California: Ground Zero In The Battle For Congress

Tony Quinn
Editor, California Target Book

“Gentlemen, we fight on the Marne,” supposedly said a French general in 1914 before the historic Battle of the Marne.  Well, gentleman (and ladies), in 2018 for control of the U.S. House of Representatives we fight in California.  California will determine whether Democrats seize control of the House and stop the Trump agenda in its tracks.

The California Target Book has completed its winter 2018 analysis of legislative and congressional districts.  The lay of the land for congressional districts is surprisingly clear.  Below is an analysis of the 14 incumbent California House Republicans, all of whom are running for re-election as of this time.

  • CD 1 (La Malfa, North state).  Four Democrats have filed declarations of intent to run against Rep. Doug La Malfa, but none shows any significant money.  This is a 56% Trump district, and La Malfa is unlikely to be a Democratic target.
  • CD 4 (McClintock, Sacramento suburbs).  Democratic activists have verbally assaulted Rep. Tom McClintock at his town halls and the Democrats have this district on their target list. Jessica Morse, a national security strategist, has raised more than $250,000.  While this is a heavily Republican district, Trump 54%, Rep. McClintock is likely to have the first two party challenge of his congressional career.
  • CD 8. (Cook, High desert).  Rep. Paul Cook’s problem will not be a Democratic challenge, but a return match with former Assemblyman Tim Donnelly, a Bannon-Trump Republican and a perennial candidate.  Donnelly did not make it out of the primary last time, and Cook is probably safe even if there is a same party November runoff.
  • CD 10 (Denham, Modesto, Central Valley). This is the first of several districts carried by Hillary Clinton, by 49%, that Democrats must win if they are to seize control of the House. Denham prevailed in 2016 with 52% of the vote. Eight Democrats have filed to run here, and this will be a big money fight.  Republican registration is on the decline, and Denham clearly has a race on his hands. Democrat Josh Harder has hired the campaign manager for the 2016 Democratic candidate and has $400,000 in the bank.  This one goes down to the wire.
  • CD 21 (Valadeo, Central Valley).  Donald Trump received less than 40% of the vote here in 2016, and Hillary Clinton more than 55%.  But Democrat Emilio Huerta, son of the co-founder of the United Farm Workers, received just 43%, running 12 points behind Clinton.  This is one of the heaviest Clinton districts with a Republican incumbent in the country.  Huerta is running again.  While he may charm the Bay Area chardonnay and cheese set, he does not fit this socially conservative district.  Democrats could defeat Valadeo, but they probably need a local farmer, preferably with a Portuguese name — think Costa, Nunes, Cardonza, and of course Valadeo.
  • CD 22 (Nunes, Tulare, Fresno).  Democrats would love to go after the controversial Rep. Devin Nunes, chair of the House Intelligence Committee, but this is good Trump district (Trump 52%) and Nunes has more than $3.6 million in the bank.  The likely Democrat, Fresno deputy DA Andrew Janz, has a good resume but would need a pile of money to make this a real race.
  • CD 23 (McCarthy, Bakersfield).  House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy will not be a Democratic target in this 58% Trump district.  He will be spending his time and money trying to save other Republicans.
  • CD 25 (Knight, Antelope Valley).  Rep. Steve Knight won re-election in 2016 by 53%, outrunning Trump by ten percent in this district that Clinton carried.  He will be a top Democratic target in 2018, especially with fast growth in Democratic registration.  Eight Democrats are squaring off in the primary to take on Knight, including two who have already raised nearly a half a million dollars.  Count on a big money primary and general election.
  • CD 39 (Royce, Northern Orange County).  This is the first of the “Orange County Four”, the four formerly safe Republican congressional districts carried by Hillary Clinton in 2016.  Rep. Ed Royce has been in Congress since 1992 and chairs the House Foreign Affairs Committee.  Royce has never had a serious challenge but 2018 will be different.  Republican registration in his part of Orange County is collapsing; Mitt Romney carried his district with 51% but Trump only received 43%.  And six Democrats, including two wealthy businessmen who can self fund, are lining up to run against Royce.  He has more than $3 million in the bank, so expect a barnburner in this district.
  • CD 42 (Calvert, Riverside suburbs).  This remains a strong Republican district with a 53% Trump vote.  Rep. Ken Calvert will not be a Democratic target.
  • CD 45 (Walters, Inland Orange County).  This is probably the least likely of the Orange County Four to flip to the Democrats. But despite a nine point Republican registration advantage, Clinton carried this district over Trump by 49% to 44%.  Six Democrats are lining up to run against Rep. Mimi Walters, and five have already reported raising campaign cash in the six figures.  Walters is in for a contest.
  • CD 48 (Rohrabacher, Coastal Orange County).  This district boasts an eleven point Republican registration edge but Clinton carried it by two points over Trump.  Rep. Dana Rohrabacher’s problem may be a perceived closeness to the Russians and Vladimir Putin.  At any rate, he has already drawn 12 opponents, including eight Democrats and two Republicans.  None of his opponents have a particular political base in this district that consists of coastal cities in Orange County.  The 70-year-old Rohrabacher is completing his 30th year in congress and is often rumored at retiring. But whether he runs again or not, this will be a contested district in 2018.
  • CD 49 (Issa, Southern Orange County, northern San Diego County).  This was 2016’s surprise district where previously safe Rep. Darrell Issa came within 1,600 votes of losing.  His 2016 challenger, Doug Applegate is running again as are three other Democrats.  Three of the four Democrats have already raised more than half a million dollars, and Issa is one of the wealthiest members of congress.  Count on a major battle to see who gets to run against Issa and a big spending campaign in the fall.
  • CD 50 (Hunter, Inland San Diego County).  This is a safe Republican district on paper, having given Trump a 54% margin.  But Rep. Duncan Hunter is under both a House Ethics Committee investigation and a criminal investigation by the Department of Justice relating to alleged campaign finance violations.  Given the nation’s mood over congressional ethics, it is hard to see Hunter surviving.  He has five Democratic opponents and two Republicans, and two of the Democrats have shown significant fund raising, while most of Hunter’s funds have gone to his legal fees.  If Hunter were to step down, the district would probably drop off the Democratic target list.

So 10 of the 14 California House Republicans are currently targeted by the Democrats.  Two remarkable things stand out: the fact so many Democratic challengers have raised significant money this far out from the election; and that virtually none of the Democrats are public figures in the districts where they are running.

This follows a pattern evident in the Virginia and Alabama elections in 2017.  Democrats defeated 14 Virginia GOP legislators, most with candidates initially little known in their districts, and Alabama Sen.-elect Doug Jones was unknown in his state before his upset win last week.

In 2018, the quality or positions of the Democratic candidates may matter for little.  The records of the incumbent Republicans and whether they can be tied to the unpopular President Trump are likely to determine whether they survive.

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