In California districts dominated by a single party, the state’s all-in primary system creates a very different kind of voting choice – or at least it should. Take a district like the new CA-7 that comprises the southern half of the City of Sacramento and the county’s southern suburbs. Here Republicans make up just 20.5% of all registered voters, versus 51% Democrats and 28% No Party Preference/Independents (NPP/Indies).
So the incumbent Democrat Rep. Doris Matsui seems a shoe-in to repeat, especially if the race’s sole Republican, Max Semenenko, finishes in the Top Two. But at nearly 78 years old, some see Matsui’s Dianne Feinstein-like advanced age and huge dependence on donations from many of the most heavily fined corporations in the U.S. to be less than ideal. Thus if enough Progressives and NPP/Indy voters band together, they could force an all-Democratic fall run-off between Matsui and her first-time but politically experienced opponent Jimmy Fremgen.
This is the scenario Fremgen is hoping for not just for his own campaign, but also for the district’s voters.
“It is important to have both Democrats advance to the general because we offer very different models for how we want to serve this community,” said Fremgen, pointing to differences with Matsui on homeless policy, the kitchen-table issue of Medicare for All, and his taking no corporate donations. “The community deserves the opportunity to have that discussion.”
ISSUES NOT DEBATED ENOUGH?
He said he doesn’t believe the Sacramento Bee’s coverage of the race properly explored these fundamental differences. The Bee endorsed Matsui, while saying “Fremgen doesn’t differ dramatically with Matsui on most policy questions.”
“Are [our differences] being covered appropriately in this race? Absolutely not,” Fremgen said. “I think there is negligence at hand when you ignore the fact that [Matsui] has taken more than $100,000 in opioids money while hundreds of people have died in our district and also while the county is actively bringing litigation against those same companies.”
He also pointed to PG&E, a longtime Matsui financial supporter. Over her career, she has received $81,750 from PG&E for her main campaign account and leadership PAC. When asked about PG&E in an editorial board discussion with the Bee and Fremgen, Matsui said she didn’t know if she ever took PG&E money.
Fremgen noted during that conversation and to SactoPolitico.com that in 2020 alone, “She took $5,000 from PG&E for her leadership PAC in the same year PG&E pled guilty to 84 counts of manslaughter. When she says she doesn’t know if she took that money, I take her at her word. But our politics have become so fundamentally broken when it’s possible for our representatives to be so detached from what is going on in their district to be taking money from [companies] actively killing people in those communities.”
GOP SEMENENKO BULLISH
The Republican candidate Semenenko said he is seeing a significant lack of enthusiasm for Matsui among voters with whom he speaks. He said he has focused his campaign outreach to politically mixed households and households with No Party Preference voters. Unsurprisingly, he believes these votes will gravitate to him and ensure a second-place finish in the primary.
“I’m confident I will be going to the general election,” he said. “I’m getting very good feedback when I go door-to-door. They say, ‘Max, we are very tired of this. I am a registered Democrat but will be voting Republican this time.’ That gave me confidence.”
Originally from Ukraine, Semenenko is a 39-year-old father of four (with a fifth due in June) and owner of his own construction company. The pro-life candidate has said his top issues include reviving the economy, defending the 2nd Amendment, reforming the U.S. immigration system, and lowering healthcare costs.
And what issues does he think will ultimately decided how NPP/Indie voters in his district vote? “I think safety, economy and the federal government spending so much overseas. And now there’s the issue with baby formula. I think regular working class people are so struggling. The state is running this huge surplus, but so many are struggling,” he said.
WHITHER THE GRASSROOTS?
On the issues, Fremgen and Semenenko differ almost as widely as their parties, but one aspect unites them: very little support from their natural partisan allies. Semenenko was endorsed by the state GOP, but from them and the Sacramento County GOP, he said he’s received positive encouragement but “not financially, not physically.”
This may reflect the County GOP recognizing how little chance exists to flip the district. But for Fremgen, the issue is different. Though he is currently a public school teacher, no local Progressive, environmental or labor groups have yet to endorse him despite his checking most every issues box.
This silence reflects electoral short-sightedness among these organizations. Because many Congressional seats aren’t won in a single try, races like Fremgen’s provide an important opportunity for Progressives to organize and improve positioning for whenever Matsui finally does give up the CA-7 seat. Plus the more seats that are strongly contested, the more opportunity you get to test campaign approaches, win seats and keep core issues in front of voters.
Interestingly, the statewide chair of the California Democratic Party Progressive Caucus, Amar Shergill, lives in Elk Grove in the heart of the CA-7. However last year to SactoPolitico.com, he expressed little interest in Fremgen’s candidacy. This was the case despite the seat meeting his expressed threshold of a Democrat-controlled district being at least 65% Democrat to be worth contesting.
“There is no point in Progressives throwing themselves against a brick wall on losing races. We need to be strategic,” Shergill said last year. “Look, we won the state for Bernie Sanders [in the 2020 presidential primary] because we did the work and we did it strategically. There’s no reason we can’t focus our statewide resources on a few targeted races, win them, and start building some real power in the state legislature.”
Of course, an endorsement does not require an investment of financial and volunteer resources. It can simply be an endorsement that only improves a candidate’s name-recognition and campaign credibility.
The limits of Shergill’s current strategy became clear last winter when he was tried pressuring the Democratic supermajorities in the State Legislature to make good on its party platform and pass a universal health care plan for California. Shergill even threatened electoral retribution against Democrats who didn’t vote for the legislation.
“Any Assembly member that thinks they can ignore the party, ignore labor, ignore people, vote against us and then still get the endorsement might find they have a tougher reelection battle than they thought,” Shergill said at the time.
But for such a threat to cause concern would require Progressives to be willing to do more than just “focus our statewide resources on a few targeted races.” So despite Progressives comprising nearly half of the state Democratic voter ranks, the establishment ignored the threat, flexed its own muscle, and got the bill’s author to pull it and not force a difficult on-the-record vote.
SPRINT THROUGH FINISH LINE
Fremgen has not complained about this lack of support, but he does need CA-7 voters to prove more strategic than the leadership of Progressive organizations. This includes NPP voters and even pro-choice Republicans.
“They have to look at what’s at stake on this ballot. You have a choice between me and somebody [Semenenko] who will caucus with a party who has made it their agenda to overturn Roe. They also do not support the legitimate results of the previous election,” he said. “So it’s not an option. If you want your vote to continue to matter, you cannot strengthen the Republican Party by sending an additional Republican to Congress."
For this reason, he hopes district voters err on the side of more democracy and more debate. This requires them voting him into the Top 2 and letting him and Matsui square off one-on-one to more deeply debate the issues that differentiate their candidacies through to Nov. 6.