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.

ADVERTISEMENT

“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 LaHoodFour states to feature primaries with two incumbents in 2022 GOP Rep. Mary Miller announces reelection bid with Trump endorsement GOP beginning to jockey for post-election leadership slots 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 HillKatie Hill diagnosed with COVID-19 late in pregnancy Katie Hill launches effort to protect Democratic majority in House Katie Hill says 'it would take a lot' to convince her to run again for House 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 ValadaoThe fates of the 10 House Republicans who voted to impeach Trump Republican rep who voted to impeach Trump running for reelection Each state's population center, visualized 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 RoyceBottom line Bottom line California was key factor in House GOP's 2020 success MORE’s retirement.

Steel, a member of the Orange County Board of Supervisors, unseated another first-term Democrat, Rep. Harley RoudaHarley Edwin RoudaRouda passes on bid for redrawn California seat, avoiding intraparty battle with Porter Overnight Energy & Environment — California lawmakers clash over oil spill California Democrats blast offshore drilling in oil spill's wake MORE, who two years earlier upset 15-term GOP Rep. Dana RohrabacherDana Tyrone RohrabacherNow someone wants to slap a SPACE Tax on Jeff Bezos, Elon Musk, et al 'Blue wave' Democrats eye comebacks after losing reelection Former Rep. Rohrabacher says he took part in Jan. 6 march to Capitol but did not storm building MORE.

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 TrumpTrump lawyers to Supreme Court: Jan. 6 committee 'will not be harmed by delay' Two House Democrats announce they won't seek reelection DiCaprio on climate change: 'Vote for people that are sane' MORE’s defeat, and they are a testament to the strategy of House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthyKevin McCarthyOvernight Defense & National Security — Texas hostage situation rattles nation The Hill's Morning Report - Presented by Facebook - Democrats see victory in a voting rights defeat Former acting Defense secretary under Trump met with Jan. 6 committee: report MORE (R-Calif.) and his campaigns chief, Rep. Tom EmmerThomas (Tom) Earl EmmerHouse Democratic campaign arm outraises GOP counterpart in final quarter of 2021 House GOP campaign arm rakes in 0M in 2021 GOP optimism grows over possible red wave in 2022 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 BidenMadame Tussauds unveils new Biden and Harris figures US raises concerns about Russian troop movements to Belarus Putin tests a model for invading Ukraine, outwitting Biden's diplomats 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 PelosiTwo-thirds of Americans support banning lawmakers from trading stocks: poll The Hill's Morning Report - Presented by Facebook - Voting rights week for Democrats (again) Watch: Lawmakers, activists, family members call for voting rights legislation on MLK day 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.

ADVERTISEMENT

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 points to drug prices in call for Senate social spending vote Overnight Health Care — Presented by Emergent Biosolutions — Pfizer, US strike COVID-19 pill deal CBO: Democrats' package saves about 0B on drug prices 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.