This California congressional district could help decide control of Congress

This California congressional district could help decide control of Congress

You don’t need a movie theater in Riverside County to catch this year’s must-see political drama.

Whether this much-hyped, big budget sequel is a smash hit or a massive flop depends who you think should win the race for California’s 41st Congressional District seat, likely between Rep. Ken Calvert, R-Corona and Democrat Will Rollins.

“The race is pivotal because the Republicans have a very thin majority in the House. Democrats can win control by flipping just a few seats,” Jack Pitney, a professor of politics at Claremont McKenna College, said via email.

“Every close race will get enormous national attention, and this race will be one of them … The race could come down to a few thousand or even a few hundred votes.”

Rep. Ken Calvert, R-Corona, speaks during a June 2023 news conference. Calvert faces a tough reelection fight in California’s 41st Congressional District, which represents much of Riverside County. (File photo by Jeff Gritchen, Orange County Register/SCNG)

Democratic congressional candidate Will Rollins answers questions from voters during an October 2022 town hall in Corona. Rollins, who lost by 4 percentage points to Rep. Ken Calvert, R-Corona, in 2022, hopes for a better result in his 2024 bid to unseat the Inland Empire’s longest-serving congressmember. (File photo by Terry Pierson, The Press-Enterprise/SCNG)

Along with Rep. Ken Calvert, R-Corona, and fellow Democrat Will Rollins, Anna Nevenic, who has run for Congress and the state legislature, will be on the March 5, 2024, primary election in California’s 41st Congressional District. (Courtesy of Anna Nevenic)



Redistricting and “the types of voters that are moving into Riverside County” make the 41st “a highly competitive district … as opposed to some of the Central Valley districts or Orange County districts,” said David Wasserman, senior editor and elections analyst for The Cook Political Report, a nonpartisan political race forecaster.

Rollins said in an emailed statement that his 2022 campaign “built a big tent coalition that included Democrats, independents, and Republicans.”

He said his 2024 campaign broke a record for off-year fundraising by a non-incumbent “through tens of thousands of individual grassroots donors, and not a dime from corporate PACs … I’m excited to finish what we started by running a positive and hopeful campaign focused on securing good jobs, wages, and benefits for Riverside County families.”

Calvin Moore, a Calvert campaign spokesperson, said via email that the campaign is “building a broad coalition of Californians who are fed up with the way things are going right now.”

The congressmember is “not focused on what the super PACs are going to do,” Moore added. “He’s focused on doing the job he was elected to do and getting big things done on infrastructure, flood control, air quality and countless other local priorities — and he’s delivered.”

Calvert, Rollins and Democrat Anna Nevenic are on the March 5 primary election ballot in the 41st, which sends the top two vote-getters, regardless of party, to the November general election.

It’s expected the November race will feature Calvert, a 30-year incumbent and the Inland Empire’s longest-serving congressmember, against Rollins, a former federal prosecutor. Calvert beat Rollins, 52% to 48%, in 2022.

Wasserman’s firm rates the 41st as a tossup. Other nonpartisan forecasters, including Sabato’s Crystal Ball and Inside Elections, say the race leans in Calvert’s favor.

Mailboxes, billboards, lawns, airwaves and social media accounts in the 41st could be blitzed by ads from both campaigns and out-of-town groups working for and against candidates who have already raked in piles of money.

Federal campaign finance records show Rollins raised more than $1.7 million for his campaign as of September, and POLITICO reported he raised more than $2.8 million through the end of 2023.

Calvert took in more than $2.7 million as of Sept. 30, federal records show.

Created through 2021 political redistricting, the 41st represents much of Riverside County, including Calimesa, Canyon Lake, Indian Wells, Lake Elsinore, La Quinta, Menifee, Norco, Palm Desert, Palm Springs, Rancho Mirage, Wildomar and parts of Corona, Eastvale and Riverside.

What makes the district competitive is its voter registration.

As of Jan. 15, 36.62% of the 41st’s roughly 470,000 voters are registered Democrats compared to 36.21% for the GOP.

According to Rollins’ campaign, Donald Trump won the 41st by 4 percentage points in 2016, but just one point in 2020.

While there’s a near-even split in voter registration, California Secretary of State figures from March 2022 to October 2023 show the Democrats’ percentage creeping upward — 36.40% to 36.78% — with a tiny dip in the GOP percentage from 36.46% to 36.02%.

