Aguilar’s second shot at Congress puts Calif. seat within Democrats’ reach

Redlands Mayor Pete Aguilar (D) might have already survived his toughest challenge to join Congress after falling short two years ago.

Aguilar eked out a second-place finish in California’s top-two primary in early June, and will face top finisher Paul Chabot (R) this fall for the right to succeed retiring Rep. Gary Miller (R-Calif.) in Congress.

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But with the primary over, Aguilar and Democrats are very confident they can win in a district that President Obama carried by 17 percentage points in 2012. It’s the most Democratic-leaning district held by a Republican in the country and now the one most likely to flip, a fact the national GOP will privately concede.

“I’m a better candidate for having to run a tough primary. We were pushed hard, and I think that benefitted us. We built a field program that the Inland Empire has not seen, and we did that because we had to. Taking that focus to November is going to be beneficial,” Aguilar told The Hill on Wednesday.

Aguilar, who had the backing of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee in the primary, says he’s working to pull together the Democratic base after a rough-and-tumble, all-party primary. 

After falling short and handing the seat to Republicans in 2012, when a Democrat failed to advance to the general election, he narrowly avoided the same fate this year, winning 17 percent of the vote. 

Still, that was enough to edge out Republican Lesli Gooch (R) by 209 votes as former Rep. Joe Baca (D-Calif.), 

EMILY’s List-backed attorney Eloise Gomez Reyes (D) and another Democrat combined for 36 percent of the vote.

“It’s unpredictable and it’s wild. It’s called the jungle primary for a reason. We successfully navigated it by building a broad coalition and talking about the issues that Inland Empire families care about,” he said.

That effort began with a July 1 unity rally that featured Gomez Reyes and was attended by Baca’s son, Joe Baca Jr. Aguilar said Gomez Reyes had been helpful, though he said he’d had little contact with Baca, a pariah in national Democratic circles.

“Mr. Baca is Mr. Baca. That’s as far as I’ll go,” Aguilar said.

Republicans argue the primary could prove costly.

“Pete Aguilar and the DCCC waged a costly War on Women by trashing a fellow Democrat Eloise Gomez Reyes in a primary they nearly lost. Aguilar is going to have to spend a lot of money and resources to recover from such a bloody primary,” said National Republican Congressional Committee spokesman Tyler Q. Houlton.

But the mayor says his background is a strength heading to Washington.

“The city, the district has been dysfunctional. I want to be part of a group that puts our communities first,” he said. “I do think I can inject some practical results into that discussion.”

Aguilar said if he makes it to Washington, his biggest issues are immigration reform, the economy and transportation. He also said he’d like to be involved in financial services, citing his past work with credit agencies.

Fundraising is also imperative in the short term, though Aguilar is in much better shape than his opponent, with more than $300,000 in the bank. Chabot has just $35,000, though incoming House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) and other House Republicans are hosting a fundraiser for him in the coming weeks.

“He’s going to have support. And maybe it’s from the party, maybe it’s from outside groups, but we’re not resting on our laurels at all,” Aguilar said — a lesson he learned all too well in 2012.