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GOP Retirement Leaves SoCal Congressional Seat Up for Grabs

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Young Kim is hoping her local roots help her keep this Orange County congressional district in Republican hands. (Scott Shafer/KQED)

Even before 13-term congressman Ed Royce, R-Fullerton, announced in January that he would retire rather than seek re-election, a bevy of Democrats had already jumped in to challenge him.

His 39th Congressional District, encompassing mostly Orange County and parts of Los Angeles and San Bernardino counties, is one of several in California where Hillary Clinton beat Donald Trump, even as voters there were re-electing their Republican member of Congress. Democrats figured Royce was beatable.

When he stepped aside, it scrambled everyone's thinking, and Democrats suddenly worried that all those candidates would divide up the vote and allow two Republicans to end of up first and second in the top-two voting system, thereby facing off against each other in November. But that didn't happen.

Gil Cisneros campaigns at a backyard event in the town of Walnut recently. (Scott Shafer/KQED)

The two survivors of the June primary are 55-year-old Republican Young Kim and 47-year-old Democrat Gil Cisneros. If she wins, it would make Kim the first Korean-American woman elected to Congress. A Cisneros victory would help Democrats reclaim the House.

On a recent weekday morning in the town of Brea, Kim made her pitch for why she should replace Royce when he leaves office. Kim worked as a staffer to Royce and is making her familiarity with the district a key talking point.

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"So good to see everyone," Kim told a crowd of about 40 people gathered on the patio of a Panera Bread store.

"You are my friends, you are my neighbors. You made the community a better place to live," Kim says. She touches on safe issues like the economy and education, then ends her remarks with an echo of Trump. "Let's go and make our communities and California and America great."

Afterward, Kim denied she was referencing Trump, insisting, "I've always said that." And while she promises to follow in Royce's footsteps, Kim insists she’s not a partisan Republican. To make her point she says we need more compassion for immigrants here illegally, especially recipients of Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA), the so-called Dreamers.

"They are now grown-ups," Kim, herself an immigrant from South Korea, tells me. "They are not breaking any laws, they're paying taxes, they're helping our economy. We need them to stay here with some sort of legal status, and I’ll be very supportive of that."

This district is mostly in Orange County, and it’s very diverse -- roughly split among Latinos, Asians and Caucasians and with equal numbers of Democrats, Republicans and independent voters. It makes for interesting political crosscurrents.

For example, Carlos Muñiz, vice president of the Orange County Hispanic Chamber of Commerce here, says he supports Kim, but he doesn’t like the Trump administration’s stepped-up enforcement against immigrants here illegally.

"When ICE [U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement] comes out and there are a lot of raids, that impacts business," Muñiz said. "Because now you’ve got 15 to 20 employees that you lost. Now you’ve got to replace those employees, and that takes three to four months."

That sentiment was expressed by several Kim supporters, including some Latinos.

Kim's opponent, Democrat and Latino Gil Cisneros, might just have the luck it will take to win this seat. In 2008, he won a record-breaking $266 million in the California Lottery. The Navy veteran and his wife started a foundation to help Latino students, and now he’s got his sights on Congress.

At a backyard campaign event in the town of Walnut recently, Cisneros noted that one big difference between him and his opponent is campaign funding.

"My opponent has taken thousands of dollars from PAC money," Cisneros said. "She's taking money from Big Oil. She's taking money from the NRA. That's who she's going to serve in Congress."

Cisneros is refusing all PAC money, including from labor unions. Of course a cynic might say he doesn't need the cash since he struck it rich in the lottery.

Like many Democrats running this year, Cisneros is emphasizing his support for the Affordable Care Act, or Obamacare.

"When it comes to health care, my mother went 16 years without health care," he said. "My dad, when he first developed diabetes, he went down to Tijuana to buy his diabetes medication. That shouldn’t happen in this country."

Unlike Kim, who was elected to the state Assembly from here, Cisneros is a novice candidate and it shows. At the recent meet-and-greet event in Walnut, he seemed a bit socially awkward and struggled to connect with voters. Still, they seemed open to his message and candidacy.

The nonpartisan Cook Report lists this race as one of five Republican-held seats in California that are now considered "toss-ups."

A recent Monmouth University poll showed Kim with a slight lead over Cisneros among "potential voters" -- but a majority of voters don’t really know either one of them. But Fullerton College political science professor Jodi Balma is skeptical that a blue wave is about to wash over the O.C.

"There’s still lots and lots of parts of Orange County that are rock-ribbed Republicans who are not gonna shift on that," Balma said.

In other words, for the Democrat to win here it will take a little luck -- although not quite as much as winning the lottery.

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