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North Orange County’s 39th Congressional District has been labeled a competitive race by many pundits, but a Republican sweep still could happen because of name recognition and government experience, according to UCI political science professor and congressional and presidential elections expert Mark Petracca.

The district has 17 candidates heading into the June 5 primary — six Democrats, seven Republicans, two American Independents and two no party preference candidates — even after a few Democrats dropped out.

“There are too many arguably viable candidates on both sides. The Democrats would have been better off with only two instead of three viable candidates. Same on the Republican side. But this takes strong county and state party leadership — to persuade people not to run or to run for something else,” wrote Petracca in an email.

Democrats targeted the district as part of a national effort to secure 24 seats across the country to gain control of the 435-member House of Representatives.

There were no other Republican candidates running in the 39th until 25-year Rep. Ed Royce (R-Fullerton) announced his retirement in January. Within a week of his announcement, at least three Republicans jumped in the race including Orange County Supervisor Shawn Nelson, former Assemblywoman Young Kim and former State Senate Minority Leader Bob Huff.

Even though Nelson and Kim have experience and name recognition, Petracca said Huff could be considered the frontrunner.

“The person most likely to advance is the person who has a voting constituency already and that person is Huff, who has served in the (state) Senate, Assembly and in local elected office,” Petracca wrote. “With so many candidates and no incumbent and the top-two primary, this election becomes something of a free-for-all. Huff has to be viewed as the front-runner, but even he can be beat with the right combination of voter mobilization and selective turnout. “

California’s top-two primary system means the two top vote-getters advance to the November general election, regardless of political party.

While there are seven Republican candidates on the ballot, the Democratic candidates have narrowed to six after hopefuls like Jay Chen and Phil Janowicz dropped out. At one point, at least nine Democrats were looking to run for the seat.

Chen and Janowicz said, in separate statements, they dropped out to shrink the number of Democratic candidates in an attempt to prevent two Republicans from winning the primary, which would guarantee a Republican victory in November.

“The prospect existed that too many Democratic candidates could shut us out entirely from the ballot in November. The chance to flip this seat, just as we’ve seen with so many across the country, is very real, but is also difficult based on sheer math,” Janowicz wrote on his campaign website March 14.

Chen voiced similar concerns in a March 13 statement.

“As of now 9 Democratic candidates and 7 Republican candidates have filed for a primary in which Republican turnout may remain higher than Democratic turnout. The probability of two Republicans advancing in November, and Democrats squandering a historic opportunity, is real,” Chen wrote.

The 39th district includes a sizable portion of north Orange County, including parts of Buena Park, Placentia and Anaheim Hills and contains all of Yorba Linda, Brea, La Habra and Fullerton. It also includes parts of Los Angeles and San Bernardino counties. The bulk of voters in the district are Orange County residents.

The district is home to 361,000 registered voters, according to the California Secretary of State’s Jan. 2 voter registration report. Republicans hold 35.5 percent of voters, a little over one percent more than the Democrats. The no party preference voters make up a little over 26 percent of the district.

“The 39th is probably the district where the (voter registration) split has become the closest and therefore, under the right circumstances, the district in which the Democrats have the best chance of flipping it,” Petracca wrote.

Republican numbers have been slowly dwindling while Democrat numbers have nearly stayed the same and no preference voter numbers have increased.

In the Secretary of State’s May 2016 voter registration report, Republicans held the lead at just under 38 percent, while Democrats were nearly 34 percent and no preference voters were a little over 24 percent.

In the May 2014 report, Republicans held the edge at nearly 39 percent, while Democrats were a little over 32 percent and no preference voters were nearly 23 percent.

And in the secretary’s 2012 report in the first election cycle after redistricting, Republicans held the majority of voters at 40 percent, Democrats hung in at 32 percent and no preference voters were a little over 23 percent.

“The Republicans have dropped, quite a bit actually, and the no preference voters have grown. Trump hasn’t helped the GOP, but he’s not responsible for the general movement away from organized parties — which has taken place across the state,” Petracca wrote.

Voters in the 39th district also chose Hillary Clinton over Donald Trump in 2016 by a margin of nearly nine points. It was the first time a Democrat won the county’s overall presidential vote in 80 years when the county backed Democrat Franklin D. Roosevelt for president in 1936, the middle of the Great Depression.

Petracca said there’s two opposite trends that will collide going into the primary election. Top ticket races, like the Gubernatorial race, tend to bring more voters to the polls, but Petracca said there’s nothing at the top of the ballot “to get GOP voters excited about going to the polls.”

