It was January of 1993 when Republican Congressman Ken Calvert first took office; Whitney Houston’s “I Will Always Love You” was at the top of the charts, and President Bill Clinton was enjoying his first term in office.
Calvert has represented swaths of inland Southern California that include Riverside, Corona, and Norco for a generation, and he’s weathered cycle after cycle of redistricting as new Census data has shifted political boundaries over the years.
That’s likely because he’s your basic GOP guy.
“Ken Calvert is, if you went 20 years ago and looked in a dictionary under the word ‘Republican,’ you would’ve seen a picture of Ken Calvert,” says Jack Pitney, a professor of government at Claremont-McKenna.
But the seemingly unshakeable incumbent now finds himself in what many see as the toughest political battle of his long career. That’s because with the latest political map, Calvert will face a group of voters he’s never had to persuade to vote for him before: the residents of deep-Democratic-blue oasis Palm Springs.
The district is evenly split between Republicans and Democrats – both parties count 36% of registered voters in the district among their ranks. Just under 20% have no party preference and could hypothetically go either way.
“If it comes down to just a few seats, a race like this could very well help determine whether the Republicans or the Democrats control the House of Representatives next year,” Pitney says.
The heart of Calvert Country – Norco and Corona – remains in the 41st district, but Palm Springs has been a gay enclave for decades and has a huge concentration of Democratic voters. It boasts the state’s first all LGBTQ city council and is led by California’s first trangender mayor, Lisa Middleton.
She says with Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas questioning the basis for legal same-sex marriage, she’s ill at ease about the prospect of being represented by Calvert.
“Across my city and across many parts of the Coachella Valley, there are individuals that are in my age group who grew up at a time that they could go to jail for expressing their love,” Middleton says. “Many of us never dreamed we would have the opportunity to marry the person that we loved. We have now. We are not going to give that up.”
While Calvert supported a bill this summer which would codify same-sex marriage in federal law, the vote was an outlier. Over his 30 years in the House, he’s consistently voted against LGBTQ advancement.
Calvert didn’t respond to KCRW’s interview requests. In July, he told the LA Times the country has changed in the last three decades and he believes the decision legalizing same-sex marriage is settled. The Log Cabin Republicans of Coachella Valley told KCRW in a statement that they’ve had discussions with him about his position on LGBTQ issues and are confident he’ll be an ally to the gay community.
Rather than be a culture warrior like some of his fellow Republican representatives, Calvert mostly keeps his focus local.
“[He’s] ‘a district guy,’” says political scientist Jack Pitney. “He focuses on issues of concern to the district, to inland California, and simply has not assumed a high profile in the national controversies. We’re not talking about Marjorie Taylor Greene here.”
Some of the “district guy” things his campaign website touts: getting federal dollars to help local hospitals; recommending hundreds of Riverside County students to the military academies; and securing funds to improve the ever-congested 91 Freeway.
Instead of hot-button social issues, Calvert is campaigning on the economy and so-called “Bidenflation.”
His Democratic opponent in the race for the 41st district is a gay 38-year-old former federal prosecutor named Will Rollins. He’s running on the fallout of the January 6th insurrection.
“After helping DC track down some of the people in Southern California who attacked the Capitol, that was what motivated me to get into this,” says Rollins. “While those of us in federal law enforcement were responding to that attack, Calvert was voting to decertify the election, voting against an investigation.”
In something of a reversal of norms, Democrat Rollins looks to be the candidate making the law and order argument to voters.
“The moderate Republicans, the independents – there is major movement among them towards candidates who are committed to the rule of law and our Constitution and that has really resonated with them,” Rollins says.
And that’s a good thing, according to Jack Pitney. The “Never Trump” former Republican thinks the precarious position of democracy writ large should be priority number one this November.
“The threat to democracy is something that voters ought to be vitally interested in,” Pitney says. “It ought to be top of the agenda, but it’s not clear that it really is.”
By positioning himself as the candidate who stands for American ideals, Rollins thinks he can win over voters who may identify as Republicans but have had enough of Trumpism.
“As my aunt said, ‘I didn’t leave the Republican Party, the Republican Party left me,’” Rollins recalls. “You have an opportunity right now to send a message to your party that it can re-center itself. And if you vote for somebody who you ordinarily wouldn’t, even if they’re a Democrat, [you can] send that message.”
With both candidates attempting to court voters who may not be their typical constituencies, the question is will the horse race in District 41 be a runaway or a photo finish?