Dems See a Path to House Majority in California Races
Democrats could be making a risky bet by running against the new GOP tax bill in next year's midterms, especially if voters notice fatter paychecks come springtime. But the minority party is confident opposition to the new law will pay off in California.
Democrats believe their path to the House majority winds through the Golden State, where the June “open” primary figures to serve as a bellwether of sorts for the November midterm elections. Of the two-dozen Republican districts Hillary Clinton carried last year, seven are in California. If Democrats can't pick off a sizable chunk of them, it's unlikely they can retake the lower chamber from Republicans.
It's a much more difficult task than one might imagine. While California has become synonymous with liberalism, Republican incumbents have shown durability. Last year, though voters in the state came out in record numbers and Clinton became the first Democrat since 1936 to win the GOP stronghold of Orange County, many of them split their tickets in those seven districts, backing Republican congressional candidates even as they opposed Donald Trump.
Yet this week, two well-known GOP members of the House delegation — Darrell Issa and Dana Rohrabacher — voted against their party's tax bill, a piece of legislation long sought after by Republicans. Democrats say the lawmakers' opposition signals the toxicity of the legislation in a state like California, which will likely be adversely impacted by some provisions.
Issa is considered one of the most vulnerable Republicans in the country. He won his seat last year by just half a percentage point, while Clinton won the district by eight points. In a statement explaining his opposition to the tax bill, Issa said his constituents would be negatively affected. "Californians need tax relief now more than ever, especially as the tax factory in our State Capitol continues looking for ever increasing ways to take more of our hard-earned paychecks," he wrote. "Yet I still fear that, even in the revised proposal, many in my area could face higher taxes under this plan.”
Rohrabacher, who has come under scrutiny for his friendly stance towards Russia, expressed a similar sentiment. "The current tax bill, by purporting to count in our ‘income’ the money we are forced to pay to governments for state and local taxes, is double taxation. It is anti-growth. And it is unfair to already over-taxed families living on the edge," he wrote in an op-ed in the Orange County Register.
The legislation eliminated most deductions for state and local taxes, and capped deductions on property taxes and mortgage interest -- all of which are likely to hit states like California, New Jersey and New York the hardest, as home prices and taxes there are among the highest in the nation. Most of the dozen Republicans who voted against the measure were from districts in New York and New Jersey that are also top targets for the opposition party.
But Democrats see a particularly favorable opening in the fact that most of the California delegation voted for the bill. And beyond taxes, they point to the fact that the entire GOP delegation from the state voted in favor of their party's Obamacare repeal plan, which failed earlier this year. Democrats plan to pin these votes and the president's low approval rating to each California Republican. And they point to recent elections in Virginia and Alabama and the 13-point gap in the generic ballot to argue that voters in California are ready to send a message.
"Trump has awakened part of our base that wasn't really in the fight before," said John Vigna, spokesman for the state Democratic Party.
In addition to Rohrabacher and Issa, they are targeting Ed Royce, Mimi Walters, Steve Knight, David Valadao, and Jeff Denham. And beyond the seven from Clinton districts, Democrats also have Duncan Hunter Jr., Devin Nunes, and Tom McClintock in their sights.
Their districts represent the kinds of areas where Democrats hope to make strides elsewhere in the nation by exploiting tensions between traditional Republicans and Donald Trump.
"Activists on the ground there are upper middle class and so appalled by Donald Trump," said Vigna. "There are some folks in the GOP who don't recognize their party anymore. Those folks are giving us the opening."
Democrats point to the conservative bastion of Orange County as ground zero for their efforts. In 1990, Republicans had a 20-point advantage in the county. Now, that gap is just 3 ½ points. "It's a remarkable shift away from the Republican Party -- a lot of people feel out of place with Trump's GOP," said Drew Godinich, a regional press secretary for the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, who described the area as full of "people who like their million-dollar homes but also like their immigrant neighbors."
In a sign of how important the state, and this county in particular, is to Democrats, the DCCC opened a field office in Irvine and sent top staffers there. It's the committee’s first office on the West Coast. Democrats also figure that other races will help drive turnout, including competitive gubernatorial and U.S. Senate contests. Given California's jungle primary system – in which all candidates appear on the ballot, with the top two advancing – many November elections are likely to involve only Democratic candidates.
Still, Republicans say their incumbents are used to the competition and are battle-tested. They argue voters have already shown they can discern between their GOP representative and Trump.
"Trump was on the ballot in 2016 and GOP members survived," said Bill Whalen, a fellow at the Hoover Institution. "And as unpopular in California as Trump is, I'm not sure you could set the limbo bar any further."
Republicans also push back on Democrats’ high recruitment claims to argue that the opposing party could suffer from crowded and competitive primaries that give way to the incumbent.
"California will be an expensive proposition for Democrats, who will have to invest heavily when they already have to play in big media markets like New York, Philadelphia and Miami," said Jesse Hunt, spokesperson for the NRCC.
And Republicans argue that their candidates will be able to campaign on legislating a tax cut. Rep. Walters, for example, plugged her success in making changes to previous provisions in the bill. State and local tax deductions will be preserved up to $10,000, for example, and the mortgage interest deduction will be increased to $750,000 for new mortgages, she said. Republicans like Walters have also focused their ire on local government, railing against Sacramento's "irresponsible tax and spend policies."
The NRCC also has a target list of its own in California, including districts represented by Democrats Ami Bera, Salud Carbajal, Raul Ruiz, and Scott Peters.
Still, with an increasingly difficult environment and without a Republican at the top of the ticket, California GOP incumbents could be susceptible to new national trends.
"Democrats have been trying to nationalize elections in several cycles and haven't proven to be effective, so I'm not sure trying to nationalize it based on the tax cut bill is a good idea," said Whalen. "But what Democrats do have to push for is the current complicated Republican existence and ask what it is they're doing with power?"
What’s more, he added, "the big question in 2018 is whether Republicans stay home or not."