In the 10 most com­pet­i­tive GOP-held dis­tricts, not one chal­lenger has ever served in elected pub­lic of­fice

The Mercury News - - Front Page - By Casey Tolan ctolan@ba­yare­anews­

IRVINE >> When Fran Sdao, the chair of the Orange County Demo­cratic Party, first heard con­gres­sional can­di­date Gil Cis­neros giv­ing a speech last year, she went up to him af­ter to ask, “Are you sure you want to be do­ing this?”

It was a fair ques­tion: Cis­neros, a for­mer Navy of­fi­cer, had never run for of­fice be­fore. “He seemed a lit­tle un­com­fort­able — it didn’t come nat­u­rally to him,” Sdao said. And, af­ter win­ning $266 mil­lion in the lot­tery, it wasn’t as if he needed a new job.

Now, as the bat­tle for Congress hinges on vul­ner­a­ble Repub­li­can-held seats across Cal­i­for­nia, Democrats are bank­ing their hopes for a blue wave on a long slate of po­lit­i­cal new­com­ers like Cis­neros.

Not one of the Democrats run­ning in the Golden State’s 10 most com­pet­i­tive GOP-held dis­tricts has ever served in elected pub­lic of­fice — and all but one are ap­pear­ing on a bal­lot for the first time. They’re run­ning against far more sea­soned Repub­li­cans, both in­cum­bents and, in two open-seat races, cur­rent and for­mer elected of­fi­cials.

“I think that be­ing a bit naive is good be­cause you may not fully ap­pre­ci­ate all the chal­lenges — you march right through them.”

— Har­ley Rouda, a busi­ness­man who’s run­ning against Rep. Dana Rohrabacher in the 48th Dis­trict

This con­trast has shaped races up and down the state, let­ting rel­a­tively un­known Demo­cratic can­di­dates claim the man­tle of po­lit­i­cal out­siders as Repub­li­cans try to de­fine them in vot­ers’ minds with scathing at­tack ads. And the out­comes in these dis­tricts, from the nut and cit­rus or­chards of the Cen­tral Val­ley to the in­creas­ingly di­verse sub­urbs of Orange County, could de­cide which party con­trols the House.

“This year will be a real test of the

ap­peal of new can­di­dates,” said Jack Pit­ney, a po­lit­i­cal sci­ence pro­fes­sor at Clare­mont McKenna Col­lege and a for­mer Repub­li­can strate­gist, who said it’s un­usual to see so many green can­di­dates on the bal­lot in the most cru­cial races.

More first-time can­di­dates are tak­ing the plunge around the coun­try this year, but Cal­i­for­nia stands out. Ac­cord­ing to a Bay Area News Group anal­y­sis, 25 of the Demo­cratic nom­i­nees in the most com­pet­i­tive 61 GOP-held House seats out­side of Cal­i­for­nia are first-timers, com­pared with nine of the 10 Democrats in the Golden State’s mar­quee races.

Most of the po­lit­i­cal new­bies, who in­clude a for­mer na­tional se­cu­rity aide who worked in Iraq, a law pro­fes­sor who stud­ied un­der Sen. El­iz­a­beth War­ren, and a ven­ture cap­i­tal in­vestor who helped fund Blue Apron, cite Pres­i­dent Trump’s vic­tory as the wake-up call that in­spired them to run.

“I had never as­pired to be a politi­cian,” Cis­neros said af­ter a cam­paign event in a vol­un­teer’s back­yard last month. But while he’s less pol­ished on the stump than his GOP op­po­nent, for­mer Assem­bly­woman Young Kim, “It’s not like I’m just walk­ing in off the street,” he ar­gued, cit­ing his mil­i­tary ser­vice, phi­lan­thropy work and role on an Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion arts com­mis­sion.

