Desert Congressional Elections: Slight Leftward Shift, No Real Surprises

Image by Chris Clarke

California's desert has voted, with turnout running around 50%, and the results of each Congressional race will likely surprise no one -- but it looks as though the region may have shifted ever so slightly toward the liberal end of the spectrum.

The closest thing to a surprise in the desert's electoral contests was likely Democratic challenger Raul Ruiz's squeaky victory over veteran Representative Mary Bono Mack in the redrawn 36th Congressional District, which encompasses most of Riverside County -- including the populous Coachella Valley. A promising long-shot candidate when he announced last year, Ruiz found leverage in the district's increasingly Latino population -- especially in the eastern Coachella Valley -- as well as with impatience in the West Valley's established LGBT community with Bono-Mack's waffling on civil rights issues.

A late-season turn to negative campaigning, in which Bono Mack slammed Ruiz for taking part in a Native American Rights demonstration while in his mid-20s, only seemed to backfire. Bono Mack's charges that defending Native rights was "Un-American" drew the ire of the powerful Agua Caliente Cahuilla tribe, which released two scathing statements in the press criticizing the Republican representative.

Bono Mack also took heat for emailed comments applauding a local right wing shock jock who called an East Valley community a "third world toilet," as well as for her maintaining a primary residence in Florida -- which last criticism has dogged her for some years. In the end, last night's Democratic surge helped boost Ruiz to a two-plus-point victory over the incumbent -- flipping the district's House seat into Democratic hands.

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In the gargantuan Eighth Congressional District, which includes all of Mono and Inyo counties and the vast majority of San Bernardino County, Republican California Assembly Member Paul Cook, who was termed out of his Assembly seat this year, handily defeated Tea Party Republican candidate Gregg Imus by a 15% margin. Cook, a conservative Republican, significantly outspent Imus in the race. Imus' support came mainly from the Tea Party movement: he helped co-found California's xenophobic Minuteman organization with Victorville Assembly member Tim Donnelly -- who kept his own seat last night by a 20% margin. In the end, the Eighth District's far-right fringe proved unequal to the task of defeating the popular Cook, in part due to the fact that the district's moderates and liberals, having no candidate of their own to vote for. Progressive candidate Jackie Conaway lost to Imus in the June primary by about 200 votes, and so the two Republicans faced each other as a result of California's fledgling "top two" primary system. Their candidate out of the running, voters to Cook's left were free to vote against Imus.

In the western edge of the desert, two Republican incumbents held their redrawn districts against Democratic challengers. The 25th Congressional District, covering Santa Clarita and the southern Antelope Valley, will again be represented by Buck McKeon, who survived having his district redrawn to exclude much of his backcountry conservative base. McKeon bested Democratic challenger Lee Rogers by slightly over 10%. Rogers had made significant gains during the campaign, eating up about about half the lead McKeon enjoyed in the primary. Just to the north, District 23 -- which covers the remainder of the Antelope Valley, the Ridgecrest area, a stretch of the southern Sierra Nevada, most of Bakersfield and the Taft area in the Central Valley -- will continue to be represented by Republican Kevin McCarthy, who trounced independent journalist Terry Phillips 74-26%.

The vote in the 51st Congressional District, which occupies all of Imperial County and a sliver of San Diego County running along the border to the coast, was almost as lopsided as in the 23rd, but in the opposite direction. Democrat Juan Vargas, who represented most of the district in the State Senate, handily beat Republican challenger Michael Crimmins by a 70-30 margin. Vargas replaces exiting Representative Bob Filner, with whom he has had a number of nasty electoral conflicts over the last decade or so. For his part, Filner will spend 2013 working as San Diego's mayor, having beaten Republican Councilman Carl DeMaio by about 10,000 votes.

Chris Clarke is an environmental writer of two decades standing. Director of Desert Biodiversity, he writes from Joshua Tree regularly at his acclaimed blog Coyote Crossing and comments on desert issues on KCET weekly. Read his recent posts here.

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