By almost any measure, the Democrats’ chances of taking control of the House of Representatives in the November midterm elections depend in large part on California. Nationwide, the Democrats need to flip 23 Republican seats to take control of the House. Among the Democrats’ biggest targets are seven seats in California now held by Republicans but which Hillary Clinton won in the 2016 presidential election (in one case by the overwhelming margin of 55 to 40 percent). These seven represent nearly one-third of the 23 seats Democrats need to flip on November 6.
Former president Barack Obama came to Southern California last Saturday to help them do it. Flanked by six of the seven Democratic challengers, Obama told a campaign rally, “The good news is, in two months we have a chance to restore some sanity in our politics. We have a chance to flip the House of Representatives and make sure that we have checks and balances in Washington.”
Given the Golden State’s libertarian streak, its demographic and voter-registration trends, and the pain Trump is trying to inflict on California’s residents, that should be easy. In each of the seven districts Democrats are targeting, Republican registration is down by an average of three points from four years ago. For the first time in the history of this bluest of blue states, more voters now identify themselves as “decline to state” than as Republicans. Statewide, Latinos and Asians represent a rapidly growing percentage of California’s population and of its citizenry; for nearly 20 years, non-Hispanic whites have been a minority. And just 31 percent of Californians approve of Donald Trump’s performance as president, lower even than Trump’s abysmal national approval rate. Two of the state’s Republican incumbents, Representative Darrell Issa, once Barack Obama’s most relentless attacker, and Ed Royce, have already decided not to run again.
But the election also looked easy in 2016 and it became a disaster. The widely celebrated upset victories of progressive newcomers in New York, Pennsylvania, and Massachusetts may look like the start of a wave, but the targeted California districts, though located in a deep-blue state, are dotted with patches of deep red. Nor are Democrats of Modesto, Tustin, and Laguna Beach like the Democrats in the Bronx or Berkeley.
The Democratic challengers in these seven districts have a lot in common. Among other things, they reflect the great surge of energy and citizen engagement that Trump has fueled. In Southern California it was a group of activists not connected to any party or candidate and calling themselves “Flip the 49th” that drove Issa out. In California, as Andrew Godinich, the regional press secretary for the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, told The Nation, “Trump hovers over everything.”
But there’s another side to that coin. None of the seven California challengers has ever held an elected public office—none has been a city council member, county supervisor, or school-board member, and few have run for office before—and several have had trouble persuading voters that they’re intrinsic enough in their district to represent it. Which is to say that most of the seven are new to this business—and, in many cases, new to the voters.
Among the seven: Gil Cisneros, a Navy veteran who won a $266 million lottery jackpot and became an overnight philanthropist, creating a foundation to fund education programs for Latino students, who is running for the Orange County 39th district seat being vacated by Royce. It’s a district where nearly two-thirds of the population is either Latino or Asian. Clinton carried it 51.5 to 43 percent.
There’s the 30-year-old Katie Hill, a self-acknowledged bisexual and an accomplished rock climber, running against the incumbent Republican Steve Knight, now in his second term, in a sprawling district north and east of Los Angeles. This year, for the first time, registered Democrats outnumber Republicans in the district, which Clinton carried 50 to 44 percent.
There’s Fresno businessman TJ Cox, who’s trying to unseat David Valadao in the San Joaquin Valley 21st Congressional District, where Democrats have a 45 to 28 percent voter-registration advantage and which Clinton carried 55 to 40 percent. For Cox, this is his second run for Congress.
There’s the 56-year-old Orange County real-estate investor Harley Rouda, a former Republican (he contributed to the 2016 presidential campaign of his friend John Kasich, the governor of Ohio) who became a Democrat only last year. “He’s going to have to prove himself as a new Democrat in the game,” a local party activist told the Los Angeles Times, “and not just an opportunist.” Republicans still outnumber Democrats in the affluent 48th CD by more than 10 percentage points, though Clinton narrowly carried the district by 48 to 46 percent.
But given the bizarre past of Rouda’s Republican opponent Dana Rohrabacher—Rohrabacher’s years-long flirtations with the Russians (Politico called him “Putin’s favorite congressman”) and his recent televised gaffe about arming toddlers with guns—Rouda could prevail. Jack d’Annibale, Rouda’s campaign manager, points to a Monmouth Poll from July that shows the race a dead heat. “Rouda has a shot,” said Thad Kousser, a political-science professor at the University of California, San Diego. “He doesn’t look like Bernie Sanders or Kamala Harris.”
