About the only good thing you could say about California Republicans' election night in 2012 is that from adversity comes opportunity. Among other negative results for the party, three Democratic House candidates -- Reps. Ami Bera, Raul Ruiz, and Scott Peters -- unseated long-term Republican incumbents and a fourth (Rep. Julia Brownley) captured a longtime GOP-held open district, providing Democrats with fully half of their eight-seat gain in the House of Representatives.
The losses stung, but Golden State Republicans do see numerous opportunities amidst the wreckage of last year. Outside of the nine Democratic-held congressional districts that Mitt Romney carried in 2012, the new Democratic seats in California offer House Republicans some of their best chances to play offense in the next election. With a more Republican-friendly midterm electorate and, importantly, a new crop of candidates -- potentially including an openly gay former city councilman and a state legislator who once resigned his leadership position after bucking the party -- optimistic GOP consultants like their chances at making gains in the state in 2014, though Democrats remain confident they can hold the line.
"I'm guessing we'll have three or four (pickups) at the end of the day," GOP strategist Duane Dichiara said. "I wouldn't be surprised to win three or four," said Republican consultant Dave Gilliard.
One central reason is that they are looking forward to competing at midterm turnout levels, when fewer Democratic-friendly minority voters are likely to cast ballots. "Some seats will continue to change in demographic ways that will probably get tougher for Republicans, but especially in the seats we lost, those members should all be immediately vulnerable in a midterm turnout dynamic," said GOP consultant Rob Stutzman. That's enough to give your generic Republican candidate a near-automatic bump. But the GOP also may have 2014 candidates better equipped to succeed in swing districts than the ousted veterans who lost the seats last year. The districts of defeated GOP Reps. Dan Lungren, Mary Bono Mack, and Brian Bilbray all transformed underneath them over the past decade -- with redistricting giving them a final push -- from safe GOP seats to battlegrounds. Their 22 terms of combined experience didn't include success defending battleground turf, and Democrats tarred each of them as tools of Washington special interests during the 2012 campaign.
Spanish-speaking second-term GOP Rep. Jeff Denham, who represented Democratic-leaning territory when he was in the state legislature, was the only targeted California Republican to hang on in the general election, even though President Obama carried his district. "Denham managed to hold on mostly because he's a really good candidate," said Gilliard, Denham's consultant, and he and other Republicans think the new crop of candidates might bring more Denham-like qualities to the table.
The National Republican Congressional Committee has already conducted polling testing former San Diego City Councilman Carl DeMaio, who is openly gay, as a "new generation Republican" more interested in fiscal issues than social ones, Roll Call reported earlier this month. DeMaio looks set to run against Peters, having narrowly lost a bid for mayor last year. Meanwhile, state Assemblyman Brian Nestande has already filed to take on Ruiz. Nestande also has a story to tell about being a different kind of Republican: He resigned his Assembly leadership position last year after standing against the rest of his party on a business tax vote.
Even a former congressman considering a run against Bera, Republican Doug Ose (one of several contemplating a campaign in that district), "was kind of a quirky one with a story to tell about being different, even as an older white male," said Stutzman, who worked for Lungren in 2012 and could work with Ose if he runs. Ose built a personal fortune in real estate and storage units and honored a three-term pledge he made when he first ran for Congress 15 years ago.
There are dangers, of course, to being too different: As some California Republicans try to rebrand their party around a Hispanic gubernatorial candidate, former lieutenant governor Abel Maldonado, some conservatives still seethe over a key tax vote he gave Democrats in 2009. Ose has run into trouble in primaries before, and no candidate is guaranteed a path to the general election.
One national Republican strategist focused on California said there is no conscious effort to "repackage" the GOP with its recruits. But they might be better equipped to answer a certain key question than last year’s incumbents. "The two questions I ask candidates are: Why are you running, and tell me one thing you disagree with your party on," the strategist said. "It's not because we want you running against the party, but because people are going to demand something. It happens with Democrats too."
Democrats don't dispute that hanging onto their big gains will be difficult in California. The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee included the four freshmen mentioned earlier, plus veteran Rep. Lois Capps, in its initial list of 26 vulnerable incumbents. The party and its allies have already been aggressive about defending their new territory with big early fundraising and other action. A Peters spokesperson responded vigorously to news of DeMaio's potential bid, and a labor group is already running a mail campaign that's targeted at one of Nestande's legislative positions -- but has the same look as a campaign ad.
But the DCCC, for one, also looks at Republican recruiting and sees a long list of white men open to attacks on conservative votes accumulated in federal, state, and local government. (Kim Vann may run again versus Democratic Rep. John Garamendi, but that district is more of a reach for the GOP -- though possibly one the party should have focused on more last year.) "Even a wing and a prayer won't help House Republicans sell these candidates when they're running repeat, failed candidates who aren't any different than the failed Republican Congress that voters hate," DCCC deputy executive director Jesse Ferguson said. Democrats still have opportunities to play more offense in California, in districts that voted with Obama -- just like the ones they'll defend. "These are districts that fundamentally lean a little bit in our direction," Ferguson added. "And the incumbents have done a good job of fitting their districts."
That adds an element of urgency to the GOP's California efforts in 2014. Combine the rapid pace of demographic change in the state's battleground districts and a set of young incumbents, and some of those new Democratic districts could become permanent ones. "2014 is the year to win those back," Gilliard said. "The first reelect for anybody is always the toughest. ... If we don't win those seats back, we face another presidential year, we face incumbents increasingly entrenched in these districts. We're just not going to have opportunities before the lines are drawn again."
A lot has to go right for Republicans' happiness in November 2014 to match their optimism now. After all, many in their party predicted better results in 2012. "This is hardly the first cycle that Republicans have talked about making major gains in California," said Andy Stone, the spokesman for Democratic-aligned House Majority PAC. "It's never happened in the past."
In 2014, Republicans hope a new set of candidates can build on the foundation of a friendlier electorate and change that trend.