With last week's surprise announcement that California GOP Rep. Gary Miller will not seek re-election, the consensus among political operatives is that his San Bernardino-area 31st Congressional District is now among the likeliest in the nation to flip from Republican to Democrat in the fall.
"You have to remember that of all the congressional districts in the country held by a Republican and carried by Barack Obama in 2012, the 31st gave President Obama the highest margin," Jon Fleischman, editor of the much-read Flash Report on California politics, told Newsmax.
In 2012, Obama demolished Mitt Romney in the 31st District with 57.2 percent of the vote.
But Miller still secured an eighth term. This was due to the unusual circumstances created under California's French-style electoral system, under which all candidates appear on the same ballot in the June primary, and the top two vote-getters, regardless of party, square off in November.
Obviously attracted by the winability of the 31st, three Democrats jumped into the race and divvied up resources and votes.
Miller found himself facing a fellow Republican, state Sen. Bob Dutton of Rancho Cucamonga, in November. Miller beat Dutton with 55.2 percent of the vote.
With Miller now retiring, it would seem logical at first glance that Dutton would be the likely candidate. But at age 63 and out of the state Senate for two years, Dutton is already running hard for a county office and said his supporters would not appreciate his suddenly switching to a race for Congress. The corporate money he has raised for the county office race is not transferable.
Dutton is supporting fellow Republican Paul Chabot, who had no qualms about switching from a bid for the state Assembly to Congress, once Miller announced his retirement. A U.S. Navy veteran, Chabot served in the Iraq War, on the staff of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and with the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy.
Also endorsing Chabot is former Rep. Jerry Lewis, R-Calif., who represented a neighboring district from 1979 to 2013. Recalling Lewis' reputation as a high-rolling "prince of pork" while chairman of the House Appropriations Committee, one Southern California conservative activist told Newsmax: "I don't know where Chabot stands on many issues yet, but getting an endorsement from Jerry Lewis says something to the tea party and to conservatives in general."
The other Republican in the race is San Bernardino City Councilman John Valdiva.
As was the case in 2012, three Democrats are in the race. But with no well-known Republicans in the race so far, there is not the concern among Democrats that there was two years ago about splitting up their votes in the June 3 primary.
The leading Democrat is Redlands Mayor Pete Aguilar, who was the favorite in 2012 until shut out of the runoff by Republicans Miller and Dutton. This time, Aguilar has the blessing of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee.
His leading Democratic opponent is attorney Eloise Gomez Reyes, who has the strong backing of the pro-choice EMILY's List. Rounding out the field is former Rep. Joe Baca, who represented a neighboring district for more than a decade.
Raising further doubts about whether the GOP can retain Miller's district is that there are at least three California House seats held by Democratic freshmen and narrow 2012 victors that appear more winable for Republicans: the 52nd District (San Diego), where Democratic Rep. Scott Peters faces former Republican City Councilman Carl DeMaio; the 36th (Palm Springs), where Democratic Rep. Raul Ruiz will meet GOP State Assemblyman Brian Nestande; and the 7th (Sacramento) where Democratic Rep. Ami Bera will face one of three heavyweight Republicans.
Whether the National Republican Congressional Committee would have the resources to wage full-blown campaigns in all three districts and try to retain Miller's district as well is debatable.
John Gizzi is chief political columnist and White House correspondent for Newsmax.
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