There’s the 39-year-old Mike Levin, an environmental lawyer with Jewish and Latino heritage. As the former executive director of the Democratic Party of Orange County, Levin hosted fund-raisers for Hillary Clinton and helped drive Issa to quit the seat for which Levin is now running. Although he’s never held elective public office, he knows politics. Republican registration in the district still exceeds the Democrats’ by 39 to 31 percent, but Clinton carried it by 51 to 43 percent. In 2016, Issa only squeaked by, winning by just over 1,600 votes. Even some of the state’s Republican leaders now acknowledge that Levin is likely to win.
The seven Democratic newcomers have rookie handicaps and sometimes make rookie mistakes. Take Josh Harder, who’s running in the 10th district in the agricultural northern San Joaquin Valley. Harder is trying to unseat Representative Jeff Denham, who talks immigration reform (in both English and Spanish) but is a reliable Republican backbencher when it comes to health care, budgets, and tax cuts. When almost every public official in the 10th district, Democrat or Republican, joined a protest in Sacramento in August against the State Water Board’s “water grab” (a plan to divert more water to environmental priorities and thus away from local agriculture), Harder stayed home. The reason, he told me, was that he wants “to act, not talk.” That may sound like a noble principle, but in the hurly-burly of election campaigns, it was a mistake—a mistake Denham did not ignore.
Nonetheless, Harder could win. Denham is especially vulnerable on taxes and health care. At a big public meeting last year, he vowed to protect the health care of the people in his district, but then voted to repeal the Affordable Care Act a few days later. Harder risked forfeiting that advantage by being too tentative on the water issue, said Mike Lynch, a veteran political consultant in Modesto. Over the summer, Harder promised in an op-ed for The Modesto Bee “to fight for the Valley’s long-term water security. That means fighting to stop the State Water Board from taking our water.” That seemed, more than anything else, to be an effort to catch up.
A bigger problem for Harder is that, as some people in the district told me, “he’s too new” and not intrinsic enough. Although he was born in Turlock and graduated from Modesto High, in the heart of the district, he later went to Stanford and Harvard and worked three years for a Silicon Valley venture-capital firm before returning to Turlock to run for Congress. And most of Harder’s campaign funding comes from the Bay Area—which is almost unavoidable, since almost all of the deep pockets in the Central Valley are agribusiness plutocrats—but still a problem for a 32-year-old candidate who’s not well-known. Harder “should pull on his boots,” said Mike Dunbar, the editorial-page editor of the Modesto Bee, which supports him, “and kick some clods.”
In their campaign messaging, the seven Democratic challengers stress health care (always the Affordable Care Act and often “Medicare for All”), jobs, “the culture of corruption, cronyism and incompetence” in Washington, and, often, Congress’s failure to pass immigration measures that help the Dreamers. Congress’s neglect of veterans, a widespread concern in some of these districts—especially around the military bases in Orange and San Diego counties—is also on the list. In the San Joaquin Valley, which relies heavily on undocumented farm and cannery workers and where nearly half the population is on Medicaid, the Democrats are also targeting Trump’s actions on taxes, immigration, water, education (the “Betsy DeVos disaster,” in Harder’s words, of privatization), and trade wars. California annually exports nearly $50 billion worth of almonds, dairy products, and other agricultural goods, much of it to China.
Cox emphasizes his opponent’s “Trump score”—Valadao’s record of having supported Trump with 98.5 percent of his votes. Many of the others localize the effect of Trump’s policies and their Republican opponents’ votes in supporting them: votes on the repeal of the Affordable Care Act, on immigration, and on the tax bill, which, in capping the deductibility of interest payments on mortgages, hits many homeowners in California—where housing prices are astronomical—particularly hard.
In the wealthy suburbs of the south coast, where memories of the devastating Santa Barbara oil spill in 1969 still resonate, the Democrats emphasize their opposition to offshore drilling, their commitment to protecting the environment and women’s rights and, in Rouda’s words, ending “the relentless divisiveness, conflict and finger pointing” in Washington. A few see California’s relatively tough gun-control laws as a national model and promise to take it to Congress. Virtually the whole list implicates Trump.
