Democrats to lean on Cal­i­for­nia

Golden State is cru­cial to win House.

Los Angeles Times - - THE NATION - By Chris­tine Mai-Duc

Democrats in­tent on tak­ing back the House in 2018 have set­tled on a key strat­egy: fo­cus­ing on the 23 dis­tricts na­tion­wide where vot­ers chose Repub­li­cans for Congress last year but fa­vored Demo­crat Hil­lary Clin­ton over Don­ald Trump for the pres­i­dency. Seven of those seats are in Cal­i­for­nia, and Democrats must win at least a few of them to have a shot at re­gain­ing power.

They have some rea­sons to be op­ti­mistic. There’s been a surge of en­thu­si­asm among mem­bers of the an­tiTrump “re­sis­tance” at ral­lies and town halls, as well as a bumper crop of pas­sion­ate Demo­cratic chal­lengers who have filed to run in Cal­i­for­nia. The Demo­cratic Con­gres­sional Cam­paign Com­mit­tee has launched a satel­lite of­fice in Orange County, a former bas­tion of con­ser­vatism that last year voted for a Demo­cratic pres­i­den­tial can­di­date for the first time in 80 years and is home to four of the dis­tricts they’re eye­ing.

But it might be a mis­take to as­sume that strat­egy will be suc­cess­ful in Cal­i­for­nia. Repub­li­can turnout in midterm elec­tions of­ten dwarfs Demo­cratic turnout, and the rise of mul­ti­ple vi­able can­di­dates in many of the tar­geted dis­tricts threat­ens to mire them all in costly, di­vi­sive pri­mary fights. A sam­pling of the out­comes for other races sug­gests Clin­ton’s vic­to­ries are at risk of be­ing over­played. Mean­while, fight­ing within the Cal­i­for­nia Demo­cratic Party be­tween left-lean­ing ac­tivists and the more cen­trist stal­warts who have tra­di­tion­ally had more suc­cess in swing dis­tricts could fur­ther dam­age Democrats’ chances.

If the past is pro­logue, says Rob Py­ers, re­search di­rec­tor for the non­par­ti­san elec­tion guide Cal­i­for­nia Tar­get Book, Democrats will have a hard time pick­ing up more than a cou­ple of seats in Cal­i­for­nia.

Dozens of Democrats, many of them first-time can­di­dates, have filed to run in closely watched races, rais­ing money and fur­ther split­ting the field. They run the ga­mut from more pro­gres­sive Bernie San­ders sup­port­ers to busi­ness own­ers and veter­ans, and many have del­i­cately toed the line on sin­gle-payer health­care — an is­sue quickly be­com­ing a po­ten­tial lit­mus test for Democrats. The in­ter­nal bat­tles over the state party chair­man­ship and ten­sion be­tween more tra­di­tional lib­er­als and busi­ness-aligned Democrats could threaten the unity needed to un­seat GOP mem­bers.

While they fight, some Repub­li­can in­cum­bents con­tinue to build their cam­paign war chests. Rep. Mimi Wal­ters (R-Irvine) and Rep. Ed Royce (R-Fuller­ton) have drawn more than a half-dozen chal­lengers each. Wal­ters has $1.1 mil­lion, and Royce, a com­mit­tee chair­man, has $3.1 mil­lion.

“The con­di­tions tend to fa­vor the in­cum­bents right now. There are very few in dan­ger of ac­tu­ally flip­ping,” Py­ers says.

Ig­nor­ing past voter be­hav­ior could put Democrats at risk of get­ting stuck in the same kind of bub­ble that led so many to be­lieve Clin­ton

[Democrats, would be elected pres­i­dent.

Even with the surge of Demo­cratic turnout in last year’s pres­i­den­tial elec­tion, vot­ers chose Repub­li­can in­cum­bents de­spite less en­thu­si­asm for Trump.

Democrats also can’t count on a sim­i­lar surge in midterm elec­tions. In some Cal­i­for­nia dis­tricts, the drop-off by younger and mi­nor­ity vot­ers in midterms has been known to boost the GOP’s share of votes by as much as 9 per­cent­age points, says Paul Mitchell of Po­lit­i­cal Data Inc.

Py­ers and Tar­get Book edi­tor Darry Sragow re­cently pub­lished an anal­y­sis sug­gest­ing the 2016 pres­i­den­tial elec­tion re­sults in some dis­tricts might have ac­tu­ally been flukes.

