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California was key factor in House GOP's 2020 success

California was key factor in House GOP's 2020 success
© Greg Nash

A crucial component of the House GOP’s surprise comeback in 2020 was winning back a majority of the California seats lost in the anti-Trump blue wave just two years earlier. 

Democrat Christy Smith’s concession to GOP Rep. Mike Garcia this week means Republicans will control four of the seven seats that Democrats flipped in the Golden State during the 2018 midterm elections. 

It wasn’t enough to win back the House majority for the GOP, but Republicans gained seats and feel primed to take back the majority in 2022.

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“Their victories show that we can win from California to New York to Miami to Minnesota to New Mexico to Iowa. It was a broad coalition of victories,” Rep. Darin LaHoodDarin McKay LaHoodTo encourage innovation, Congress should pass two bills protecting important R&D tax provision GOP leader to try to force Swalwell off panel Rahm Emanuel predicts Trump will seek retribution against GOP opponents, won't run for reelection MORE (R-Ill.), a top lieutenant at the National Republican Congressional Committee, told The Hill. “It also shows the importance of recruitment and finding candidates that reflect their constituency.”   

While The Associated Press had yet to call the race, Smith — who trailed Garcia by just 333 votes — threw in the towel Monday night, saying her campaign had “exhausted every possible option” and “came up short.”

Garcia, a former Navy pilot and son of a Mexican immigrant, had flipped the northern Los Angeles County seat in a May special election after Democratic Rep. Katie HillKatherine (Katie) Lauren HillMaher chides Democrats: We 'suck the fun out of everything' Former Obama official named NFL senior VP of communications Republicans fret over divisive candidates MORE resigned over allegations of inappropriate sexual relationships with staffers.

There were other GOP bright spots around the state. In a rematch in the agriculture-rich Central Valley, Republican David ValadaoDavid Goncalves ValadaoFive takeaways on the House's return to budget earmarks Republicans who backed Trump impeachment see fundraising boost Valadao gives Gaetz donation to victims of abuse MORE won his old seat back by defeating Democratic Rep. TJ Cox. And a pair of Korean American women — Young Kim and Michelle Steel — flipped Democratic seats in the onetime conservative stronghold of Orange County. 

Kim, a former state assemblywoman, ousted first-term Democratic Rep. Gil CisnerosGilbert (Gil) Ray CisnerosMORE in a rematch of their 2018 race following longtime GOP Rep. Ed RoyceEdward (Ed) Randall RoyceCalifornia was key factor in House GOP's 2020 success Top donor allegedly sold access to key politicians for millions in foreign cash: report Here are the 17 GOP women newly elected to the House this year MORE’s retirement.

Steel, a member of the Orange County Board of Supervisors, unseated another first-term Democrat, Rep. Harley RoudaHarley Edwin RoudaRepublicans race for distance from 'America First Caucus' California was key factor in House GOP's 2020 success Here are the 17 GOP women newly elected to the House this year MORE, who two years earlier upset 15-term GOP Rep. Dana RohrabacherDana Tyrone RohrabacherOn The Trail: The political losers of 2020 California was key factor in House GOP's 2020 success GOP's Steel wins California House race after Democrat Rouda concedes MORE.

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Together, Kim, Steel and Valadao made history by becoming the first Republicans since 1994 to unseat a sitting Democratic House member.

The wins have been a shot in the arm for a party stung by President TrumpDonald TrumpKinzinger, Gaetz get in back-and-forth on Twitter over Cheney vote READ: Liz Cheney's speech on the House floor Cheney in defiant floor speech: Trump on 'crusade to undermine our democracy' MORE’s defeat, and they are a testament to the strategy of House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthyKevin McCarthyHouse fails to pass drug bill amid Jan. 6 tensions READ: Liz Cheney's speech on the House floor Cheney in defiant floor speech: Trump on 'crusade to undermine our democracy' MORE (R-Calif.) and his campaigns chief, Rep. Tom EmmerThomas (Tom) Earl EmmerDemocrats confront difficult prospects for midterms House GOP campaign arm adds to target list Minnesota takes joy in beating New York for last House seat MORE (R-Minn.). Their team sought to recruit strong, diverse candidates — and then provide the campaign cash and infrastructure to keep pace with Democrats who raised a record amount of money this cycle.   

