State Watch

Perfect storm builds against Republicans in California

SACRAMENTO, Calif. — If Democrats are to reclaim the majority in the House of Representatives this year, they will almost certainly do so with the help of Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi’s home state, where multiple favorable waves are building.

Almost a third of the House districts that elected a Republican but voted for Hillary Clinton for president in 2016 are in California. Almost all of those districts have seen explosive demographic growth that benefits Democrats.

{mosads}“People are very focused on the districts that Mrs. Clinton won that Republicans held in Congress. And there are seven of those in California,” said Tom Steyer, the hedge fund billionaire who has pledged to spend $30 million on Democrats’ behalf in 2018, much of it in California.

The politics of the moment benefit Democrats, too. Polls show President Trump’s approval rating in California is among the lowest in the country. The GOP’s primary legislative achievement last year, a major overhaul of the federal tax code, appears likely to raise taxes on voters in crucial California congressional districts. And even the state Senate Republican leader has been critical of the administration’s efforts to open California’s coast to new oil and gas exploration.

“If the Democrats are going to pick up the House, they have to pick up a bunch of seats in California,” said Bill Carrick, a longtime Democratic strategist based in Los Angeles.

Across the country, Trump’s approval ratings are lower than any of his predecessors at this point in his first term. In California, his numbers threaten to become an anchor that weighs down his own party: Just 28 percent of adults approve of Trump’s job performance, according to a December survey by the Public Policy Institute of California. Just 30 percent told pollsters at the University of California, Berkeley’s Institute of Governmental Studies they approve of Trump.

Two-thirds of independents disapproved of Trump’s performance, and 57 percent of all voters said they strongly disapproved.

“The president, especially in California, seems to be giving [Democrats] a lot of gifts,” said Assemblyman Phil Ting (D), the chairman of the state Assembly’s Budget Committee.

Republicans in California have not helped themselves, either. Reps. Ed Royce and Darrell Issa have said they will not seek reelection in districts Clinton won by 8 points and 7 points, respectively, opening seats that will be costly to defend.

In developments that could be even worse for the GOP, Republicans have failed to coalesce around a single candidate in the race to replace term-limited Gov. Jerry Brown (D), while no serious Republican has decided to run against Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D). Because of the state’s top-two primary system, that creates the very real possibility that the two most prominent races on November’s ballot will be showdowns between two Democratic candidates, which could amount to a deadly blow to GOP efforts to turn out their voters.

“If the Republican Party fails to have nominees on the November ballot in California, it will be a total disaster for the party in an already challenging state in a year when history already favors the Democrats,” said Ron Nehring, a former California Republican Party chairman who ran for lieutenant governor in 2014. “The top of the ticket drives turnout.”

That could endanger other Republicans who hold seats where Clinton won in 2016. Democrats will target Reps. Jeff Denham and David Valadao, who hold seats in the Central Valley; Steve Knight, the only Republican who holds a district almost entirely within Los Angeles County; and Mimi Walters and Dana Rohrabacher, whose districts cover parts of Orange County. Clinton was the first Democrat since Franklin Roosevelt in 1936 to win a majority of votes in Orange County.

Since new congressional district maps took effect in the 2012 elections, much of the population growth in those Republican districts has been among nonwhite voters, who overwhelmingly favor Democratic candidates.

Walters’s district has grown by 33,000 residents, according to U.S. Census Bureau figures. Of those new residents, 30,000 are nonwhite. The white population actually declined in Royce’s district while the overall population grew by 10,000 residents. In Denham’s district, 17,000 of the 21,000 new residents are nonwhite.

“The districts have gotten more Latino, they’ve gotten more Asian, they’ve gotten younger,” Carrick said. “These districts all change over the course of eight or 10 years. They all are different.”

Democrats plan to use the tax overhaul as a cudgel to beat Republican incumbents. Key provisions would limit state and local tax deductions and deductions on interest paid on mortgages over $750,000, both of which are likely to cost California taxpayers in the long run.

“Too many tough-guy Republicans from bulletproof districts popping off about how people in California and New York should just move to Texas. That’s not a serious response — but it does reflect the kind of arrogance that leads to mistakes,” Nehring said. “Twelve years ago we blew it and made Pelosi the Speaker. We need to rediscover those lessons before blowing it again.”

Of the party’s top targets, only two — Rohrabacher and the retiring Issa — voted against the measure.

“They overtly target Democratic states with this tax bill,” said Andy Thorburn, a businessman running to replace the retiring Royce, echoing a message Democrats are pushing throughout the state. “It’s the first time in my lifetime at least that the federal government has been used in a punitive manner.”

Republicans say they hope to make the midterm elections a choice between Trump and Pelosi, whose poll numbers remain anemic even in California. The GOP has used Pelosi as a foil for years, including in special elections held in 2017.

“Nancy Pelosi is going to be on the ballot. A vote for a Democrat is a vote for putting her back in charge of the House of Representatives,” said Jesse Hunt, a spokesman for the National Republican Congressional Committee.

And Republicans also said the top-two primary could benefit them. In some races, like the race to replace Royce, four prominent Republicans are running, while a dozen or more Democrats have said they will run. That leaves open the possibility that two Republicans will advance to November’s general election.

But Democrats are banking on a combination of enthusiasm among their own voters, Trump’s unpopularity among independents and even the fact that most voters will receive their ballots by mail — making it more likely that Democrats who sit out midterms will vote this time around — will all bolster their chances.

“The barrier to entry to voting in California is so low, and the fear and loathing among Democrats is so high,” said Dan Sena, who heads the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee (DCCC). “Motivating voters and what pushes people to the polls is a huge contributing factor to what it takes to win in Orange County and San Diego.”

Underscoring the party’s optimism, the DCCC has moved its western operations to an office in Los Angeles. It has had field organizers on the ground in Royce’s and Issa’s districts for a year.

California contests are likely to be among the most expensive in the nation this year, given the stratospheric cost of advertising in the Los Angeles and San Diego markets. That may hurt some Democrats who cannot afford the television time — but it might also work in the party’s favor.

“You still have to spend it in some of the most expensive media markets in the country,” Carrick said. “There’s no way to immunize yourself from the national wave because it costs so much.”

Tags Dana Rohrabacher Darrell Issa David Valadao Dianne Feinstein Donald Trump Ed Royce Hillary Clinton Jeff Denham Nancy Pelosi
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