PLEASANTON, Calif. — Running against the Vietnam War, Rep. Pete Stark entered Congress the year that Richard M. Nixon was re-elected president. Since then, ensconced in Democratic strongholds here in the Bay Area, Stark was easily re-elected 19 times. But Stark, 80, the dean of California’s congressional delegation, is facing a serious challenge for the first time. That is because Eric Swalwell, a fellow Democrat who became a city councilman less than two years ago in Dublin, his hometown near here, came just a few points behind Stark in the primary. Now Swalwell gets to carry the fight into November — thanks to a new primary system in California under which the top two vote getters advance to the general election, regardless of party affiliation.
“I wouldn’t have had a chance before,” Swalwell, 31, said before a recent afternoon and evening of campaigning.
The new primary system, coupled with California’s adoption of nonpartisan redistricting, is causing upheaval in the nation’s largest and most influential congressional delegation.
Although polls indicate that President Barack Obama has the state locked up, some of the most competitive House races are taking place across this state, often in nontraditional form. They are pitting two members of the same party against each other in seven other districts. In two of those, two Democratic incumbents are facing off, most notably Reps. Howard L. Berman and Brad Sherman, both influential veterans, who have spent millions of dollars in a battle for a seat in the San Fernando Valley.
In January, at least nine out of California’s 53 congressional districts will be represented by newcomers. Unlike Stark, seven longtime members are retiring, most of them choosing not to campaign in redrawn districts with unfamiliar and often less sympathetic voters. In contrast to the past decade, in which only one seat changed hands between parties, a handful of seats could switch in the fall, analysts said.
“Whether they flip or not remains to be seen, but the bigger story is how these changes have shaken up the political establishment in California,” said Bill Whalen, a fellow at the Hoover Institution at Stanford University and a former speechwriter for Pete Wilson, the onetime Republican governor. “For a state that spends so much money in the pursuit of youth, we have old leadership.”
California’s congressional delegation is one of the country’s grayest because of districts that had been drawn, sometimes in odd shapes, by state legislators with an eye toward protecting incumbents.