California’s tarnished Republican Party is hoping to rebound in a handful of U.S. House races but its candidates must overcome widespread loathing for President Donald Trump and voting trends that have made the nation’s most populous state an exemplar of Democratic strength.
The presidential contest is essentially over in California — Trump lost by more than 4 million votes to Hillary Clinton in 2016 and appears headed for another drubbing from Joe Biden and vice presidential nominee Kamala Harris, the home-state senator.
California's GOP has been sinking for years but the party is hoping to change course by tapping into voter frustration in a cluster of House districts lost to Democrats in 2018, including in the one-time GOP stronghold of Orange County sandwiched between Los Angeles and San Diego.
Candidates have been trying to make Sacramento’s lopsided government a defining issue, faulting the state's dominant Democrats for the homeless crisis plaguing big cities, high taxes that could soon go up again and government coronavirus orders that shuttered businesses and closed gyms, beaches and parks.
Republican chances of gaining ground remain uncertain, as early voting begins Monday for the Nov. 3 election. State Democrats tend to turn out in droves in presidential election years, and it’s not yet clear how the fight over the U.S. Supreme Court vacancy might influence who goes to the polls.
California was the launching pad for Republican Presidents Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan, and GOP nominees carried the state in nine of 10 presidential elections from 1952 to 1988. But California's politics changed with a diversifying population and the GOP's recent record speaks for itself: Republicans hold just seven of the state’s 53 House seats, and the party hasn’t won a statewide race in California since 2006.
Democrats outnumber registered Republicans by nearly 2-1 statewide and have commanding majorities in both chambers of the Legislature. In a tally released last week, Republicans were able to narrowly overtake the number of registered independents after the GOP had been pushed into humiliating third-place status. Democrats still have a wide lead.
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To win, GOP candidates have to contend with Trump leading the ticket, He is out of step with most California voters on climate change, immigration and reproductive rights. Independents who make up nearly 1-in-4 voters tend to lean Democratic, and new registrations are dominated by younger Asians and Hispanics who rank among the state's most liberal voters. And GOP candidates need to win back suburbanites who recoiled from the Trump agenda in 2018 and helped return the House to Democratic control.
Some of the seven seats the party lost two years ago will be tough to reclaim.
In Orange County’s 45th District, first-term Rep. Katie Porter has emerged as a Democratic star and fundraising powerhouse with nearly $7 million in the bank at the end of June, dwarfing the $334,000 held by GOP rival Greg Raths.
In the 49th District, a one-time Republican stronghold that runs through Orange and San Diego counties, Democrats now hold a thin registration edge, a favorable sign for freshman Democratic Rep. Mike Levin in his fight against Republican challenger Brian Maryott.
Democrats would love to retire Republican Rep. Devin Nunes, a Trump loyalist, in the Central Valley, but the 22nd District has a GOP tilt and Nunes won by 5 points in 2018.
Snapshots of key races:
A REPUBLICAN DIGS IN AT THE EDGE OF LA
In 2018 Democrat Katie Hill captured the 25th District, the last Republican-held House seat anchored in Los Angeles County. It was a short-lived celebration: She resigned last year amid a House ethics probe and Republican Mike Garcia notched a comfortable win in a May special election to fill the vacancy.
November brings a rematch between the congressman and Christy Smith, the Democratic legislator he defeated last spring. Garcia, a former Navy fighter pilot and defense industry executive, and Smith, a former school board member, together spent over $6 million by the end of June, with the final tally likely to make the race one of the most expensive in the nation.
The swing district, which includes a slice of Ventura County that is home to the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library, has a Democratic registration edge.
SHOWDOWN IN THE SALAD BOWL
Two years ago Democrat TJ Cox surprised U.S. Rep. David Valadao in the farm belt’s 21st District, ousting the Republican incumbent by 862 votes. The rematch this year is expected to be close again, despite the district’s 17-point Democratic registration edge.
Valadao endorsed Trump after withholding his backing in 2016 — a risk in a district the president lost by 15 points — but he also emphasizes he has broken with the White House at times, including criticizing the administration for family separations at the border.
Cox has been campaigning on health care and immigration reform in a district with a large Latino population. In recent years, both candidates have seen unfavorable publicity tied to their business interests. Each had about $2 million stockpiled for the race at the end of June.
SAME NAME, DIFFERENT DISTRICT
Former Republican Rep. Darrell Issa served nine terms in the coastal 49th District, and emerged as a chief antagonist of President Barack Obama when he headed the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee from 2011 to January 2015.
But Issa’s once strongly Republican district became increasingly friendly for Democrats and he nearly lost his seat in 2016 before deciding not to run in 2018. Now, he’s looking to return to Congress in the neighboring 50th District, which was held by former Republican Rep. Duncan Hunter until he resigned earlier this year after pleading guilty to a corruption charge.
The multimillionaire Issa is facing Democrat Ammar Campa-Najjar, who nearly ousted Hunter in 2018, despite the district’s Republican tilt. Issa is close to Trump and a key issue will be whether the president performs strongly again in the conservative-leaning district mainly in interior San Diego County that he carried by 15 points in 2016.
THE BEACHFRONT BRAWL
Not long ago, Republican candidates in Orange County didn’t have to agonize over the next election — its sprawling residential tracts were thick with conservative voters. But those days are gone and Hillary Clinton carried the county by nearly 9 points in 2016.
A good place to see the shifting politics is in the county’s 48th District, which includes a string of seaside communities including Laguna Beach. Democratic Rep. Harley Rouda captured the district in an upset of longtime Rep. Dana Rohrabacher in 2018, as suburban voters nationally rejected the Trump label.
This time, Rouda is in an increasingly nasty contest with Republican Michelle Steel, who heads the county Board of Supervisors. Taxes and health care have been prominent issues. Republicans hold a registration edge but the margin has been narrowing.
INSTANT REPLAY IN THE OC
Another contest from 2018 will be repeated in the 39th District, anchored in Orange County. First-term Democratic Rep. Gil Cisneros is looking to hold off Young Kim, the Republican he narrowly defeated two years ago to snatch the seat long held by Republican Rep. Ed Royce.
The district has grown more Democratic since then, with the party now holding a 4-point edge over the GOP. Kim, a former legislator who was born in South Korea and grew up in Guam, has depicted the congressman as subservient to House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi.
Cisneros, a Navy veteran and $266 million lottery jackpot winner who founded a charitable foundation with his wife, has promoted his efforts to protect health care.
REPUBLICAN ADOPTS OUTSIDER MANTLE IN FARM BELT FIGHT
In the Central Valley's 10th District, first-term Democratic Rep. Josh Harder is highlighting his work to secure funds for water projects, as well as working across party lines, in his contest against Republican Ted Howze.
Howze, a veterinarian, had trouble earlier this year, losing the support of national Republicans over derogatory online posts about Muslims and Hillary Clinton that the candidate said he did not write. He's positioned himself as an outsider running against the Democratic establishment and in recent posts has spoken out against efforts to defund police departments and echoed Trump's criticism of Democratic-led cities.
The venture capitalist Harder's campaign had about a $4 million cash advantage over Howze at the end of June.