Bill Clinton occupied the White House when Calvert first arrived on Capitol Hill. Since then, the member of the powerful House Appropriations Committee has typically cruised to re-election on a conservative platform while championing defense spending.

Political redistricting in 2021 took Calvert from a solidly red district to one with deep blue pockets in the Coachella Valley along with GOP-friendly cities such as Canyon Lake, Menifee and Norco.

In the past, Calvert has voted against abortion rights and legislation affirming LGBTQ rights.

Now he’s campaigning in a district with a robust LGBTQ community in Palm Springs and an openly gay candidate in Rollins. Last year, Calvert said he opposes a nationwide abortion ban and the right of LGBTQ people to marry was settled by the 2015 U.S. Supreme Court ruling striking down same-sex marriage bans.

The 41st is squarely on a nationwide map of competitive districts, clustered mainly in California and New York, viewed by both parties as critical to winning the House, where Republicans currently hold a 7-seat majority.

Unlike 2022, “Rollins will be taken more seriously by his party from the start in the midterms,” Wasserman said. “This was not regarded as a premier race by either party in D.C. until very late in the (2022) cycle.”

The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee put 41st on its 2023-24 “Districts in Play” list.

“After coming narrowly close last cycle, the DCCC is all hands on deck to unseat Ken Calvert — one of the most self-serving and out-of-touch politicians in Congress — this November,” committee spokesperson Dan Gottlieb said via email.

The National Republican Congressional Committee also is getting involved. Earlier this month, the committee and Calvert’s campaign touted the launch of a “battle station” office in Palm Desert.

“The overwhelming turnout and palpable energy we saw at our Palm Desert office grand opening is a sign that Coachella Valley voters understand how important it is that we win this election,” Calvert said in a news release on the office’s opening.

With 2024 being a presidential election year, national themes — and the popularity or lack thereof of Trump and President Joe Biden — could factor into the 41st race. Presidential elections tend to have better turnout, something Wasserman, Pitney and the University of La Verne’s Marcia Godwin think will favor Rollins.

“Calvert won by a narrow margin in 2022 and presidential election turnout in 2024 is expected to be much higher and more Democratic,” Godwin, a professor of public administration, said via email.

If it’s anything like 2022, this year’s race will be heated. Two years ago, Rollins accused Calvert of using his office to enrich himself while supporting right-wing extremism, including efforts to overturn Biden’s 2020 win.

Rollins’ ads accused Calvert of steering federal funds in the mid-2000s to road improvements that raised the value of land he sold for a profit. Calvert called the allegations “a bunch of crap” and in 2007, the House ethics committee found Calvert did not have a financial interest in requesting federal money for a Corona transit center in the vicinity of some of his land holdings.

Calvert was among 147 House Republicans who voted against certifying Arizona’s and Pennsylvania’s 2020 election results. The congressmember has said he had concerns about both states’ results and that those who committed crimes during the Jan. 6 U.S. Capitol riot “should be prosecuted.”

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Calvert’s 2022 campaign focused on pocketbook issues that sought to tie Democrats and Biden’s policies to inflation and high gas prices.

“Calvert’s best strategy is to emphasize local issues and try to position himself closer to the political center,” Godwin said.

“He is already doing that, but also has a history of running radio ads describing himself as a conservative. Rollins would need to lean into national themes, especially about control of the House if it looks like the presidential election will be a nail-biter.”

Calvert also has portrayed Rollins, who grew up in Los Angeles County, as an outsider who doesn’t understand the 41st District.

“Will Rollins doesn’t hold up to the slightest scrutiny,” National Republican Congressional Committee spokesperson Ben Petersen said via email. “He’ll be further exposed as a soft-on-crime liberal owned by far-left billionaires and subservient to a dangerous ideology ruining our country with inflation, crime and open borders.”

In response, Coby Eiss, Rollins’ campaign manager, said via email: “The right-wing political hacks are desperate to deceive voters of Will’s positions on law and order because they’re terrified of the contrast in this race.”

The race could come down to the choices of the district’s roughly 89,000 no-party-preference voters, who account for about 19% of the 41st’s electorate.

“I think this pool of voters is a little bit more peripheral in their engagement with politics and they may dislike Biden and Trump,” Wasserman said. “But they may be open to a message that it’s time for change. And when you have a three-decade-long incumbent running against someone who hasn’t served (in Congress) before, that may work in Rollins’ favor.”

Wasserman believes it’s “a matter of time before Democrats break through” in the 41st.

“The question is, will it be in 2024?”