California Assemblyman Jimmy Gomez triumphed Tuesday in a runoff for the state’s Los Angeles-centered 34th Congressional District, a victory for Latino and progressive groups that overcame low turnout and election fatigue. The seat long held by Xavier Becerra, now California’s attorney general, will be held by an aspiring member of the Congressional Progressive Caucus and supporter of single-payer health care.
Gomez, 42, defeated former L.A. planning commissioner Robert Lee Ahn, 41, who invested his own money in the race and aggressively turned out Korean-American voters. That strategy powered him through the April 4 primary for the safe blue seat, and worried Gomez supporters — from the top of the California Democratic Party to groups like the Latino Victory Fund. In the primary, 64.4 percent of the vote had gone to Latino Democrats; a week before the June 6 election, ballot returns from Korean-Americans were outpacing ballot returns from Latinos.
At the same time, Ahn was attempting to shift the focus of the race from progressive credential — he was formerly a Republican, while Gomez was endorsed by a Bernie Sanders-founded group — to outsider status. In Ahn’s mailers and debate answers, Gomez, a former congressional staffer before he joined the Assembly, was a “professional politician” whose pile of endorsements made him suspect.
Latino Victory Fund president Cristobal J. Alex said his group put together a direct mail and voter contact campaign that moved ballots, targeting Latino voters with a series of pro-Gomez arguments.
“We pushed the message that Jimmy would not only be a champion for voters, he’d be a tip of the spear in the fight against Donald Trump,” said Alex. “It’s a good example of what we need to do around the country.”
Gomez won the early and mail-in vote, nearly 19,000 ballots, by just 156 votes. When election day ballots came in, he ran far ahead of Ahn, who conceded before 11 p.m. local time. But the race and results offered warnings for Democrats who’ve grown increasingly ambitious about taking control of the House in 2018.
Ahn was able to use his lack of party support as an asset at a sensitive time, with new California Democratic Party chairman Eric Bauman fending off attacks from a Sanders supporter who claimed that he stole his election. (Most of the dispute rests with proxy delegates, who Bauman did a better job of wrangling.) Gomez, who had backed Hillary Clinton for president, was supported somewhat reluctantly by the Sanders-founded Our Revolution after Sanders campaign veterans flamed out in the primary.
And the puny turnout — less than the total vote for Democrat Jon Ossoff in the first round of his April primary for Georgia’s 6th District — pointed to the difficulty Democrats often face in getting Latino voters to the polls for nonpresidential elections. In 2018, the party hopes to win six California seats that broke for Hillary Clinton over Donald Trump, amid worries that the voters activated last year may sit out the midterm elections.
Nonetheless, Gomez’s victory will add to the left’s numbers in the House, with the new congressman expected to join the House Progressive Caucus. There was more mixed news for progressives in New Jersey, where Goldman Sachs banker-turned-philanthropist Phil Murphy easily won the Democratic nomination for governor. Murphy, seeking his first elected office at age 59, put away two rivals who attempted to frame the primary as a contest between a wealthy political establishment figure and the rising progressive tide.
They lost — but the reality was more complicated than the storyline. Murphy, who’d backed Howard Dean’s 2004 presidential bid and went on to work for Barack Obama, established himself early as a progressive who’d “make corporations and millionaires pay their fair share” and cut hedge funds out of the state pension system.
Like Gomez, he won the endorsements of progressive groups and labor unions — and party machines. As Murphy built a lead in the polls, his chief rivals John Wisniewski and Jim Johnson attempted to grab the mantle of Sanders; Wisniewski had chaired the Vermont senator’s campaign in the state. (Sanders lost the primary.) Wisniewski went so far as to criticize Sen. Cory Booker (D-N.J.), a Murphy backer still extremely popular with rank-and-file New Jersey Democrats, for voting against a Sanders-backed pharmaceutical bill.
But Sanders never intervened in the race. His son Levi made an eyebrow-raising campaign swing for Murphy; the senator focused on congressional races in Kansas and Montana, where Democrats gained steam but lost.
There was better news for Sanders, and Democrats, in less-watched elections for local Mississippi and Connecticut offices. In Mississippi, where Sanders led a rally of labor unions this spring, left-wing candidate Chokwe Lumumba won the mayoralty of Jackson, and a Sanders supporter won a city council seat in suburban Meridian. And in Connecticut, Democrats won control of the Board of Selectmen in wealthy Fairfield, the sort of place where the party sees a chance to capitalize on Trump’s unpopularity to win new majorities.