Against the Grain

In California, Democrats Winning the Battle of the Bases

Democrats need to net 23 seats to win back control of the House. They’re well-positioned to hit nearly one-third of that target in California alone.

Katie Porter, challenger in California's 45th Congressional District, at a campaign event on Sept. 15
AP Photo/Chris Carlson
Oct. 21, 2018, 8:48 a.m.

TUSTIN, Calif.—With its sun-soaked weather, gorgeous beaches, and a red-hot economy, you wouldn’t expect Southern California to be a hotbed of political anger. Indeed, there’s been a recent exodus of D.C.-based political professionals arriving in the Golden State—from the progressive podcast bros at Pod Save America to GOP oppo maven Tim Miller—looking to find paradise thousands of miles from the swamp.

But on the ground, Southern California is the epicenter of a political storm fueled by disillusioned voters from both parties. Democrats looking to win back control of the House are counting on white-hot anger against President Trump translating into a blue tidal wave swamping the once-dominant Republican Party—particularly in the conservative Orange County suburbs. Democrats are aggressively contesting six Republican-held seats in the state, with several others lingering as outside opportunities.

In the eyes of Republicans, the midterm election is a desperate last gasp to prevent California from becoming a socialist nightmare. They’re simply hoping to roll back an unpopular gas tax and prevent a Democratic supermajority in the state legislature. As John Cox, the GOP’s nominee for governor, put it to National Journal: “The California dream is dead. That’s a crime. And it’s government that’s driving up the cost.”

Both sides feel under siege—and, to borrow a line from the Hollywood classic Network, they’re mad as hell and can’t take it anymore.

“The economy is booming but it feels like everyone else is getting all the good stuff. That’s how Donald Trump got elected,” said former Democratic state senator Josh Newman, who was ousted in a June recall election over his vote for a gas tax. “The anti-tax impulse feeds into a widespread skepticism about government but that’s going up against the frustration with the status quo in D.C., which is very real.”

Two of the Democrats’ get-out-the-vote efforts in Orange County on Saturday underscored the high stakes for the party in the region. Newman spent Saturday rallying Democrats behind Gil Cisneros, a Navy-veteran-turned-lottery winner running in the district of retiring GOP Rep. Ed Royce. The event, which drew dozens of volunteers from across the region, featured Olympic star Michelle Kwan touting Cisneros’s candidacy and an exuberant former candidate (Phil Janowicz) urging attendees to do ”the wave” to bring in blue vibes across the region.

“This is like Luke Skywalker in the Death Star kind of stuff. We’re going to look back in November, and either there’s going to be a very narrow majority of Democrats in the House or there will be a depressing constant majority of Republicans with two more years of the same bullshit,” Newman said to the attendees. (“Sorry if there are kids here,” he quickly apologized.)

While the diverse district backed Hillary Clinton, Cisneros had been fending off allegations of sexual harassment from a Democratic activist. The woman recently retracted her accusation but GOP attack ads referencing the scandal have taken their toll on the front-runner. Cisneros’s campaign manager said their latest poll showed the Democrat up one point, well within the margin of error. In his speech to the canvassers, Newman acknowledged that Gil’s negatives are “sky-high” because of all the negative attacks.

Cisneros’s Republican opponent, Young Kim, is one of the GOP’s stronger recruits of the cycle. A longtime Royce aide, she would be the first Korean-American woman elected to Congress. She’s been trying to showcase her independent streak, even as Democrats have been making her out to be a Trump lackey. “What has she done? Young Kim’s never done a damn thing other than being part of the Republican conspiracy,” Newman said.

Kim’s campaign spokesman said all of her events this past week were closed to the press—and declined to make her available for an interview.

One of the challenges that Democrats are facing in the district is lackluster enthusiasm among Hispanics, who make up nearly one-third of the registered voters. Clinton’s healthy advantage was fueled by healthy turnout in Latino communities, which is unlikely to be replicated in this midterm election. Kim, meanwhile, is benefiting from enthusiasm in the district’s sizable Asian-American communities. She’s trying to build an unlikely coalition of conservative Trump enthusiasts and immigrant communities familiar with her work on their behalf.

If the Cisneros-Kim race has eluded the blue national environment, the neighboring showdown between Rep. Mimi Walters and Democratic law professor Katie Porter has been a battle of the bases. Walters, representing a conservative-minded district that narrowly backed Hillary Clinton in 2016, is a reliable supporter of the Trump administration. She voted for the president’s tax cut legislation and voted for the GOP’s efforts at Obamacare rollback—and derisively refers to her opponent as “liberal Katie Porter.”

