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.