This Year, Democrats Are Actually Fighting for California Republicans’ Seats

67 candidates have already signed up to run in 14 races.

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Every week for more than a year, protesters have gathered in front of the local offices of Rep. Devin Nunes, Rep. Dana Rohrabacher, and Rep. Darrell Issa, California Republicans who represent what are usually considered safe red districts. But as Democrats seek to retake the House of Representatives in November, their plan depends on taking the fight to California’s traditional Republican strongholds.  

The Democratic party is cautiously optimistic it can pull it off. Republicans currently occupy 14 of California’s 53 congressional districts. The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee (DCCC) is targeting 10 of them out of its “operations pod” in Orange County—the heart of Reagan country. Its juiciest targets are the “California Seven,” red districts that went for Hillary Clinton.

“It’s a pretty aggressive battleground map,” says Drew Godinich, a DCCC spokesman. “It’s a recognition of the importance of these California races to taking back the majority.” (The Democrats need to pick up 24 seats to retake the House.)

The Democrats’ optimism is based in part by the state’s changing demographics, particularly growing populations of Latinos and other ethnic groups who lean Democratic. It’s also based on the groundswell of liberal activism in red districts across the state, driven by opposition to President Donald Trump.

Democrats are not just banking on a historically unpopular president, but also the unpopularity of his signature legislation. Godinich thinks the new tax plan will be a huge liability for Republicans because it “specifically singles out California for punishment” and will hurt middle- and upper-middle class residents. Deductions for state and local taxes are now capped at $10,000, which could lead to tax hikes for residents of areas with expensive housing markets, such as California’s coastal cities, home to several contested House districts.

Other Trump policies could affect districts’ flippability. Godinich says that the president’s proposal to allow oil drilling along the California coast will face widespread opposition. “It’s another example of how the administration singled out California,” he says. And California Republicans will have to be careful about how they address the president’s hardline immigration policies, particularly in districts with large Latino populations.

Republicans, of course, see things differently. Justin Wallin, an Orange County Republican strategist and pollster, thinks the tax plan is a winner because Republicans can point to it and say, “We did something.” He believes that offshore drilling “won’t play at all,” except with environmentalists, who don’t vote Republican anyway. And if Republican candidates do oppose offshore drilling, Jason Roe, a Republican strategist in San Diego, sees it as an opportunity for them to show their independence from Trump.

“The story is that because those districts voted for Hillary over Trump, that indicates that those districts are in play. I don’t buy that story nearly as much as the Beltway buys it,” says Wallin. “The DCCC is going to put a lot of money in there. But I have no doubt the [National Republican Congressional Committee] will respond in kind.”

Yet these races are not just referendums on Trump’s scandals and most divisive policies. “The big thing to look past is the drama, and really focus on the messages that each candidate is pushing,” Wallin says. “If the messages appeal to 20 percent of the electorate—for example, if a Republican starts spending a lot of time talking about the wall, or if a Democratic candidate starts talking about Russia—you can assume they are not hitting the big issues in California right now.”

With less than eight months of campaigning left to go, here are some of the districts to watch:

Rep. Darrell Issa (District 49)

Issa, who had crushed his previous challengers by 20 to 30 points in recent elections, only eked out a single-point victory in 2016. And a month ago, the Southern California congressman announced that he’s bowing out and will not run for reelection.

While Democrats have rejoiced over the news of Issa’s retirement, some Republicans remain upbeat about keeping his seat. “Darrell stepping aside did us a favor,” says Roe. “The race became about Darrell. His weakness is he became such a polarizing figure.” With Issa gone, Republicans can run a candidate who hasn’t been tarnished by their association with Trump. In January, San Diego County Supervisor Kristin Gasper announced her candidacy for Issa’s seat as a Republican. (Roe is advising her.) In 2016, Gasper withdrew her endorsement of Trump following the release of tapes in which he bragged about sexually assaulting women. 

Rep. Devin Nunes (District 22)

Of the 10 districts the Democrats are targeting in 2018, District 22 will be one of the hardest for them to take. It’s a strong Republican seat, where Nunes has captured more than two-thirds of the vote in seven of his eight elections. But recent events—like Nunes’ controversial but ultimately insignificant memo—have put him in danger. A recent Public Policy Polling survey put him only five points ahead of a generic Democratic opponent and showed him losing ground with independents. He’s also facing a serious challenger, a 34-year-old Fresno prosecutor named Andrew Janz who has already raised nearly a million dollars.

Rep. Ed Royce (District 39)

Like Issa, Royce, the chairman of the Foreign Affairs Committee, announced in January that he won’t be running for re-election, setting up what the Los Angeles Times calls “the most competitive race in California.” So far, 14 people have announced their candidacy, including 7 Democrats and 5 Republicans. Royce took 69 percent of the vote in 2014, which dropped to 57 percent in 2016, when Hillary Clinton won his district by 9 percentage points. The district reflects California’s demographic shifts; its growing Latino and Asian populations have made it a majority-minority district.

Rep. Dana Rohrabacher (District 48)

The lawmaker Politico dubbed “Putin’s favorite congressman” has been reelected 13 times since he first took office in 1988. In 2016, he walloped his Democratic challenger by nearly 17 percentage points. According to Roe, who has seen recent internal polling, Rohrabacher still has a fair amount of support among his constituents in Orange County. “Interestingly, he’s doing pretty good,” says Roe. “When I talk to people, they say, ‘Everyone knows Dana. He’s at the Wal-Mart, the Costco, the street fairs.’ He’s always been eclectic and weird, and that’s what they like about him. They’re amused by him, not threatened by him.”

Still, Democrats think this may be his final term. Protestors, sometimes numbering in the hundreds, have been assembling outside his Orange County office every Tuesday for more than a year. His ties to Trump, his questionable relationships with individuals involved in the Russia investigations, and his early support for the Republican healthcare bill have become rallying points for his opponents. As Diana Carey, the vice chair of the Democratic Party of Orange County, told Mother Jones last June, “We have a lot of folks who said they never paid attention before, a lot of no-party-preference people who are really concerned about democracy.”

Other races

Also in the Democrats’ cross-hairs is Rep. Duncan Hunter Jr. of the 50th district, who’s under FBI investigation for allegedly using campaign funds for personal goodies like video games and taking the family rabbit on a cross-country flight. Another target is Rep. Tom McClintock, who represents the 4th district, which includes Lake Tahoe, even though he has never lived there. Now he has three Democratic women running against him.

The jungle primary

One reason for concern among the Democrats is that they are too energized. There are currently 67 Democratic candidates vying for the 14 Republican-held seats, and more may pile on before the March 9 filing deadline. “In January 2016 we were begging people to come to the ballot so at least we would have a Democratic option, and now there are all of these people running,” says the DCCC’s Godinich. This overabundance could cause some problems due to California’s “jungle primary” system, which sends the top two primary finishers to the general election, regardless of their party affiliation. Under this system, a traditionally red district could end up with two Republican candidates, especially if the Democratic primary vote splits between several candidates. But, for now, Godinich says, “Having these contested primaries overall is a good thing. They’ve been building up the volunteer infrastructure, getting people involved and excited in a place where enthusiasm never really existed for the Democrats.”

A united Democratic front will be key to winning districts that still favor Republicans. Trump and the lawmakers who enabled him have given Democrats some common enemies, and so far, Godinich says, they have “kept their fire trained on Republicans.” But Roe already sees the intraparty fighting beginning. “That common enemy and the protests gave them purpose and focus and minimized the intramural squabbles,” he says. “That’s coming to an end. Now this shit is real, and people gotta start laying their markers down.”