As predicted by SactoPolitico for most of the past two years, no midterm Red wave or tsunami ever materialized and control of the U.S. House remains a very open question. And now House Republicans have awoken to perhaps their worst nightmare: a handful of California toss-up races will likely determine which party wins the House majority.
These races center on five California districts where the GOP candidates each have an early lead but with a huge amount of mail-in ballots left to count. Four of these districts even featured Democratic voter registration advantages, and it’s believed the Democrats must win two or three of them to have a chance to retain control of the House.
At first glance, the CA-27 Mike Garcia/Christy Smith rematch from 2020 looks like the toughest hill for Democrats to climb at this point. Freshman GOP incumbent Garcia is up 12 points with an estimated 47% left to be counted. However, Democrats have a 12-point registration advantage, and Garcia only won by 333 votes two years ago. So it won’t surprise if this race narrows substantially, but for Smith to prevail it will require the largest reversal of an early vote-count deficit of any of these races.
Nov. 14 update: The day after the Nov. 8 election, Garcia was up 15 points and prematurely declared victory in CA-27 House race. As votes continue to be counted, Smith has crept closer. As of Monday night, she was behind by 8.8 pts with 42% left to count.
The least closely watched of these races remains the open CA-3 race between Trump-endorsed State Assemblyman Kevin Kiley and moderate Navy veteran Dr. Kermit Jones. Trump would have won this district by just 1.9% in 2020, yet most rating groups called the seat a “likely” GOP hold. Plus, outside this publication, media coverage of the race was so light the Sacramento Bee – the daily newspaper for most of the CA-3’s voters – didn’t even cover the contest’s only televised general election debate on Oct. 27.
SactoPolitico has always seen this race as a toss-up, but if Jones does prevail, it will be the most surprising win of all 52 California House races. That’s because the GOP has a 4½-point registration advantage over Democrats. This is actually less than presumed for this district centered on the northeast suburbs of Sacramento but also sprawling across nine Sierra Mountain counties. And like the Democrats’ success nationwide, the district offers another test of Trump’s negative grip on the GOP that required Kiley to become an at least mild election denier, court far-right elements, and not directly disavow support for neo-Nazis for fear of dampening needed turnout from those quarters.
Presently, Kiley has a 6-point lead (53% to 47%), and CNN estimates 51% of the vote has been counted so far. However, as with most close races nationwide won by the Democrats, the remaining uncounted votes are overwhelmingly mail-in ballots, and these have tended to benefit Democrats. But the CA-3 picture is both more complicated than that and the least examined of any remaining race. The key will likely be remaining votes in Placer County. Here’s a deeper dive.
Based on CNN estimates, the CA-3 has roughly 162,000 votes to be counted. About 91% of this would be in the district’s three most populous counties: Placer, Sacramento and Nevada counties. However, the 162,000 figure is likely too low. Saturday night Placer County reported to SactoPolitico it has about 105,000 remaining votes to count. This is 10,000 more than CNN’s estimate for that county, and nearly all are remaining ballots are mail-in ballots either received close to election day or dropped off on the day of the election. (Sacramento County – the second largest CA-3 vote center after Placer County – couldn’t confirm the CNN’s estimated 26,700 remaining mail-in votes there.)
Including these additional 10,000 out-standing votes, Jones would need to win 52.9% of the remaining 172,000 votes to overcome his current 9,962 deficit. According to the early vote tracker site by PDI, Democrats returned nearly as many CA-3 mail-in ballots as Republicans, despite that 4½-point GOP voter registration advantage. These figures are:
A small fraction of the mail-in ballots have already been counted. But it is notable that the above “ballots returned %” figures stayed relatively constant throughout the early voting period for this district. So if these ratios remained constant even for final mail-in ballots turned in on or close to election day, this is how the estimated remaining 172,000 would break down by registration:
There is no certainty these are the final numbers, but they provide a way to evaluate Jones’s path to catch up to Kiley. Thus if Jones wins 95% of uncounted ballots from registered Democrats, he would need to win a little more than 28,000 votes from the other two categories: GOP and “other” (independent and third-party voters). It’s unlikely he could make up the difference solely from a large share of Indie/Third Party votes, as this would require 74% of that bucket. However, if he won 10% of votes from the remaining registered-GOP ballots, his share from the remaining Indie/Third Party bucket drops to 56%. (His GOP votes would come from moderate never-Trump Republicans and other Republicans uncomfortable with Kiley for his dance with the far-right.)
Is any version of this realistic for Jones? In close races elsewhere in the country, it was not unusual for the Trump-endorsed candidate to underperform expectations by 5-6 points. If this were to happen in the CA-3, this could translate to the additional late votes Jones needs, but it is pure speculation how typical the CA-3 is in this respect.
If you are Kiley, your biggest bright spot is Placer County. About 60% of the remaining CA-3 vote is there, and it has long been considered a conservative stronghold. Kiley is well-known there having represented two-thirds of its population in the State Assembly. This voter familiarity with him could mean he pays less of a penalty for courting Trump’s endorsement and other far-right elements. He also has received 56% of Placer County’s votes so far, which is three points higher than his overall 53% share districtwide. This means Placer County could prove the fire wall Kiley needs to hold off a late mail-in ballot advantage for Jones.
But as we have seen throughout these midterms, unexamined common wisdom can be very flawed. This includes the belief that Placer County remains highly conservative. More left-leaning voters from Sacramento County and the Bay Area seeking less expensive housing continue moving into suburbs like Roseville and Rocklin. Trump also received just 52% of the Placer County vote in 2016 and 2022, with his winning margin declining from 12 points over Hillary Clinton to 6½ over Biden (with the rest going to third-party candidates).
So like the CA-3 overall, Placer County is not overwhelming Trump country. Given the last two years of election denialism and the Jan. 6 insurrection, anti-Trump sentiment surely has only increased. So it is likely Kiley’s Placer County lead will narrow. The only question is by how much.
Can Jones win 53% of the remaining 105,000 ballots in Placer County and replicate this with remaining ballots in other counties to overcome Kiley’s current 6-point lead? If Jones can, watch Placer County as the key bellwether. The county reported 11,000 newly counted ballots on Friday, and it will be reporting out new batches each Tuesday and Friday afternoon until done counting. (Sacramento County also reports out each Tuesday and Friday.)