While President-elect Joe BidenJoe BidenKinzinger, Gaetz get in back-and-forth on Twitter over Cheney vote Cheney in defiant floor speech: Trump on 'crusade to undermine our democracy' US officials testify on domestic terrorism in wake of Capitol attack MORE trounced Trump in California, Republicans pointed to the string of victories there as proof the Grand Old Party could still find ways to compete locally in a deep-blue state that’s growing increasingly diverse. 

“It showed that we can still win in California; we took a lot of people by surprise,” said Sam Oh, a vice president at Targeted Victory consulting firm who served as the lead campaign strategist for fellow Korean Americans Kim and Steel. “We knew that history wasn’t on our side and we had to operate differently. We recruited diverse, dynamic candidates, we invested heavily in small-dollar contribution programs and digital ads and text messages.

“We played to win and that was the mindset the entire cycle, that we didn’t want to play it safe.”

For Kim and Steel, doing things differently meant reaching out to independents and Democrats, as well as voters in their conservative base. They did Korean-, Chinese- and Vietnamese-language outreach through mailers, emails and text messages.    

And while they tied their Democratic opponents to Speaker Nancy PelosiNancy PelosiOn The Money: Job openings jump to record high of 8.1 million | Wyden opposes gas tax hike | Airlines feel fuel crunch Pelosi: House Democrats want to make child tax credit expansion permanent Pelosi announces change to House floor mask rules MORE (D-Calif.) and her “socialist” agenda, Kim and Steel also focused on bread-and-butter issues like cutting taxes and keeping small businesses open during the coronavirus pandemic.

“A lot of incumbents weren’t talking about the issues that mattered most to the voters in the district. That translated to winning crossover voters and independent voters,” Oh said.

Along with Democrat Marilyn Strickland of Washington state, Kim and Steel made history as the first Korean American women elected to Congress. They also will help boost the number of GOP women in the House in the 117th Congress to more than two dozen, a record for the party.   

Garcia’s victory north of Los Angeles this week is symbolic for another reason. It ensured that Pelosi and the Democrats failed to oust a single House GOP incumbent in a cycle where they had hoped to grow their majority by between five and 20 seats. 

Instead, Democrats have seen a dozen incumbents, nearly all of whom were swept into Congress in the 2018 wave, go down to defeat. And the number of Democratic losses could climb as high as 14 if Republicans pull off victories in a pair of nail-biters in Iowa and New York.   

Either way, Pelosi and her party will hold the narrowest House majority in generations.

Despite the losses, California Democrats aren’t in panic mode. While Trump boosted turnout among Republicans, including in Orange County, Democrats say he won’t be on the ballot in 2022. They also point out that Biden beat Trump in the state by nearly 30 percentage points, and Democrats still hold 42 of California's 53 House seats.

“We have a pretty substantial majority in the delegation,” said Rep. Scott PetersScott H. PetersBiden clean electricity standard faces high hurdles House Democrats introduce carbon pricing measure Democrats target Trump methane rule with Congressional Review Act MORE, a San Diego Democrat and a regional vice chair for the House Democrats’ campaign arm. “I don’t think there’s reason to panic because Californians share our values.”

But Peters added that his party needs to recalibrate its message and get more aggressive in fending off GOP attacks that vulnerable Democrats are “police-defunding socialists.”

“That’s not who we are but some of the things that our opponents threw at us stuck,” Peters said. “I would reiterate that Democrats can’t be seen as socialists and win swing voters.”

--Updated at 6:45 a.m.