‘Purple’ House Seat in Southern California Still Too Close to Call

(CN) — Congressman Gil Cisneros narrowly trails Republican Young Kim in his bid to hold onto one of the congressional seats that handed Democrats control of the U.S. House of Representatives in 2018.

Kim, a businesswoman and former state lawmaker, has 50.3% of the vote over Cisneros, who trails the GOP challenger by just 1,710 votes, according to California election data Friday. Hundreds of thousands of ballots, including more than 719,000 in Los Angeles County, remain outstanding, according to election officials.

The candidates are squaring off in a rematch of their 2018 election, which was initially called for Kim — who had even traveled to Washington for new member orientation — before a count of additional ballots gave the victory to Cisneros. 

Spanning Los Angeles, Orange and San Bernardino counties, California’s 39th Congressional District is a firmly purple district that has been represented for years by Republicans, including longtime Congressman Ed Royce.

Democrats drew up designs to challenge Republicans for control of the district after Hillary Clinton won the majority of Orange County votes in the 2016 presidential race.

The former first lady and secretary of state was the first Democrat to carry Orange County in a presidential election since 1936. The GOP’s once-tight grip on “Orange Curtain” congressional seats had loosened.

After Royce retired — not surprising given his support for President Donald Trump’s agenda and the president’s unpopularity in the region, even among some Republicans — Democrats positioned Cisneros to run for the tri-county congressional seat.

Cisneros, a Navy veteran whose lottery win in 2010 propelled him into philanthropy and politics, was a first-time candidate who campaigned on immigration reform, support for veterans and job growth.

Two years later, Cisneros has a record in Congress marked by his support for veterans, small businesses, Dreamers, residents seeking better health care and constituents struggling during the Covid-19 pandemic. Both his Republican and Democratic constituents have criticized Cisneros for either being too moderate on some issues or siding too closely with Democratic party leaders on others.

The OC Republican Party said last December it would invest heavily in the race after Cisneros backed impeachment proceedings against Trump.

Cisneros said in a campaign statement Wednesday he expected the race would not be officially called until officials could count all ballots submitted during an unprecedented election. 

“In this unprecedented time for our country, the regular election playbook has been thrown out the window,” Cisneros said. “We must count every vote, because every voice in the 39th District matters.”

Kim, a Korean immigrant, has repeatedly criticized Trump’s policy on immigration and styled herself as an open-minded Republican who’s cognizant of the demographic change taking place in the region. 

Republican party officials told Courthouse News that Trump’s unpopularity in the district won’t hurt down-ballot candidates who reject the president’s behavior in office but support the GOP agenda locally.

Kim, a former Royce aide, has criticized Cisneros for campaigning as a moderate but siding with an agenda set by Democratic leaders in Congress.

She did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Fred Smoller, political scientist at Chapman University in Southern California, told Courthouse News he thinks the outcome of the tight race is clear: Cisneros won’t be able to close the gap and Kim will win the congressional seat.

“She’ll beat him,” Smoller said. “What we see in this race for Kim is, what I feel, a sign that Orange County is not blue or red, it’s purple and it’s competitive.”

Cisneros has proven he’s qualified to serve his constituents and will likely run for in the future if he does indeed lose the race, Smoller said.

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