Sometimes the Democrats also remind voters specifically of what control of the House would mean. As Harder told a town-hall meeting of seniors, it would mean that Devin Nunes, who represents another San Joaquin Valley district, would no longer chair the House Intelligence Committee, where Nunes has done everything possible to obstruct and discredit the investigation into alleged Russian meddling in the 2016 election. Instead, the chair would pass to Adam Schiff, the committee’s ranking Democrat, who has pushed to hold Trump and his administration accountable.
That there are still 14 Republicans in California’s 53-member House delegation is a reminder that in the middle of all this California blue, there are swaths of red—ranchers, small-business owners, even many Latinos. The grandchildren of the Okies who fled the Dust Bowl and settled in Fresno and Kern counties in the 1930s can be as conservative as the Oklahoma of their forebears.
And almost everywhere in California there is still resistance to any general tax increase. The national tax revolt began here 40 years ago, and it still has the state in its grip. California Republicans are putting a lot of money into Proposition 6, an initiative on the November ballot to repeal a 12 cent-per-gallon gas tax increase that the legislature, with its overwhelming Democratic majorities, and Governor Jerry Brown enacted last year. The Republicans hope that with no other magnet at the top of the ballot, Proposition 6 will bring out their voters.
Prop 6 is already having an effect: Four of the seven Democrats have endorsed it. Perhaps the most surprising endorsement came from Katie Porter, a law professor at the University of California at Irvine and a consumer attorney. While working with Kamala Harris, California’s attorney general before her election to the Senate, Porter helped recover millions of dollars for homeowners who had been fleeced by banks in the subprime housing scandal. She is a protégé and former student of Elizabeth Warren and a progressive on virtually all issues. But in a campaign ad, apparently in reply to a snipe by her opponent Mimi Walters, Porter declared, “I oppose higher gas taxes, and I won’t be afraid to take on leaders of both political parties and do what’s right for Orange County taxpayers.”
This may be the least of the Democratic Party’s fault lines. There’s also the familiar split between Bernie Sanders liberals, on one hand, and the party establishment on the other: Last year, California’s Berniecrats tried to remove Anthony Rendon, a fellow Democrat, from his post as speaker of the State Assembly because Rendon blocked a vote on a bill to establish a California single-payer health system.
Compounding the Democrats’ problems is the Republicans’ ability to demonize former House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, who could become speaker again if Democrats gain the majority. Pelosi hails from San Francisco—which is decidedly not an asset for Democrats running in Hanford or Bakersfield. “She’s a huge drag on the Democrats,” said Jim Brulte, the chair of the state GOP, which has worked hard to make her that, “a very polarizing figure.”
While Mike Levin told me he found it “hard to imagine a more effective champion of the principles that Democrats support, a great speaker,” at least two of the Democratic challengers in California have joined some 20 others elsewhere who say they won’t support Pelosi. A couple of others waffle, saying that they’ll decide when the time comes.
In a trenchant analysis published this summer, Rachel Bitecofer, a political scientist at Christopher Newport University in Virginia, predicted that “even before toss-ups are decided, Democrats are primed to pick up enough seats to control the House” and that at least five of the Democrats in this story—Hill, Cisneros, Porter, Rouda, and Levin—will win in November; that a sixth, TJ Cox, is “likely” to win; and that the race between Harder and Denham is a toss-up.
Bitecofer’s analysis comes with caveats: “that Donald Trump will be president on November 6th 2018, no major national security events occur between now and Election Day, and that Democrats successfully exploit their advantages,” the biggest of which is Trump himself. It’s more important, she told me, for Democrats to remind voters about Trump—to get their base out—than it is to try to persuade marginal Republicans to switch tickets. (For Democrats, bitten by the disaster of 2016, the push to get their people to the polls has become a mantra.)
But at a time when almost everything Trump does looks like an attack on California—on the environment, on immigration, in threats to Social Security and health care—and in a state where Republicans have been switching party registration by the tens of thousands, getting still more of them to switch might not be so tough. In a district like the 48th, where Rouda is trying to oust Rohrabacher and registered Republicans still outnumber Democrats by 40 to 29 percent, it may be hard to win without Republican votes.
The past two years should be a searing reminder not only of what a victory in November could deliver but also of the dreadful price of losing. If the GOP retains control of both houses of Congress, that result will be widely interpreted—not only by Trump and his enablers but also by the news media—as a vote of confidence. “Liberals don’t take politics seriously enough. Republicans take it all too seriously,” John Vigna, the spokesman for the California Democratic Party, told me. “We’re pretty good at blowing unlosable elections.” As Election Day approaches on November 6, those are words to remember.