Located on the coast in Central California, the 35th Assembly District is pretty much San Luis Obispo County with a tiny bit of Santa Barbara County on top. Located about halfway between Los Angeles and the Bay Area, the District gets a lot of cross traffic between the two thanks to the idyllic coastal setting.
Majority white with a strong Hispanic presence, the district is a bit all over the place when it comes to pinning down what exactly defines it. There’s many farms in the area, giving it a strong agricultural bend, with a military base bolstering the GOP base. But there’s also a university, rich oceanfront dwellers, and the tail end of Santa Barbara suburbs here too. It’s suburban, but rural. It has lots of farms, but also a lot of cities and large towns like San Luis Obispo. There are poorer farm workers living nearby millionaires who left behind San Francisco.
The 35th is pretty much a microcosm of California circa 20 years ago, right down to the Assembly race.
Republicans have had a strong presence in the area for decades, but in recent years it has been waning. After redistricting 8 years ago, then-Republican Assemblyman Katcho Achadjian was winning with well over 60% of the vote. However, by the 2018 Assembly election, Assemblyman Jordan Cunningham (R-Paso Robles) was only winning by around 55%.
Democrats now have more registered voters here, but as is usual with many districts, right leaning voters tend to not declare their party as much. On one hand, enough people are moving in from blue areas to change the percentages. But on the other hand enough people are staying or switching their political lean to keep the GOP out ahead.
Bigger elections back this up. While Clinton had more votes here in the 2016 election, John Cox edged out Gavin Newsom here by a few percentage points during the 2018 Governor’s race.
Nevertheless, Democrats feel like this race is close enough to warrant a fueled campaign behind their candidate, Dawn Addis. The GOP, in turn, is throwing a lot of support behind Cunningham.
Jordan Cunningham –
Still a relative newbie when it comes to politics, Cunningham’s background and moderate Republican leanings have steadily moved Cunningham up the political ladder in California. After graduating with a law degree from Berkeley, Cunningham started out as a prosecutor in the San Luis Obispo District Attorney’s Office before opening his own practice. From there he had a stint on the Templeton School Board and was president of the Central Coast Taxpayers Association before being elected to the Assembly in 2016.
Like Assemblyman Chad Mayes (I-Yucca Valley) down in SoCal, Assemblyman Cunningham has worked out the best way to beat Democrats in California as a conservative is to stay true to core conservative beliefs while also being more moderate on other issues, especially issues important to those in the district.
He has won over many centrist voters by authoring education bills that Democrats would have otherwise backed, sided with Democrats over climate issues, and has appeased Republicans by being very pro-business. The California Chamber of Commerce even gives him a 95% score. And looking over the bills he has brought forward the last few years, it’s largely much of the same: some right-leaning, some left-leaning, but most being about issues that both parties can agree on, like reducing human trafficking.
In 2020, Cunningham is touching on every issue important to the region and is especially touting his bi-partisanship records as a way to keep Republicans, sway centrist voters, and maybe nab a few Democrats straddling the border.
For endorsements, Cunningham is the only sitting Republican to have an endorsement from the California Teachers Association (CTA). How many times have you seen the Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Association, the CTA, and law enforcements organizations all go for the same person? Also, every prominent Republican in district, as well as a few lefter leaning people, are backing him this year.
Dawn Addis – Challenging Cunningham this year is Democrat Dawn Addis. A longtime teacher in Morro Bay, Addis began getting heavily involved in politics following the election of Donald Trump. In a few short years, she built herself as a powerful advocate and march organizer, winning a lot of support in only a short amount of time. In 2019 she was elected in as a Morro Bay Councilwoman and managed to quickly make a name for herself there by taking on her harassers and pushing for new schools and aquarium projects in only a few months time.
Addis comes into the race with less political experience than Cunningham, but has surprised both parties with her tenacity. She built a platform this year with issues ranging from education to healthcare to the environment, giving each issue a Central Coast focus as well as a broader California focus. However, unlike Cunningham, Addis is not really adhering to bi-partisanship and is much more left. However, she is a member of the Chamber of Commerce.
Unlike Cunningham, Addis doesn’t hold a lot of sway outside of Morro Bay. She has never been in a major race before, and the usual methods of going to events and walking around and shaking hands was halted by the statewide COVID-19 shutdown this year. However, a Democratic voter uptick, due to the Presidential election this year, may help her gain some of that ground back.
Biden endorses her, as does Harris and many other prominent Democrats. And while she does have a lot more groups backing her than Cunningham, including the Sierra Club and many labor unions, the fact that Cunningham managed to get the support of teachers and school unions rather than Addis who is a longtime teacher, is an embarrassing missing endorsement in her campaign. The teacher didn’t win over teachers.
What does this mean?
The March Primary showed that Cunningham was up 55% to 45%. Cunningham won the 2018 Primary and both the 2016 and 2018 elections with the same amount, despite voter changes and the blue wave hitting during the midterms. This bodes well for Cunningham, as there have not been any huge regional changes in SLO County lately, nor have major events like the George Floyd protests played that big a part here.
Addis is also not speaking to a lot of centrist voters. While it is noble to stick with your beliefs in an election, it’s also costing her for not reaching out to moderate Democrats and Republicans in the area. Cunningham, meanwhile, still reaches out to them.
Democrats really want this seat, as this is one of the few coastal districts they still haven’t been able to get. But Cunningham knows how to win here. Unless Addis reaches out to voters in the center and gets better name recognition quickly, Cunningham will likely walk away with a victory in the 35th.