaks to, again, the importance of these seats and also just the expense of communicating in a state like California. Even in a congressional race there's definitely retail politics, but TV and other mailers, things like that cost a lot of money and can really help, especially when it comes to radio and TV ads.
Look up the road in LA where Cruz has spent $40 million to get his name out in the last few months, and it definitely worked.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Now, let me come back up the coast a bit to your town, to San Francisco, about the recall of the DA. You mentioned public safety as an issue that you're watching in terms of affecting the votes come fall. Talk to me about the DA recall.
Marisa: Interestingly, I checked the numbers more recently. It had been talked about as a landslide last week of 60/40 on election night, now down to a 55/45 split for the recall. Not quite as big as we had thought, but yes that was another race that got national attention. Very progressive district attorney, former public defender. Parents were members of the Weather Underground.
Chesa Boudin really came in on this promise for change and, I think, saw a lot of circumstances change really rapidly between when he was elected in 2019 and what happened during the pandemic both on the side of obviously police reform and calls for accountability after George Floyd's murder, but also just the changing patterns of crime during the pandemic, and him being a first-time politician honestly. [chuckles] This was a race that got national play. I mean, we saw some national Republican donors put some money in. You can't just talk about the money. Obviously people have to be motivated to vote and to come out.
I think on the heels of our school board recall election a few months ago, and just in general the mood. People are mad and they want to blame someone. I think that incumbents right now, especially at the local level, are really on the hot seat and a few missteps can really cost you. We saw Boudin really just get blamed for things that maybe are in his wheelhouse. Questions about whether he was charging cases seriously enough. Then I think a lot of blame for things that are outside of the district attorney's purview, including the horrible fentanyl and meth crisis sweeping America and our homeless problem, and other problems that clearly go way beyond only the city or even California.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Marisa Lagos, politics correspondent at KQED in San Francisco and host of Political Breakdown. Thanks for joining us today.
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