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CA’s 31st Congressional District Remains Highly Competitive under “Top-Two”

In 2012, California’s 31st Congressional District was the site of one of the most competitive congressional races in the country and it is expected to be so again in 2014. The incumbent, U.S. Representative Gary Miller (R), has served in Congress since 1998, but has represented three different districts. He started in the 41st District, which then became the 42nd District following the 2000 Census. In 2010, the Census again displaced Miller — this time to the 31st District.

Until 2012, Miller was accustomed to handily winning elections. His former constituency was mostly made up of white, upper-class voters in the heavily conservative Orange County area. Miller is one of the richest members of Congress. Throughout his career, Miller has maintained a strongly conservative line. He has vocally opposed to immigration reform, repeatedly voted to cut off federal unemployment insurance, and is opposed to the Affordable Care Act (Obamacare).

However, a much more diverse electorate constitutes the 31st District. Nearly half of the district’s residents are Hispanic (35% of the district’s voting age population), per capita income is $21,000 (well below the national average), and 15.3 percent of the district is unemployed. The 2013 Cook Political Report projected Democrats as having a five point advantage in 2014.

Yet, the biggest threat to Miller’s career may not be Democrats, but rather the major corruption scandals during his time in the House. According to various investigative reports dating back to the mid-2000s by the Los Angeles Times, Orange County Register, The Hill, Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington (CREW), and inewssource, Gary Miller has repeatedly committed massive tax fraud (to the tune of at least $10 million).

Further, Miller has allegedly funneled millions of dollars in defense contracting earmarks to a local businessman who is a major campaign donor, borrowed $7.5 million from a business partner and campaign donor, used his office and staff for business dealings, funneled earmark money to a campaign donor who was investigated for bribing government officials, and more. Unsurprisingly, the FBI opened an investigation into his business dealings in 2007. The bureau would not divulge if its investigation of Miller is open or closed.

Nonetheless, Miller continues to win elections.

In 2010, California voters approved a nonpartisan top-two primary system whereby qualifying candidates of any political affiliation appear on a single primary ballot. The two candidates who receive the most votes then appear on the final general ballot. In 2012, four Democratic challengers to Miller split the primary vote, which left Miller and another Republican, Bob Dutton, with the two biggest shares of the vote. DCCC-backed Pete Aguilar came in third. Miller went on to defeat Dutton by 10 percentage points in the general election. 

It seems 2014 may be a repeat of 2012 for Democrats. The DCCC again announced its support for Pete Aguilar, but that hasn’t stopped other Democrats from jumping into the race. Former Democratic congressman Joe Baca, San Bernardino school board member Danny Tillman, and attorney Eloise Gomez Reyes, a favorite amongst progressive activists, are vying for primary votes. Aguilar is facing the same obstacles he did in 2012: he is not raising as much money as Miller and he remains unpopular with local journalists and Democratic activists

The primary election is scheduled for June 3, 2014.