In the seven Repub­li­can­held dis­tricts in Cal­i­for­nia that chose Clin­ton, re­sults for bal­lot ini­tia­tives and statewide and pres­i­den­tial races go­ing back to 2012 sug­gest vot­ers there still lean much more con­ser­va­tive.

All seven dis­tricts sup­ported a mea­sure cham­pi­oned by anti-tax ad­vo­cates that would have re­quired voter ap­proval of rev­enue bonds. The mea­sure was de­feated statewide thanks to large swaths of more lib­eral vot­ers else­where. A ban on plas­tic bags that passed statewide was re­jected by wide mar­gins in six of the seven dis­tricts on the Demo­cratic tar­get list.

And in five of the seven dis­tricts, Clin­ton was the only Demo­cratic can­di­date to carry the dis­trict in any statewide con­test since 2012.

Repub­li­cans have also used their many wins in spe­cial elec­tions across the coun­try this year to point out that their core sup­port­ers can turn out in force when they per­ceive a threat.

And those races dif­fer from 2018 in a ma­jor way: None of the can­di­dates were run­ning against in­cum­bents, who are re­elected at least 90% of the time.

“Cal­i­for­nia Repub­li­cans run­ning up and down the state have great in­di­vid­ual brands and are hy­per­fo­cused on their dis­tricts,” says Jack Pan­dol, a spokesman for the Na­tional Repub­li­can Con­gres­sional Com­mit­tee. “I don’t take away from the Democrats that there’s en­thu­si­asm on their side. But I think what’s been demon­strated this year in the four spe­cial elec­tions is that our base can be ac­ti­vated and mo­ti­vated as well.”

Still, elec­tion watch­ers point out that re­ly­ing on past data has its lim­its.

“Ev­ery lit­tle bit of con­ven­tional wis­dom was over­turned in 2016,” says Sherry Bebitch Jeffe, a fel­low at the USC Price School of Public Pol­icy. “This is a far dif­fer­ent po­lit­i­cal land­scape than we have ever seen, and [Repub­li­cans] can’t take any­thing for granted.”

Al­though Repub­li­cans have iden­ti­fied four Democrats they want to un­seat in Cal­i­for­nia, it isn’t clear they’ll be able to play both de­fense and of­fense in a state where the GOP has strug­gled at mul­ti­ple lev­els.

If Trump’s job ap­proval rat­ings in Cal­i­for­nia re­main in the gut­ter (a re­cent poll showed just 1 in 4 Cal­i­for­ni­ans ap­prove of the job he’s do­ing), Repub­li­cans could face de­pressed turnout that will put more seats in play, says Gary Ja­cob­son, a po­lit­i­cal sci­en­tist at UC San Diego. That could worsen if the Cal­i­for­nia GOP fails to field a vi­able can­di­date for gov­er­nor and other statewide of­fices open in 2018.

The glut of promis­ing Demo­cratic can­di­dates could in­crease aware­ness and turnout among left­lean­ing vot­ers. For months, vot­ers in many GOP dis­tricts have been hold­ing “empty chair” town halls or­ga­nized by lib­eral ac­tivists, protest­ing out­side Repub­li­can mem­bers’ of­fices and reg­is­ter­ing new vot­ers.

It’s a stark con­trast from this time two years ago, when the party’s na­tional cam­paign com­mit­tee strug­gled to re­cruit can­di­dates in many of those places.

“We think that there is a per­fect storm brew­ing for Repub­li­can in­cum­bents,” says Drew Go­dinich, a Demo­cratic Con­gres­sional Cam­paign Com­mit­tee spokesman.

He, of course, says hit­ting Repub­li­can mem­bers for their sup­port of key parts of the Trump agenda, in­clud­ing votes on health­care, im­mi­gra­tion and the bor­der wall, could be dev­as­tat­ing.

“This is not go­ing to be a usual year. The en­ergy and anger is on the Democrats’ side,” Ja­cob­son of UCSD says. “If you’re ever go­ing to in­vest in a long shot, this is a good year to do it.”

Bill Clark CQ-Roll Call Inc.

AS DEMOCRATS fight to re­claim power in the House next year, GOP in­cum­bents build their cam­paign war chests. Irvine Rep. Mimi Wal­ters, who is fac­ing more than a half-dozen chal­lengers, has $1.1 mil­lion.

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