Low voter turnout could make this California congressional race an election for friends and insiders

Just as the campaign for L.A.’s only open congressional seat this year began to intensify, Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti had a warning.

“Trust me, this will be a low-turnout election,” Garcetti said a few weeks ago at a campaign kickoff event for Assemblyman Jimmy Gomez, a Democrat he already had endorsed. “Do not take this for granted. This is a very crowded field … and the people who bring out the most of their friends will win.”

For months, Gomez and the rest of the 24 candidates running in this central L.A. district have been trying to do just that. With 20 Democrats running in a left-leaning district and little daylight between their mostly progressive platforms, the candidates’ focus has been on the shoe-leather campaigning that’s needed to win over small groups of voters and get them to the polls.

They’ve hosted neighborhood coffees, organized happy hours and trekked up hills in Mount Washington, trying to reach as many voters as they can in the district’s 48 square miles, which wind through downtown, Koreatown and much of the city’s northeast corridor.

Some have predicted that participation by the 34th District’s 305,000 voters in the April 4 special primary might linger in the single digits, while others say it could be closer to the 20% turnout of L.A.’s March city races.

But political observers and candidates agree: With two dozen hopefuls in the race vying to at least finish in the top two, every vote has the potential to determine the result.

The largest group of voters may be people the candidates already know — people who are engaged enough to even be aware a special election is happening. They’re also the kind of folks who are more likely to be party insiders and following local politics closely.

“They’re people who are involved in their neighborhood associations, they’re involved in their school, they’re civically engaged. They’re the kind of people who feel guilty not voting,” said Paul Mitchell, who runs data firm Political Data Inc.

Though the noisy liberal protests inspired by the Trump presidency suggest there’s renewed excitement among those kinds of likely voters, there are plenty of reasons to be pessimistic about the prospects for overall turnout in this race.

Off-year elections often are plagued by low turnout simply because voters don’t know or care much about the little-publicized contests. This district, represented for more than two decades by Democrat Xavier Becerra before he vacated it to become California’s attorney general, has ranked among the lowest in voter turnout statewide in the last several years.

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And the April 4 election date, which is sandwiched between two unrelated city elections, has caused confusion. When one woman urged her Twitter followers to vote for Wendy Carrillo on March 7, the Democrat had to correct her: “My election is actually April 4!” Carrillo wrote.

Voters who got their congressional election ballots just after the March city races complained about receiving them too late, until they realized they were intended for next month’s race.

The condensed timeline for the special election has left candidates, many of them unknown newcomers, with the burden of introducing themselves, persuading voters and informing them about the election’s existence all at once, says Carolyn Riggs, campaign manager for Tracy Van Houten, a 34-year-old Democrat and aerospace engineer who has pitched her roots in science as an asset in tackling issues like climate change and infrastructure.

“It’s like a fierce hunt for voters,” said Arturo Carmona, 38, as he went door to door in Boyle Heights on a recent warm afternoon. Reaching through the black iron gate at one house, Carmona shook hands with Estela Quezada and delivered his pitch. His eyes widened when she told him she was one of five registered voters living in the home.

In an election that could be decided with as few as 30,000 votes, “that’s huge,” he said.

Carmona, Van Houten and many of the Democrats they face have vowed to fight deportations of immigrants in the U.S. illegally and want to protect the Affordable Care Act from Republicans.

They share something else: In a top-two primary where the 42-year-old Gomez holds an advantage in name recognition, the unspoken goal for many is to clinch a spot and go head-to-head with the Democratic assemblyman in a runoff June 6. (In the unlikely event a candidate wins more than 50% of the vote, that candidate would win the election outright and there would not be a runoff.)

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Chris AlexakisC.A.