Many of Cal­i­for­nia’s in­play dis­tricts have been Repub­li­can turf for years, so there wasn’t a large bench of Demo­cratic of­fi­cials wait­ing in the wings to run for Congress. In ad­di­tion, new rules passed in 2012 eas­ing lim­its on how long leg­is­la­tors can stay in their job re­duced the in­cen­tive for some mem­bers of the As­sem­bly and Se­nate to try swap­ping Sacra­mento for Wash­ing­ton, D.C.

The first-time can­di­dates all sur­vived hard-fought pri­maries, in sev­eral cases de­feat­ing lo­cal elected of­fi­cials and politi­cians who had run in the dis­tricts pre­vi­ously. That’s helped them grow into their roles, Sdao and other ob­servers said.

“I think that be­ing a bit naive is good, be­cause you may not fully ap­pre­ci­ate all the chal­lenges — you march right through them,” said Har­ley Rouda, a busi­ness­man and for­mer Repub­li­can who’s run­ning against Rep. Dana Rohrabacher in a coastal Orange County dis­trict that catches some of the best surf­ing waves in the coun­try. The state Demo­cratic Party en­dorsed one of his pri­mary ri­vals, and he got on the bal­lot by the barest of mar­gins only af­ter a vote-count­ing process that stretched on for two weeks and five days.

Rouda and the other new Democrats come without the vot­ing records and other po­lit­i­cal bag­gage of their GOP op­po­nents. As she went door-to-door in a tran­quil Irvine neigh­bor­hood on a re­cent Satur­day, walk­ing by plug-in elec­tric cars and front lawn cacti, law pro­fes­sor Katie Porter made sure to tell ev­ery voter that her op­po­nent, Rep. Mimi Wal­ters, “voted 99 per­cent of the time with Don­ald Trump.”

The first-time can­di­dates also ar­gue they’re less be­holden to the state’s Demo­cratic es­tab­lish­ment than they would be if they had worked their way up through the party ma­chin­ery or spent years in Sacra­mento. That’s made it eas­ier for some of them to dif­fer­en­ti­ate them­selves with stances like op­pos­ing Cal­i­for­nia’s re­cent gas tax hike, which was cham­pi­oned by Gov. Jerry Brown, or call­ing for new lead­er­ship to re­place House Mi­nor­ity Leader Nancy Pelosi.

Still, their lack of an elec­toral his­tory gives Repub­li­cans a bet­ter op­por­tu­nity to de­fine them in vot­ers’ minds than if they were ex­pe­ri­enced of­fi­cials with more es­tab­lished name recog­ni­tion.

The Con­gres­sional Lead­er­ship Fund, a PAC as­so­ci­ated with House Speaker Paul Ryan, has spent mil­lions of dol­lars bash­ing them with at­tack ads, la­bel­ing Los An­ge­les County Demo­crat Katie Hill “im­ma­ture,” paint­ing the Cen­tral Val­ley’s Josh Harder as a “Bay Area lib­eral,” and, most dam­ag­ingly, shin­ing light on sex­ual ha­rass­ment al­le­ga­tions against Cis­neros. (The woman who ac­cused Cis­neros of ha­rass­ment has since re­canted, call­ing her ac­cu­sa­tion a “huge mis­un­der­stand­ing.”)

The PAC “went on air early to de­fine first-time Cal­i­for­nia can­di­dates and put them on de­fense,” said Court­ney Alexan­der, a spokes­woman for the group. “We have been able to set the terms of each race, and Demo­cratic can­di­dates have been forced to spend their money early in or­der to re­spond to our ads.”

Sev­eral of the new can­di­dates also have been bruised by gaffes that more ex­pe­ri­enced cam­paign­ers might have avoided — like when Harder was caught on video agree­ing to sup­port tax­payer-funded abor­tion through the “full nine terms.” He later said he mis­un­der­stood the ques­tion and sup­ports cur­rent law al­low­ing women to get an abor­tion up to 24 weeks of preg­nancy.

