A Republican Wipeout in the GOP Heartland?

Tony Quinn
Editor, California Target Book

Harry R. Sheppard and Edward Izac are forgotten names today, but these two Democratic congressmen, elected in 1936, mark the last time Orange and San Diego counties had no Republican representation in Congress.  Now, 82 years later, it is possible that once again no Republican will represent these two once solidly Republican counties.

The year 1936 represents the historical lowest ebb for Republicans in California and the nation.  The GOP held only four of the 20 US House seats allotted to California at that time; and all were in the north.  There were no Republicans south of Fresno; Los Angeles County had a solidly Democratic delegation.  Nationally, Republicans held only 88 of the 433 seats in Congress.

GOP fortunes improved in the 1938 cycle when they doubled their representation in the House, picking up seats in Los Angeles County.  Republicans have held at least one seat in Los Angeles ever since, and since 1942 they have never failed to elect at least one congressman from Orange and San Diego counties.

But today only one House Republican represents any part of Los Angeles, Rep.  Steve Knight (R-Antelope Valley) of the 25th District.  His seat was contested in 2016, but he won with 53 percent.

Democrats are going after him again with non-profit executive Katie Hill.  In the June primary, Knight received 52 percent of the overall vote, which was actually better than his primary showing in 2016.  This district is typical of Republican problems in southern California.  The high desert area has not had a Democratic congressman in half a century, and Republicans currently hold the overlapping Assembly and Senate districts, but GOP registration is undergoing a long decline, and this is their final toe hold in all of Los Angeles County.

Most handicappers give Knight a slight edge because he did win in 2016 while Hillary Clinton carried the district, but this is one district to watch for a blue wave.  If Knight goes down, there will be no Republican representing Los Angeles County for the first time since 1936.

Two years ago no one would have expect the entire Republican delegation in Orange County to be at risk, but indeed all four districts are.  The northeastern 39th District has been represented by the respected chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee Ed Royce (R-Fullerton) since 1992, and he never faced a serious Democratic challenge.  But that changed this year, following Hillary Clinton’s eight point victory margin in this district in 2016.

Royce is retiring and has endorsed his long time assistant Young Kim for the seat.  Kim was elected to the Assembly in an overlapping district in 2014 but was defeated in 2016.  She is now facing lottery winner and retired Navy officer Gil Cisneros.  But Cisneros seems to have some personal baggage that Republicans are trying to exploit, and the fact that Kim is both Asian (who make up 21 percent of the district’s voters) and a woman could be helpful in this political climate.

Inside Elections, formerly the Rothenberg Report, has been handicapping House races for years and rates the race as a toss-up.  That is probably correct, but with GOP registration in decline in this district, this is certainly one district the Democrats could gain.  If Republicans hold on here, it will be because they have the superior candidate, a point made in the Inside Elections analysis of the district.

To the south is the 45th District, represented since 2014 by GOP Rep. Mimi Walters (R-Laguna Niguel).  This is the Republican heartland of southern California, in fact so Republican that the last time a Democrat won any part of this district was in 1940 when it was mostly orange groves.  That it is a Democratic target tells us much of the GOP decline in California under Donald Trump.  But in this overwhelming Republican area Clinton beat Trump 50 percent to 44 percent.

Democrats smelled blood, and with good reason. They held Walters to just 52 percent in the all party June primary.  But Democrats made possibly a very big mistake; their candidate is not a suburban moderate but a UC Irvine professor named Katie Porter who is an unabashed progressive and a protégé of Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass).

Porter has gone full bore on the progressive platform including fully socialized health care.  The problem with the progressive agenda is what Margaret Thatcher once said of socialism, it is fine until you run out of other people’s money.  To pay for Porter’s agenda would require trillions in new taxes, and would fall heavily on middle and upper class residents of this well to do district.

But Walters has a tax problem too; she voted for the House GOP tax bill that caps state and local tax deductions at $10,000.   Many of her constituents are paying a good deal more than that, so the House bill could be a tax increase for them.

Handicappers gave Walters a slight edge, but this will be a good test of how much of a drag Trump is for California Republicans.  If Porter wins despite her embrace of huge government spending, it will be a sign that voters really do not care about the Democrats in these districts and simply want to vote against Trump and his party.

To the west is the coastal 48th District, another always safe GOP seat that is clearly in play.  In this case Democrats may have a candidate who fits the district, a former Republican businessman named Harley Rouda who will face 30-year incumbent Dana Rohrabacher (R-Huntington Beach) who carries his own special baggage.

Rohrabacher is outspoken in his support for better relations with Russia and Vladimir Putin, which has led to the tag that he is “Putin’s favorite congressman” and it is not entirely inaccurate to compare him to Rep. Vito Marcantonio, the late 1940s pro-Communist congressman who was Stalin’s man in Washington.  Marcantonio was finally beaten when he blamed America for the Korean War, but being Putin’s guy in this political atmosphere may not be any better.

That was certainly the message in the June primary where Rohrabacher, challenged from the right by a former protégé, only received 30 percent of the primary vote.  Generally this is a death knell, and if Rohrabacher should manage to hold on in November, it probably means the Democrats’ hope of a big blue wave is barely a trickle.

Farther to the south, the 49th District in northern San Diego and southern Orange County may be the Democrats’ best hope for a pick-up.  Democratic environmental attorney Mike Levin faces GOP Board of Equalization member Diane Harkey in the only of these six Democratic targets where Democrats outpolled Republicans in the primary.

Inside Elections has moved this district from toss-up to tilt Democratic noting problems for the Harkey campaign: ”Democratic efforts to bring up a lawsuit involving (Harkey’s) husband and her company, as well as a 2014 editorial from the San Diego Union Tribune which called her ‘unsuitable for public service’ are not going to help.”

This is the one district where the Democrats clearly chose the Republican they wanted to run against.  All the early polling had shown moderate GOP Assemblyman Rocky Chavez, whose district covers most of the congressional district, well ahead.  But then Democratic independent expenditure committees spent $2 million blasting Chavez for being too moderate.

Since there is no longer any money for moderate Republicans in California, Chavez’ candidacy collapsed and Democrats got the opponent they wanted.  If Harkey does prevail in this contest, it is likely Democrats will also fail to win the House of Representatives.

Then there is the interior San Diego 50th District, one of the most Republican districts in America that Trump carried by 15 points, where Democrats may well have thrown away a gift the Republicans gave them.  GOP Rep. Duncan Hunter (R-Alpine) had been safe in this district until the federal government began a criminal investigation against him and his wife.  This has now resulted in a lengthy indictment accusing Hunter and his wife Margaret of spending $250,000 in campaign funds on themselves and lying about it.

Even with this cloud over him, Hunter carried the primary handily, winning 47 percent of the vote.  A new Survey USA poll shows him leading for re-election with 47 percent to 38 percent for his Democratic challenger, Ammar Campa-Najjar.  The Democrat, a strong progressive, hardly fits this conservative, middle class district, and may also be hurt by being the grandson of a Black September Palestinian terrorist who helped kill the Israeli Olympic team at the 1972 Munich Olympics.

So what we now have are two uniquely flawed candidates.  The Survey USA poll suggests what may well happen. Hunter wins re-election but does not survive a trial on the salacious charges of fraud and abuse.  So the seat could be filled, almost surely by a Republican, in a special election sometime next year.

But Campa-Najjar could still win, especially if the blue tide runs high and washes over California, and so could the other five Democratic challengers.  It would take a big blue flood to bring us 1936 all over again, but then history does have an amusing habit of repeating itself.

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