History almost repeated itself in California’s 31st Congressional District. In 2010, California voters approved a nonpartisan, top-two open primary system whereby qualifying candidates of any political affiliation appear on a single primary ballot accessible to any eligible voter. The two candidates who receive the most votes then appear on the final general election ballot.
Following redistricting in 2010, the demographics in CA-31 shifted the district to "leaning Democratic," making Republican U.S. Rep. Gary Miller one of the most vulnerable incumbents in Congress.
In 2012, 4 Democratic challengers for Miller's seat announced their candidacy and promptly 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.
Meanwhile, Barack Obama won 57 percent of the vote in the district. In short, the 2012 CA-31 elections were a debacle for the Democratic Party and, ironically, for voters in the district, the majority of whom would have voted for a generic Democratic candidate had one managed to appear on the final ballot.
Miller announced his retirement in early February undoubtedly because of the proverbial writing on the wall: his district was polling even more in favor to the Democratic Party, the DCCC singled out the 31st district as one of its top priorities and re-poured resources into Pete Aguilar’s renewed campaign, and Miller probably thought that not even the Democratic Party could be incompetent enough to repeat the same mistake and enable him to be miraculously re-elected.
It couldn’t possibly happen again –- but it very nearly did.
Like in 2012, 4 Democrats announced their candidacy and vigorously campaigned. Like in 2012, Pete Aguilar showed little passion as a candidate and a fundraiser, relying on his DCCC-backing to carry him. This enabled the more determined Eloise Reyes Gomez to catch up in polls and to lead in the fundraising circuit.
Meanwhile, 3 Republican candidates ran, though only two were serious contenders: Paul Chabot, a current Navy reserveman, and Lesli Gooch, a former aide to Gary Miller.
Chabot came away the clear winner in the primary with 26.7 percent of the vote, but Gooch came within 200 votes of Aguilar and coming in second place, which would have placed her on the final ballot in November. Seen the other way,
U.S. Representative District 31 Primary
REP - Paul Chabot
DEM - Pete Aguilar
REP - Lesli Gooch
DEM - Eloise Gomez Reyes
DEM - Joe Baca
DEM - Danny Tillman
REP - Ryan Downing
The Republican Party and Rep. Miller probably can’t help but think that if he had decided to run again, it may very likely have been him and Chabot appearing on the November ballot, but there is another issue that was weighing on the congressman.
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, Miller has repeatedly committed massive tax fraud (to the tune of at least $10 million).
Furthermore, 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 FBI will not divulge if the case is still open. It’s possible that Miller is retiring to deal with his legal issues privately. Nonetheless, voters in the 31st district will be able to look beyond Miller and will have a chance to vote for a candidate that is more representative of them in November.