More­over, polls have found that in the Trump era, Golden State vot­ers do value elected ex­pe­ri­ence. Sixty-two per­cent of likely vot­ers in a Pub­lic Pol­icy In­sti­tute of Cal­i­for­nia sur­vey in Fe­bru­ary pre­ferred a statewide can­di­date to have pre­vi­ously served in elected of­fice, while just 31 per­cent said it was more im­por­tant to have ex­pe­ri­ence run­ning a busi­ness.

But so far, the po­lit­i­cal novices are hold­ing their own. They’ve out­raised their Repub­li­can op­po­nents in al­most ev­ery dis­trict, some rak­ing in record­break­ing sums or spend­ing mil­lions on their own cam­paigns. And re­cent polls have shown tied races or Democrats ahead in a half­dozen dis­tricts.

They’re also re­ject­ing some tra­di­tional norms of how to run for of­fice. Porter, for ex­am­ple, makes a point of bring­ing her three kids to cam­paign events. When she goes door-to-door can­vass­ing, her 12-year-old son Luke helps en­ter vot­ers’ in­for­ma­tion into the cam­paign app, while her 6-year-old daugh­ter Betsy runs ahead to knock on the next door.

For fe­male can­di­dates, “There’s his­tor­i­cally been a school of thought that you should never men­tion your chil­dren and they should never be seen on the cam­paign trail, or it in­vites ques­tions about how you’re bal­anc­ing work and fam­ily,” Porter said. “I think it’s best to show peo­ple how you’re do­ing it ... and my kids have en­joyed it way more than I ex­pected.”

At a crowded of­fice open­ing party for Hill — whose dis­trict in­cludes Ron­ald Rea­gan’s gravesite — vol­un­teers ar­gued that the 30-year-old non­profit ex­ec­u­tive didn’t need elected ex­pe­ri­ence. Judy Mayer, a Simi Val­ley re­tiree, said she liked Hill be­cause of her per­sonal ex­pe­ri­ences, like deal­ing with hun­dreds of thou­sands of dol­lars in med­i­cal debt and an un­planned preg­nancy. “She’s not a typ­i­cal politi­cian,” Mayer said.

All of the first-time can­di­dates are learn­ing just how un­pre­dictable the cam­paign trail can be. On a re­cent Satur­day af­ter­noon, Demo­crat Mike Levin set off up High­way 1 to knock on vot­ers’ doors in his Orange and San Diego County dis­trict, with a vol­un­teer driv­ing and a re­porter in the back seat. But the group was stymied when they got to the locked en­trance of the ex­clu­sive Niguel Shores gated com­mu­nity.

When an­other car pulled up, Levin and com­pany swerved to tail­gate in be­hind it. It didn’t work: The ac­cess bar fell down, smack­ing the top of their car, and spikes shot up from the en­trance­way, slic­ing through the ve­hi­cle’s back tires.

“Oh my God,” Levin ex­claimed.

The car slid to a halt on a man­i­cured block look­ing out over the Pa­cific — just across the street from a house with a bright blue Mike Levin yard sign out front. Its own­ers, Hal and Mary Schaf­fer, were de­lighted to see the can­di­date knock­ing at their gate, and helped him and his team ar­range a tow.

“Any­thing can hap­pen in a cam­paign,” Levin said later, as he hus­tled to his next event. “That’s what makes it in­ter­est­ing.”


Pres­i­dent Barack Obama, cen­ter, is flanked by Cal­i­for­nia Demo­cratic con­gres­sional can­di­dates Josh Harder, from left, TJ Cox, Gil Cis­neros, Katie Porter, Har­ley Rouda and Mike Levin dur­ing a cam­paign event in Ana­heim in Septem­ber.


For­mer Vice Pres­i­dent Joe Bi­den, cen­ter, joins Demo­cratic con­gres­sional can­di­dates Katie Porter (45th Dis­trict), left, and TJ Cox (21st Dis­trict) at a midterm elec­tions rally at Cal State Fullerton last week.


Demo­cratic con­gres­sional can­di­date Katie Hill, left, speaks with vol­un­teers for her cam­paign at an of­fice open­ing party in Simi Val­ley in Septem­ber.

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