Something's Rotten In The OC... But Is It Rotten Enough To Defeat A GOP Incumbent?
In 2020, CA-39, the northern Orange County/Southeast L.A. County district represented by one of the Democrats' least attractive incumbents, voted against Trump by 10 points-- but on the same day, self-funding lottery winner Gil Cisneros narrowly lost his seat to Republican Young Kim. It was a 2018 rematch, in which Cisneros spent had spent $12,030,393-- $9,252,762 self-funded-- to Kim's $2,885,746). In 2020 Cisneros didn't;'t want to spend his own money (just $511,887) and his campaign wound up spending $4,350,464 to Kim's $6,021,651. She beat him 173,946 (50.6%) to 169,837 (49.4%). The DCCC and its allies spent nearly $3 million attacking Kim and bolstering the unpopular Cisneros, who had pretended to be a progressive while campaigning and then voted with the conservative, corrupt New Dems once got into office.
The old 39th had a D+6 partisan lean, very tough for a Republican. The redistricting dealt Kim a very lucky hand and now the district (CA-40) has a much friendlier R+4 partisan lean. She would appear pretty safe, especially in a red wave cycle. As of the May 18th FEC reports Kim had spent $2,944,079 and her Democratic opponent, Pakistan-born physician Asif Mahmood, had spent $396,768 (with another $1,275,429 yet to be deployed). A Trump-Republican, Greg Raths, raised $136,110 and has been using it to attack Kim from the right, as has a fringe neo-Nazi candidate, Nick Taurus. McCarthy's Congressional Leadership Fund SuperPAC has been spending hundreds of thousands of dollars in negative ads attacking Raths.
This morning, the New York Times reported that McCarthy is leading "an expensive rescue mission on Kim’s behalf" in a race that "was supposed to have been a cakewalk for the incumbent Republican. Why?" For one thing, 80% of the district was not in CA-39 and Kim doesn't live in the new district (although Mahmood doesn't either). For another, Mahmood has spent $445,000 on cable ads supporting Raths, hoping to boost him above Kim, by presenting him as the further right more Trumpist contender, since he would be much easier to defeat in the general. McCarthy and Kim are pushing back by blanketing the airwave claiming that Raths is "liberal," like with this one:
California has an unusual primary system. There aren’t separate ballots for the Republican and Democratic primaries. Instead, every candidate runs on a single ballot, with their titles and party affiliations detailed.
All voters choose their candidate from the list. The two candidates who receive the most votes progress to the general election. And there’s no guarantee that both major parties will have a candidate in the general election.
For many candidates-- even incumbents like Kim-- there is a real risk in getting lost in a list of names.
Notably, she isn’t just promoting herself. She is also attacking her Republican opponent, Greg Raths, a retired combat fighter pilot for the Marines who drives for Uber and recently issued an apology for comments that had been criticized as antisemitic.
Kim’s operation spliced Raths’ image together with Speaker Nancy Pelosi and President Biden in one television ad that her campaign has paid more than $570,000 to air-- a huge sum for a single ad in a House primary.
Even more notable: The Congressional Leadership Fund, a super PAC that is aligned with Representative Kevin McCarthy of California, the minority leader, and is devoted to making him speaker, has also jumped in, with even more ads attacking Raths.
The total anti-Raths spending is now around $1 million, according to AdImpact, the ad-tracking service-- a sign of the importance of the race, for which there has been scant public polling.
“Following redistricting, Young Kim has a largely new district and it’s important voters know that she’s the only credible conservative in the race,” said Calvin Moore, a spokesman for the Congressional Leadership Fund. “It’s a must-win race for November, and we’re going to do all we can to make sure a standout leader like Kim prevails.”
After years as a Republican stronghold, Orange County had already been shifting to the left before Donald Trump accelerated the change. In 2016, Kim lost her Orange County seat in the State Assembly to a Democrat.
In that campaign, she faced attacks comparing her to Trump, including an Auto-Tuned music video titled “Young Kim Is Like Donald Trump.” In 2018, she ran for Congress and fell short. That year, Democrats flipped all seven House seats in Orange County.
After the 2018 blue wave, however, Republicans recovered some of that lost ground. Kim and Michelle Steel, two of the first three Korean American women in Congress, were the only Republicans to flip Orange County seats in 2020.
“It says a lot about how the times have changed,” Kim, whose campaign declined to make her available for an interview, told the New York Times after she won her 2020 race. “Our Republican Party has been very aggressive in recruiting quality candidates who happen to be women.”
Democrats have made defeating both Kim and Steel top priorities in 2022, despite a national environment that favors Republicans.
Enter Greg Raths.
Unlike Kim, he hasn’t been a successful federal candidate. A member of the Mission Viejo City Council who has also served as mayor, he has lost three congressional elections since 2014.
Raths has called himself the “only conservative in this race,” and he recently tweeted a photo of himself, wearing a leather jacket and aviator sunglasses, standing in front of Tom Cruise on a “Top Gun: Maverick” poster.
This campaign, Raths said in an interview, feels different -- or, at least, it did until the huge spending against him began a few weeks ago.
Raths hasn’t had the resources to air ads in the expensive Los Angeles media market, but he said he had knocked on so many doors that he had probably lost 30 pounds. He also drives for Uber at night-- in a Lexus hybrid because, he says, he is an “environmentalist”-- and estimates that he has reached 2,000 voters alone by driving them around.
“How many candidates do you know who make money while they’re campaigning?” he asked.
On the stump, he reminds voters that Kim voted to censure Trump and to remove Representative Marjorie Taylor Greene from congressional committees. Raths said he flew to an event at Mar-a-Lago in February to try to win over Trump’s support, but wasn’t successful.
The potential concern for national Republicans is that if Kim doesn’t make it past the primary, the seat could be in danger.
Raths isn’t concerned. He believes that any Republican who wins the primary will be strongly favored to win the general election over Asif Mahmood, the only Democrat on the ballot, and his $1.3 million war chest. When asked if he’d need to win over Biden voters in the general election, Raths pointed to his “worldly experience,” including working with the federal government as a colonel in the Marines, and his service on the Mission Viejo City Council, where he is a self-described “fiscal hawk.”
But there is another factor at play with the involvement of the McCarthy-linked Congressional Leadership Fund.
The super PAC wants more Republicans, of course. But it also wants more Republicans who will help the party-- and McCarthy-- govern effectively if the GOP takes back the House. The goal is for Republicans to end up with a majority big enough to overpower some of the furthest-right members of the party, which will be crucial if McCarthy and a Republican-controlled House actually want to get anything done.
Why is the NY Times going after Raths so hard? his attack on AIPAC was fairly accurate even though it crossed into no-no territory that could sound anti-Semitic. The NY Post was even harsher towards him.
UPDATE: Talkin' With Greg Raths
Once I persuaded him I wasn't from Young Kim's camp, Raths was very forthcoming and interesting to speak with. Something that hasn't been mentioned in any of the news coverage that I could find is that Raths has publicly spoken about voting for Jim Jordan as Speaker, not for McCarthy. That context helps make sense out of McCarthy spending all that money-- money donated by Republicans to beat Democrats-- against Raths. Raths isn't anti-Semitic and he was troubled by the racism, xenophobia and Christian nationalism of Taurus, who he thinks can probably just get 2 or 3% on Tuesday. Raths, who is well-known in the 80% of the district that was not part of CA-39 but was part of the old 45th (Katie Porter's former district) where he did well last cycle. He seems certain he will be able to beat Kim next week, despite her massive warchest and despite the help from McCarthy.