The Changed Political Map; and the 2018 Election  

Tony Quinn
Editor, California Target Book

The battle for Congress this year will test whether Republicans can hold onto the old heartland of the Democratic Party that elected Donald Trump president, or whether Democrats will win by sweeping onetime bastions of Reagan Republicanism like Orange County. In 2016, Trump won the presidency by carrying parts of the country that once gave the New Deal it strongest support, and in California that would be Kern County, the home of the likely next Speaker of the House.

Rep. Kevin McCarthy, who will probably be Speaker before the summer is over, represents a Bakersfield district that gave Trump 58 percent, his best showing in California’s congressional districts (contrasting to Trump’s 32 percent state wide).  In 2016, Trump carried Kern and neighboring Kings and Tulare Counties, the foothill counties and most of the interior north state counties, that is rural California, while losing virtually everywhere else.

Sixty years ago, these same rural counties were the most Democratic counties in the state. While much has been written about the overall drift of California to the Democrats, especially in the past decade, little has been written about the shift of rural areas from the Democrats to solid Republican voting.  To see how this has changed, go back to 1956, the final year of the decades long Republican domination of California.

That year the GOP controlled the governor and all statewide offices, (except Attorney General, Edmund G. “Pat” Brown), both US Senators, a majority of House seats and both houses of the legislature.  Two years later, 1958, would deliver a sweeping Democratic landslide and the Republican era was over.

In 1956, “I Like Ike” was all the vogue, and President Dwight Eisenhower carried California with 55 percent of the vote. But his best areas were not today’s GOP counties rather it was urban California, such as the Bay Area where he carried every county but Solano, and Los Angeles that he won with 55 percent.  Orange County, where Hillary Clinton beat Trump in 2016, Eisenhower won with 67 percent.  While Eisenhower carried Kern County narrowly, he lost Plumas, Madera, Kings Lassen, Fresno, Shasta, Placer, Merced and Stanislaus Counties.

This traipse through history is only relevant because it underscores what Kevin McCarthy has to do to hold onto the Speakership.  Clinton carried seven GOP-held California House seats, and two are in largely rural areas: Rep. Jeff Denham’s 10th district in San Joaquin and Stanislaus Counties, and Rep. David Valadao’s 21st district in Fresno, Kings and Kern Counties.  If the Democrats can return these districts to the ancient Democratic fold, then McCarthy’s hold on the Speakership will be tenuous indeed.

Democrats need to win 23 Republican-held House seats to send the Speaker’s gavel from Bakersfield to Nancy Pelosi’s San Francisco.  While they have lots of opportunities in Republican suburbs like Orange County, there are going to have to win some seats in rural and small town America – once the heart of the New Deal – to prevail.  It won’t be easy.

There is an amusing factoid in today’s ruby red Texas that tells the story of what happened to the national Democratic Party.  In 1940, Texas was Franklin Roosevelt’s best big state; he won more than 82 percent of the vote.  In hard scrabble east Texas in the congressional district then represented by Democratic House Speaker Sam Rayburn, Roosevelt got 90 percent of the state.  Trump ran off with that same area in 2016, winning it with over 75 percent of the vote.

The shift of rural California from Democratic to Republican may not mean much as this is a small part of the state.  But it is “huge” in the national picture.  Had Hillary Clinton done as well as her husband did in rural America, she would be president today.  But the Democrats won’t shift these areas back as long as they are tagged as the party of identity politics and sanctuary cities.

In March, Democrats won a Republican seat in GOP voting western Pennsylvania. This is guns and Bible country, but also heavily unionized.  Once it was safe Democratic country, but then it went Republican big time. This year the Democrats found a candidate with a military background who talked bread and butter issues, and he won.  The Democrats are going to have to flip these kinds of seats to win a majority in November.

Democrats also are defending Senate seats in West Virginia, Florida, Missouri, Indiana, North Dakota and Montana – states that Trump carried but that also include parts of the one time Democratic coalition (Eisenhower lost West Virginia twice to Adlai Stevenson).

It would be ironic indeed if Kevin McCarthy is sworn in as Speaker in January because Republicans managed to hold the rural small town areas that were once the heartland of the Democratic Party.

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