California House Races: The Action For 2018

Tony Quinn
Editor, California Target Book

California’s filing deadline is now past and the contours of the 2018 election are slowly coming into view.  The biggest action in California, even bigger than the governor’s race, may be the race for congressional seats, since California will almost certainly decide if Democrats can win back the House of Representatives this fall.  Money tells the story; millions have already been raised by Democratic candidates for seats the party did not even contest in 2016.

The focus will be on the 14 Republican held House seats and national Democrats have a committee formed to flip all 14 from the GOP.  That’s unlikely to happen, but there is one frightening factoid that came out of the special election in Pennsylvania last week where Republicans lost a very red seat that President Trump had carried by 20 points in 2016.

What should frighten Republicans is that there are some 117 Republican held House seats that are less red than this one; and that includes all 14 GOP held seats in California.  Trump won 59 percent of the vote in the Pennsylvania seat; he did not do that well in any of California’s 53 districts, including the 14 GOP districts.

Another concerning factor is that in most of the special elections for congress and legislative seats in 2017, Republicans candidates seem to have run at exactly the level of Trump approval in their districts.  In the seat lost in Pennsylvania last week, the Republican received 49 percent of the vote, and the Trump approval rating was 49 percent.

This would suggest that the country is so highly polarized right now that if you approve of Trump you will vote for the Republican and if you disapprove you will vote for the Democrat.  That is cause for alarm for Republicans in California because Trump lost seven of the 14 GOP seats to Hillary Clinton, and anecdotal evidence suggests that today he may even be less popular in the Golden State than he was in 2016.

Democrats have 10 of the 14 Republican seats on their list of targets and have credibly funded candidates in most of them.  Let’s start by looking at the “Clinton Seven”, the Republican-held districts Trump lost.

 

  • CD 10 (Modesto).  Rep Jeff Denham received 52 percent in winning re-election in 2016, in a district where Trump only received 44 percent.  Challengers this time include his 2016 opponent, Michael Eggman, and three other Democrats who have raised more than $100,000.  Given that this is the Central Valley, Democrats probably need something of a centrist as their candidate.
  • CD 21 (Fresno-Bakersfield).  Rep, David Valadao has three times won this very Democratic seat handily, including 2016 when he received 57 percent while Trump only received 40 percent. It looked like Valadao would face his 2016 opponent, Democrat Emilio Huerta, in 2018, but just before the filing deadline Huerta mysteriously dropped out and Democrat T.J. Cox, who was running for the Denham seat, quickly dropped in.  According to media reports, Cox, who does not live in the district, faces some tax and legal problems with his business, but Valadao’s family farm is also facing legal problems over $9 million in agricultural loans.
  • CD 25 (Antelope Valley).  Rep. Steve Knight won re-election in 2016 with 53 percent while Trump only received 44 percent in this once safe Republican seat.  Three Democrats, including Knight’s 2016 opponent, Bryan Caforio, have raised in excess of $300,000.
  • CD 39 (Fullerton, Diamond Bar, Chino).  Rep. Ed Royce is giving up this seat.  Three Republicans who have held local office and four well funded Democrats are competing for the district.  Some Democrats fear that with four candidates splitting the Democratic vote, two Republicans could emerge on top, but that seems unlikely with three major GOP candidates and several minor ones.  Trump received only 43 percent in this once solidly Republican district, so it will take a Republican with the ability of get votes beyond the Republican base to hold this district.
  • CD 45 (Inland Orange County, Irvine).  Rep. Mimi Walters has easily held this once solidly Republican seat but Trump only received 44 percent here in 2016.  The last time a Democrat won this area was in the 1936 Franklin Roosevelt landslide, but that has not deterred five serious Democratic challengers from raising more than $3 million to contest the district.  It is unlikely Democrats have spent this much money combined in central Orange County in all the years since 1936.
  • CD 48 (Coastal Orange County).  Rep. Dana Rohrabacher, who has held this seat for 30 years, is controversial because of his supposed ties to Putin and Russia.  He is the only GOP incumbent with a serious challenge within his own party, from former Assemblyman Scott Baugh.  This sets up an interesting dynamic.  Although Democrats have raised the alarm about losing some of these targeted seats due to too many Democrats in the top two primary, this is the only one where as a practical matter that might happen.  It has a high GOP registration and both Republicans are well known in the district.  Six Democrats have raised more than $100,000 and the ballot is crowded with several unknown candidates.  This will be a district to watch on primary night.
  • CD 49 (Northern San Diego, South Orange Coast).  Rep. Darrell Issa is giving up this seat that he nearly lost in 2016.  Four Democrats, including Doug Applegate who narrowly lost the district in 2016, have already raised more than $600,000, including three who have raised over $1 million.  Democrats have expressed some concern that these four might split the vote and allow two Republicans to advance to the November runoff, especially since there are two well known GOP candidates, Assemblyman Rocky Chavez and Board of Equalization member Diane Harkey.  But that seems unlikely as there are several other Republicans running, including a San Diego supervisor.  Trump received only 43 percent this district in 2016.

 

These are the battleground districts for 2018 while Democrats try to pick up the 24 GOP seats they need to win the House.  But three other Republican seats are also possible targets.

 

  • CD 4 (Sacramento Suburbs).  Rep. Tom McClintock has been challenged before but The Resistance promises a tough race in 2018, even though Trump carried this district with 54 percent.  Five Democrats have filed to run but two, Jessica Morse and Regina Bateson, have raised more than a million dollars between them.
  • CD22 (Fresno, Tulare).  Rep. Devin Nunes has not faced serious opposition since he was first elected in 2002 and Trump carried this district with 52 percent.  But national Democrats would love to go after Nunes due to his role in the Russian investigation as House Intelligence Committee chairman.  The favored Democrat is Fresno prosecutor Andrew Janz, but he has little money in the bank and Nunes is sitting on nearly $4 million in campaign cash.  This will only be a contested race if national Democrats come in with boatloads of money.
  • CD 50 (Escondido, Temecula).  The most vulnerable Republican running for re-election is Rep. Duncan Hunter, although Hunter and his father with the same name have held this district for 38 years, and Trump received 55 percent in 2016.  But Hunter is under federal criminal investigation by the Department of Justice for campaign finance violations, and most of his campaign funds have gone for legal fees.  Two Democrats have between them raised more a million dollars, but the biggest threat to Hunter at this point is Republican El Cajon Mayor Bill Wells.  An all GOP top two runoff between Hunter and Wells is quite possible given the 43 percent Republican registration in this district, but if one of the Democrats makes the runoff and Hunter is the GOP candidate, he will almost certainly lose.

 

Four Republican Houses seats seem safe at this time.

 

  • CD 1 (North State).  Rep. Doug LaMalfa should be safe in this 55 percent Trump district, although one Democratic opponent has raised more than $160,000.
  • CD 8 (San Bernardino Desert).  Rep. Paul Cook faces perennial GOP candidate Tim Donnelly whom he has defeated before.  The district went for Trump with 55 percent.  One Democrat has raised $178,000, but Cook does not show any vulnerabilities at this time.
  • CD 23 (Bakersfield).  This was Trump’s best district in California, with a 58 percent win.  House Majority Leader Rep. Kevin McCarthy will spend this year trying to make sure he is not House Minority Leader next year.
  • CD 42 (Riverside Desert).  None of the four Democrats running against Rep. Ken Calvert show any serious funding at this point.  Trump won this district with 53 percent.

 

It is probable some of the ten vulnerable GOP seats will fall off the target list after the primary, but for now Republicans face the very real possibility that they could lose ten of their 14 California House members in 2018.

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