Political Connections

California Holds the Key to the House

Democrats see a chance to pick up seats after all seven Republicans in districts carried by Clinton voted for the GOP’s controversial health care bill.

Rep. Dana Rohrabacher
AP Photo/Jacquelyn Martin
Ronald Brownstein
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Ronald Brownstein
May 24, 2017, 8 p.m.

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.

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