California, New Jersey voters set stage for U.S. congressional elections

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SACRAMENTO, Calif./PRINCETON, N.J. (Reuters) – Voters in eight U.S. states will select candidates for November’s midterm elections on Tuesday, with Democrats eyeing more than a dozen Republican-controlled seats in California and New Jersey as crucial to the fight to control Congress.

California gubernatorial candidate, Lieutenant Governor Gavin Newsom speaks at a campaign rally in Burbank, May 30, 2018. REUTERS/Lucy Nicholson

Democrats need to add a net total of 23 of the U.S. House of Representatives’ 435 seats to gain a majority in the chamber. Doing so would likely derail or stall much of Republican President Donald Trump’s policy agenda, while ushering a new era of committee oversight and investigation into the administration.

A power shift would also lend strength to any potential effort to impeach Trump if Democrats decide grounds exist, either by virtue of the ongoing probe of Russia election interference by special counsel Robert Mueller or other reasons.

In California, which Democrats see as key to taking a majority, the party has targeted 10 of the 14 House seats held by Republicans.

Tuesday’s contests will determine whether Democratic candidates in the swing districts are moderate or more liberal, as well as whether they are shut out of some races altogether.

The state’s so-called jungle primary system allows the two highest vote-getters to advance to the general election, regardless of party.

The battle for the top spots is particularly dramatic in the 48th Congressional District, where voters chose Democrat Hillary Clinton over Trump in the 2016 presidential election but re-elected longtime Republican Representative Dana Rohrabacher.

Volunteers listen as California gubernatorial candidate Lieutenant Governor Gavin Newsom speaks at a campaign rally in Burbank, May 30, 2018. REUTERS/Lucy Nicholson

So many Democrats are vying to challenge Rohrabacher that there is a chance they will divide their party’s vote, setting up a general election fight between the incumbent and a leading Republican opponent, Scott Baugh.

In California’s gubernatorial primary, Democratic Lieutenant Governor Gavin Newsom is considered the front-runner in a 27-candidate race for an open seat.

If Republican John Cox wins the second spot on the ballot, his presence in the race could spur Republican turnout in November and possibly improve the party’s chances in congressional races.

Trump in a series of Tuesday tweets backed Republican candidates.

“In High Tax, High Crime California, be sure to get out and vote for Republican John Cox for Governor. He will make a BIG difference!” Trump tweeted.

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But if Democrat Antonio Villaraigosa, a former mayor of Los Angeles, makes the final cut, Republican leaders worry more of their voters will stay home in November, giving Democrats a better chance to flip some seats.

Republicans control both chambers of Congress. While Democrats need only a net total of two seats to take command of the Senate, Democratic senators must defend a bevy of seats in rural states such as Indiana, Montana, North Dakota and West Virginia that supported Trump two years ago.

Still, the transfer of control of only one of the chambers likely would be enough to send the federal government into legislative gridlock for the remaining two years of Trump’s term.

After California, perhaps no state is more crucial to Democratic hopes of taking back the House than New Jersey. All but one of its five Republican-held House seats are considered competitive and anger at Trump may be particularly potent in the state’s many suburbs.

The retirements of longtime Republican congressmen Rodney Frelinghuysen and Frank LoBiondo have put two reliably Republican districts in the Democrats’ crosshairs.

“I don’t think the Democrats can take the House without New Jersey,” said Brigid Harrison, a political science professor at Montclair State University.

Healthcare has taken center stage in Iowa’s gubernatorial race, where Democratic challengers have criticized Republican Governor Kim Reynolds for supporting the state’s privatization of Medicaid.

Voters on Tuesday also will choose candidates in primaries in Mississippi, Alabama, Montana, South Dakota and New Mexico.

Reporting by Sharon Bernstein in Sacramento, California, and Joseph Ax in Princeton, New Jersey; Additional reporting by James Oliphant; Editing by Colleen Jenkins and Cynthia Osterman

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