Despite its size, California has become little more than a fundraising stop in national elections because it has grown so reliably Democratic over the past two decades. But the razor-thin vote in the House to repeal and replace the Affordable Care Act has moved the state into an unaccustomed position: ground zero in next year’s battle for control of Congress.
Even before the vote, the state began registering on the 2018 radar because seven of its House Republicans represent districts that backed Hillary Clinton over Donald Trump. That’s nearly one-third of the Republicans in districts carried by Clinton.
When all seven unexpectedly voted for the GOP health care bill, Democrats saw a path to capture the 24 seats the party needs to regain a House majority. “They are going to have to take a big chunk of these seats,” said Bill Carrick, a longtime Southern California-based Democratic strategist. “If you don’t win seats here … then you have to chase Southern seats and rural Midwestern seats.”
The unanimous support from the “California Seven” for the deeply controversial repeal bill was stunning in two respects. First, it set them apart from the 16 other Republicans in Clinton districts, only seven of whom supported the bill. (The California bloc may have partly reflected personal loyalty to House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy of Bakersfield.)
Second, those repeal votes came even though nearly 4 million Californians gained coverage under the Affordable Care Act, and the number of uninsured dropped by better than half, more than in any other large state. California adults are now far less likely than people in demographically similar Texas and Florida to report difficulty paying medical bills or delaying needed care because of cost, according to a Commonwealth Fund report.
The California Seven represent two broad geographic areas. Five of them hold seats in Southern California: Reps. Ed Royce, Mimi Walters, and Dana Rohrabacher in Orange County; Rep. Darrell Issa in a district that straddles Orange and San Diego counties; and Rep. Steve Knight in the northern Los Angeles exurbs. Reps. Jeff Denham and David Valadao represent seats in the agricultural Central Valley.
Privately, Democrats acknowledge that allowing all seven to survive in 2016 was a missed opportunity. With Trump’s insular nationalism deeply unpopular in global-facing California, Clinton won the state by more than any Democrat since Franklin Roosevelt in 1936—and became the first party nominee since FDR to carry Orange County, once a conservative bastion. The SoCal districts held by Walters, Issa, Rohrabacher, and Royce were among the 30 nationwide where Trump’s performance deteriorated most from Mitt Romney’s in 2012. Clinton also routed Trump by over 15 points in Valadao’s district and beat him soundly in Knight’s. (She carried Denham’s seat only narrowly.)
Yet Democrats last year mounted serious, well-funded challenges only against Knight, Issa, and Denham. Democrats should be able to recruit more consistently strong candidates for 2018 because the state filing deadline for last year’s election, in March, fell before it was clear Trump would win the GOP nomination. And, especially after the health care vote, these races are guaranteed to draw more local and national media and fundraising attention than in 2016.
With the state trending so Democratic, Republicans in the California Seven districts have been trying to make their races all about local issues. Even Democrats acknowledge that several of the Republicans have effectively connected themselves to their districts. That’s especially true for Valadao and Denham, whose districts have voted Democratic in all three presidential races since 2008. Knight and Issa also tried to establish distance from Trump by supporting an independent counsel on Russian election meddling before the Justice Department named former FBI Director Robert Mueller.
But maintaining separation from Trump will grow more difficult for the California Seven as they cast votes on Trump priorities, like the deeply conservative budget he released Tuesday. “In ’16, polling showed voters separated Republican candidates from Trump, and that helped all of these incumbents,” said Kevin Spillane, a California GOP consultant. “Now Trump [will] be a central factor in these campaigns.”
The California Seven will benefit in 2018 if turnout among strongly Democratic minorities and young people continues its usual falloff from presidential elections. But Census figures show that in almost all of these districts, the percentage of minorities and college-educated whites—two groups persistently hostile to Trump—is growing: Minorities now represent over half the population in the Valadao, Denham, Royce, and Knight seats; just under half in Walters’s; and around two-fifths in Issa’s and Rohrabacher’s. “These districts aren’t the districts most of them got elected in,” Carrick noted.
From its voters through its elected officials, no state has expressed more vehement opposition to Trump than California. And now, unexpectedly, no state has a greater opportunity to empower Democrats to hobble his agenda by winning back the House of Representatives.