Porter, a protege of Elizabeth Warren, was the progressive favorite in June’s all-party primary. She’s expressed support for a single-payer health care system and regularly inveighs against the outsized influence of big corporations. But she’s been attempting to move to Walters’s right on taxes, arguing that the congresswoman’s vote for Trump’s tax cuts effectively adds a burden on the district’s upper-middle class voters by lowering the amount of the mortgage deduction. She also aired an ad announcing her opposition to the Democratic-backed gas tax, inoculating herself from criticism that she’s a tax-and-spend liberal.

Republicans question her authenticity, given her progressive background. “Liberal Katie Porter does not have a record to run on and so she appeals to every special -nterest group she talks to when she tries to get votes,” Walters said in an interview at her campaign headquarters. Carl DeMaio, a former GOP congressional candidate who is organizing repeal of the gas tax, added: “We’ve asked Katie Porter multiple times for her help on the [repeal] campaign, and she’s refused. She didn’t even sign the ballot measure.”

Appearing at a reproductive freedom rally at her campaign headquarters Saturday, Porter sounded every bit the pugnacious progressive, touting her support for abortion rights and leading the crowd in “bye-bye Mimi!” chants. “Use your voice to fight for our values!” Porter said. She only spoke for three minutes, and hustled to her car after the event ended.

When this reporter asked her about her position on taxes, she declined comment. “I’m glad that you’re here. There are lots of volunteers for you to talk to,” Porter said. Porter spokesman Luis Vizcaino said: “It was Mimi who raised taxes to benefit Donald Trump’s tax scam.”

But despite questions about Porter’s progressivism, voters in this affluent suburban district are much more concerned about Trump’s demeanor in office. One of the attendees at Porter’s rally was a Walters voter so disgusted with her unwillingness to disagree with Trump that he was knocking on doors for the Democrat. “I thought she would have had more independence on issues that matter to voters in this district. Instead, she’s voted in lockstep with the Republican leadership. Or at least I thought she’d show some disapproval about Trump’s tone on immigrants and women’s issues,” said businessman Stergios Theologides. “It’s irresponsible.”

Another man, who described himself as a lifelong Republican, said he wasn’t sold on Porter but he “couldn’t stand by” and allow Trump to have unchecked power in office. “This is more about Trump than it is about Katie,” said Richard Lincourt, a local school employee. “This is not what I wanted to do, but I have to do it.” He also cited Walters’s unwillingness to hold town halls to explain her voting record to the public.

Public polls show Porter pulling away in the race—a recent New York Times/Siena College poll showed the Democrat up 5 points—and there have been rumblings that outside Republican groups will stop spending on Walters’s behalf. (Walters’s campaign, in response, released an internal poll showing her ahead 50-46 percent.) Democrats are growing bullish about their prospects, given that the traditional GOP playbook hitting her as an extremist hasn’t paid dividends. All told, Porter’s campaign and outside Democratic groups have spent or reserved $6.2 million on the race, while Walters and her allies have invested just over $5.5 million.

“[Democrats] winning in a district like California-45 means everything has to go right,” said Porter adviser Sean Clegg, a former Los Angeles deputy mayor and veteran California political strategist. “It’s the district that proves the hypothesis that Trump has problems with college-educated voters—that was true in 2016 and it’s driving a disalignment.” This is one of the 25 GOP-held seats that Clinton carried in 2016, and Democratic polling in the district has shown the president’s disapproval rating consistently above 50 percent.

Shut out of the Senate race and trailing badly in the governor’s race, Republicans have resorted to running against the unpopular gas tax to energize their voters in the state. DeMaio even suggested that congressional Republicans were blowing an opportunity to make their races all about the issue. “In California, cost of living is king. Republicans have missed an opportunity to make a cost-of-living case, and it’s ripe in California,” said DeMaio. “I get there’s a national challenge for Republicans but that’s all the more reason to focus resources on the core issues that will allow you to reach those [swing] voters.”

But even the Democrat who lost his state-senate seat because of voter anger on taxes is skeptical that the midterms will be about fiscal policy. “It really is a referendum on Donald Trump and they’re trying to shift that back on taxes,” said Newman. “That’s going to be really hard to do in this environment.”

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