How To Blow Nine Congressional Districts

Tony Quinn
Political Analyst

It was quite a feat.  Congressional Republicans had a chance to win nine Democratic-held House seats in California and blew every one of them – actually ending up down one seat in an election when nationally the House GOP has its largest class since the Hoover Administration.  How they blew these seats is a story in itself.

On Election Night, an unknown and unfunded Republican farmer from Fresno named Johnny Tacherra was leading veteran Democratic Congressman Jim Costa by 700 votes.  He eventually lost, but only by 1,300 votes.  To his north, unknown and unfunded Republican Tony Amador held Democratic Rep. Jerry McNerney to just 52 percent.  Every expert called that race safe for McNerney; it was not.  And in the counties north and west of Sacramento, another veteran, Democratic Rep. John Garamendi, held off retiring GOP Assemblyman Dan Logue with just 53 percent.

What do these three races have in common?  Each was in California parched Central Valley where farm folks believe, with good reason, that urban Democrats and environmentalists are starving them for water during the drought while taking care of the cities and the fish.

That this was a massive issue should have been clear to GOP leaders, but it was not.  All House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Bakersfield) had to do was step outside his front door and he could have seen what the drought was doing.  It was a huge political issue totally missed by congressional Republicans.  A little GOP money could have gone along ways in these three Central Valley districts.

So was turnout, a huge headache for Democrats throughout this election cycle.  In San Bernardino County, Republicans abandoned the Democratic-leaning seat being vacated by GOP Rep. Gary Miller.  Washington DC pundits declared it safe for the Democrats, but GOP candidate Paul Chabot, with no outside help and little money, managed to gain 48 percent of the vote, and heavily favored Democrat Pete Aguilar won with just 52 percent.

Just to the south, in Riverside County, the GOP also abandoned its candidate, Assemblyman Brian Nestande, who was facing off against first term Democratic Rep. Raul Ruiz.  The Washington money crowd never liked Nestande, so he went unfunded, but managed 46 percent against the lavishly funded Ruiz who had so much money he was able to advertize on Los Angeles television.

Both the Miller and Ruiz seats showed high Latino turnout in 2012, but all indications are that Latino Democrats stayed home in 2014; the GOP had an advantageous voter mix in these districts in 2014 but did nothing to take advantage of it.  The same was true in the Santa Barbara district of Democratic Rep. Lois Capps, who beat a perennial GOP candidate, Chris Mitchum, with just 52 percent.  Democrats actually figured out that she was in trouble and rushed money to Capps the end; Republicans did nothing for Mitchum.

What about the three districts in which congressional Republicans did spend money?  Their best shot was in San Diego, but here the loss was not the fault of GOP fundraising or targeting.  The Republican candidate was former city councilman Carl DeMaio.  He ran for San Diego mayor in 2012 and carried the area within the 52nd Congressional district while losing city wide to Democratic Mayor Bob Filner, who was later forced from office by a sex scandal.

Democrat Scott Peters won the 52nd District in 2012, but in 2013, the Republican candidate for mayor to succeed Filner carried this congressional district with 62 percent.  This looked like an absolute shoo-in pick-up for the Republicans.  So it was until a former staff member accused DeMaio of sexual harassment.  DeMaio denied it but then just before the election another staff member came forward and made similar charges.  Despite a largely Republican turnout this November, DeMaio was swamped in the late ballots as voters decided there must be some fire where there was this much smoke.  In the end DeMaio lost by 6,000 votes.

GOP leaders had recruited GOP Assemblyman Jeff Gorell to give up his safe Assembly seat for a shot at freshman Congresswoman Julia Brownley, who had carpetbagged into a marginal Ventura County district and had been carried into office in the 2012 Obama landside.  Brownley knew she was in trouble and the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee rushed to her defense with $1.7 million in  advertizing that among other things called Gorell a lobbyist (which he never was) and claimed he strutted around Sacramento taking gifts and travel from oil and tobacco companies.  Actually Gorell spent most of his first Assembly term as a Naval Reserve officer in Afghanistan.

But the Republican congressional committees and GOP PACs never adequately responded to the Democratic assault, and Gorell did not have enough money to match Brownley’s millions and the outside spending on her behalf.  When GOP groups finally did engage, it was too little and too late.  Gorell lost by 49 percent to 51 percent for Brownley.

Finally, there is the $19 million dollar campaign where the GOP outside groups did engage to the tune of $7 million, and managed to waste much of it.  This was Democratic Rep Ami Bera against former GOP Rep. Doug Ose in the Sacramento suburbs.  After two full weeks of counting late ballots Bera beat Ose by 1,432 votes out of 180,000 votes cast.

Republican spending on Ose’s behalf began in the early fall with a $900,000 television buy by Karl Rove’s Crossroads GPS hitting Bera for his support of Obamacare.  But the ads were cookie cutter spots that could have run anywhere, and were not tailored to California.

Obamacare is not the issue in California it is elsewhere for two reasons; Bera was not in Congress when it passed and Covered California, the Obamacare California exchange, has covered most people who lost their insurance under the initial plan.  Focusing on Obamacare in California was a huge waste of money, as the final results showed.

The Ose campaign and the national Republicans had another problem; no obvious issues against Bera as he had carefully voted for several Republican bills, such as if you like your doctor you can keep your doctor, knowing they would never pass the Senate.  Ose thus was not able to make enough of a contrast, and the real issue between them, the fact Ose would be in the majority and able to do more for Sacramento, was never fully developed.

But Bera and the national Democrats, as in the Gorell race, did develop their theme, and it was that Ose had personally enriched himself while in Congress from 1998 to 2004.  Anyone who knows Ose knows this is patently false, but it was never adequately answered; The Ose campaign forgot the James Carville rule of politics, never let an attack go unanswered.  In the end, the voters were flooded with a message that Ose was only in politics for himself.

Three structural reasons also contributed to the Republican losses in several of these districts.

  • Republicans have let their registration collapse, especially in suburban districts.  Had Gorell and Ose been running with the Republican numbers in these districts when the Redistricting Commission drew them, they would have won.
  • Republicans have no late ballot program; Democrats are masters at awakening their voters on Monday and Tuesday and making sure they get their absentee ballots in; Republicans made little effort to encourage their less interested voters to cast their mail ballots.  In the end thousands of GOP mail-in ballots were never mailed.
  • Republicans spent nothing on their statewide candidates, so there was no GOP enthusiasm to get out and vote, other than what could be ginned up by local campaigns.  It was not enough.

Republicans did very well in the legislative races, making important gains.  That they failed in every single congressional race is a testament to the lack of knowledge of the nuances of California on the part of the national party, and their failure at the basic mechanics of winning close elections.  This was the year for big Republican gains in Congress and in the end they got nothing.

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