“On the other hand, Republican voters typically do better than Democrats in off-year elections, because turnout by Republicans — all other things being equal — tends to be higher. These two (trends) are going to cut against each other in this district,” Petracca said, adding “a Republican nominee without political baggage should be able to hold that seat.”  

Because of the 2016 vote, the change in voter registration numbers and Royce’s retirement, election handicapper website Larry Sabato’s Crystal Ball classifies the 39th Congressional District as a toss up, while another handicapper, The Cook Report, considers the district leaning Democratic. The district had long been considered a Republican stronghold by the pundit sites.

As of March 31, the two well-funded Democratic candidates raised the most money, largely through self-funding. Andy Thorburn, a businessman originally from New Jersey, raised nearly $2.6 million, including $2.3 million from his own funds.

Gil Cisneros, a former U.S. Naval officer who won the lottery in 2010, raised $2.5 million, including $2 million in self funding.

Democratic challenger Mai-Khanh Tran, a medical doctor, is behind at nearly $1.2 million, including nearly $500,000 she gave herself. Sam Jammal, trails the others with $433,000 in funding, raised mostly through individual contributions and organizations like ActBlue, a Democratic internet-based fundraising nonprofit company.

“I think Cisneros has a better chance than Jammal of making it through. Jammal seems to be self-presenting as far more of a liberal than this district may be prepared to endorse; moreover, something slightly more than a third of the district are Hispanic voters, which could give Cisneros a boost,” Petracca wrote.

Meanwhile, the Republican candidates have been busy fundraising in an attempt to catch up to the two Democratic heavy self-funders. Within less than four months of entering the race, Kim raised $606,000, Nelson raised nearly $400,000 and Huff raised $312,000.

Most of the money Kim, Nelson and Huff raised came from individual contributions, although Huff gave himself a little over $30,000.

The next Federal Elections Committee quarterly filing deadline for Congressional candidates and committees is June 15.

Although Kim hasn’t raised funds to match her competitors across the aisle, she managed to score the most high-level endorsements, according to her campaign website.

Kim, who worked for Royce before being elected to the state Assembly in 2014, has been endorsed by the retiring Congressman and 45th District Rep. Mimi Walters (R-Laguna Beach). She’s also garnered endorsements from Orange County Republicans like District Attorney Tony Rackauckas, Sheriff Sandra Hutchens and Supervisor Michelle Steel. She’s also been endorsed by five republican Assemblyman and city leaders throughout the county.

Additionally, Royce gave nearly $500,000 back to individual donors and still has $2.8 million on hand, but the Federal Elections Commission data doesn’t show money flowing to Kim’s campaign.  

Nelson’s endorsements aren’t as numerous as Kim’s, but he managed to score a few high-level Republican endorsements also, including 48th district Congressman Dana Rohrabacher (R-Costa Mesa), state Sen. John Moorlach (R-Costa Mesa) and Supervisor Andrew Do.

Meanwhile, Huff’s website lists no endorsements and has no updated campaign posts since he announced he’s running Jan. 9.  

Cisneros has racked up the most endorsements among the Democratic candidates. He managed to score endorsements from U.S. Representatives Pete Aguilar (D-Redlands), Nanette Barragan (D-San Pedro), Salud Carbajal (D-Santa Barbara), Lou Correa (D-Santa Ana), Grace Napolitano (D-Norwalk), Lucille Roybal Allard (D-Downey), Raul Ruiz (D-Palm Desert), Linda Sanchez (D-Whittier), Mark Takano (D-Riverside) and Norma Torres (D-Pomona).

Thorburn has been backed by various labor unions like the Machinists Conference of California and the International Union of Painters and Allied Trades. He’s also secured endorsements from progressive organizations like People for Bernie Sanders and Our Revolution.

Jammal also was endorsed by labor unions, including the International Longshore and Warehouse Union. Additionally, he’s been endorsed by numerous Democratic organizations like the Orange County Young Democrats and Democracy for America.

Tran, like the other Democrats, doesn’t have the endorsements Cisneros does, but has been backed by Rep. Lois Frankel (D-Fla.) and different Democratic organizations like the Korean American Democratic Committee and the Progressive Vietnamese American Organization. She’s also been endorsed by a few Democratic city council members throughout the county.

While Thorburn and Cisneros have been attacking each other on social media, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee released its first television ads attacking Republicans Huff and Nelson.

To watch the ads, click here and here.

Spencer Custodio is a Voice of OC reporter who covers south Orange County and Fullerton. You can reach him at scustodio@voiceofoc.org.

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