(Bloomberg) – Tuesday was a good day for Democrats. Primary voters in California, the nation’s most important blue state and a center of opposition to President Donald Trump, gave them the opportunities they need to recapture the House of Representatives in November.
Strong Democratic challengers emerged in a handful of Republican-held districts, giving their party a chance to pick up at least three or four seats in the midterm election. Due to the peculiar California primary system, in which the top two finishers qualify for the November ballot irrespective of party, Democrats had feared that with multiple candidates in four competitive seats, two Republicans might prevail. It didn’t happen.
Democrats need a net gain of 24 seats nationally to win a majority in the House.
“The Republican House majority was at risk before Tuesday’s primaries and it’s certainly at risk after these primaries,” said Nathan Gonzales, editor and publisher of Inside Elections. “Even though Democrats might have looked divided and spread across multiple candidates in California, they’ll be united against Trump and his party in November.”
Democrats made the finals in two Southern California districts with retiring Republicans, both of which Hillary Clinton carried in 2016, and also against several other vulnerable incumbents. After these results, Democrats realistically are targeting a half-dozen Republican-held seats in California.
There were a couple of caveats. Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom finished first in the race for governor, but a Trump-supported Republican, John Cox, ran second. Newsom remains a heavy favorite, but Democrats were disappointed that former Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, a Latino, didn’t win a chance to run against Newsom in November, which would have driven up their turnout in the fall. In the Southern California and Central Valley districts carried by Clinton, Democratic turnout in midterm elections often is only about half as high as in a presidential election year.
Nationally, crosscurrents remain in the contest for control of the House. (Republicans are heavy favorites to keep their Senate majority.) With successful political gerrymandering after the last census, Republicans have reduced the number of competitive districts.
That might mitigate but not eliminate, a historical trend cited by Charlie Cook, the longtime godfather of congressional election experts. In the last four midterm elections where the president’s approval rating was 46 percent or lower, his party lost an average of 40 seats. Trump’s approval rating is in the low 40s. Democrats don’t appear likely to gain 40 seats, but a 25- to 30-seat pickup may be realistic.
On a smaller scale, Democrats also had a good day in Iowa. In a congressional district in the southwestern part of the state, businesswoman and former state government official Cindy Axne, whom the national party considered the strongest candidate, easily won; she faces a tough but competitive race against Republican incumbent David Young. And businessman Fred Hubbell won the Democratic gubernatorial nomination and has a good chance to bring that post back to the Democrats for the first time in eight years.
In New Jersey, Democrats were nominated for four Republican-held seats that are considered competitive. In the two with retiring members, the Democrats are favored.
Republicans have a few internal problems of their own. In New York, with a primary at the end of this month, polls show that former representative Michael Grimm is running ahead of the Staten Island incumbent, Rep. Daniel Donovan. Grimm was convicted of tax fraud and perjury while in Congress and served seven months in prison.
If Grimm wins, Democrats believe they can capture the seat in November. Trump, who carried the district by 25,000 votes and is enormously popular within his party, has endorsed Donovan. This elevates the stakes in the June 26 primary.
Albert R. Hunt is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering politics and policy. He was the executive editor of Bloomberg News, before that he was a reporter, bureau chief and executive Washington editor at the Wall Street Journal.