Latino voters appear poised to power one of their own, California Assemblyman Jimmy Gomez, to victory Tuesday in a special congressional election that has turned into a test of the power of two ascendant minority communities.
Both finalists for the seat are Democrats who emerged from the April primary as the top two vote-getters in this decidedly blue district in Los Angeles County.
Mr. Gomez, the son of Mexican immigrants, faces local lawyer Robert Lee Ahn, the son of South Korean immigrants. Mr. Ahn is bidding to become the first Korean-American elected to Congress in two decades.
“I think most political observers are expecting a fairly comfortable win for Gomez, who has stronger name recognition in the district and very high support from the Latino community,” said Matt A. Barreto, political science professor at UCLA and co-founder of the Latino Decisions polling firm. “Ahn ran a very strong campaign in the primary, however, in the runoff there just aren’t enough votes to get him over 50 percent.”
Mr. Gomez has national progressive groups on his side, including Democracy for America and Our Revolution, the group that Sen. Bernard Sanders founded following his 2016 presidential bid.
He also has the backing of the former congressman, Xavier Becerra, who gave up the seat to become state attorney general, and of Gov. Jerry Brown, Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti and newly minted U.S. Sen. Kamala D. Harris.
That backing has fueled Mr. Ahn’s charge that Mr. Gomez is the “establishment” pick in the race — a political insider beholden to special interests and deep-pocketed donors.
Mr. Gomez points to Mr. Sanders as his defense.
“If I was so establishment, I don’t think Our Revolution would actually endorse me,” Mr. Gomez said in a debate last week. “If you want a litmus test, that’s a litmus test if you’re a progressive if you’re actually able to take on the status quo.”
Mr. Ahn, meanwhile, has claimed the mantle of outsider in a district that supported Mr. Sanders in his race for the Democratic presidential nomination against Hillary Clinton.
“On Day 1, I owe the people of the 34th District, and that’s it,” Mr. Ahn said in the debate, dismissing Mr. Gomez’s claim that he would fight for the little guy.
Initially the race was billed as an early opportunity for the Sanders wing of the party to fill the seat with a candidate of their choice.
But Sanders supporters failed to coalesce behind a single candidate in the jungle primary in April that featured over 20 candidates — three of whom campaigned under the Sanders flag. Neither Mr. Gomez nor Mr. Ahn were among those.
Mr. Gomez placed first with 25 percent of the vote. Mr. Ahn captured 22 percent of the vote.
The district is 65 percent Hispanic and 20 percent Korean — one of a number of California seats where minorities dominate. Those races have increasingly tested the Democratic coalition — though the candidates generally espouse the same views.
Both men say they would expand health care, raise the minimum wage and defend illegal immigrants against a Trump administration effort to more strictly enforce the law.
“Jimmy Gomez is a strong progressive with a proven history of effective leadership for the community,” said Parke Skelton, a Gomez spokesperson. “As a union organizer, teacher and member of the state legislature, Jimmy Gomez has a deep understanding of the struggles faced by families in this extremely diverse community.”
James Lee, a spokesman for the Ahn campaign, said his boss spent the final day of the campaign reminding voters that Mr. Gomez voted in favor of a gas tax hike that will hurt low-income families and the race “has boiled down to an outsider versus and insider.”
“Gomez is [backed] by the Democratic Party and special interests, versus Robert, who has no prior political experience, has not sought office before, but was born and raised in the district and is one of their own,” Mr. Lee said.