Republican seats in the crosshairs

Republicans gather at a 2016 rally in Costa Mesa for GOP presidential contender Donald Trump. (Photo: Mike Ledray, via Shutterstock)

Encouraged by their Nov. 7 election victories in other states, Democrats now have even higher hopes of flipping the House in 2018, and a big factor governing whether they will succeed rests on outcomes in eight Republican-held California districts.

The eight incumbent Republicans in Southern California and the Central Valley that Democrats hope to defeat a year from now make up one-third of the 24 seats needed to give Democrats control of the House.

That means that most of the targeted Republicans must thread a needle.

Here are the eight being especially targeted:
CA-10: Jeff Denham — Turlock
CA-21: David Valadao – Hanford
CA-25: Steve Knight – Palmdale
CA-39: Ed Royce – Fullerton
CA-45: Mimi Walters – Irvine
CA-48: Dana Rohrabacher — Costa Mesa
CA-49: Darrell Issa –Vista
CA-50-Duncan Hunter – Alpine, San Diego County

One ominous sign for Republican hopes: With the exception of Hunter, all of these lawmakers represent districts carried by Hillary Clinton in the general election. In fact, Valadao’s district went for Clinton by 55 percent, with 39 percent for Donald Trump.

A Sept. 27 poll from the Public Policy Institute of California (PPIC) describes the political landscape through which these Republican incumbents must tiptoe.

“Trump’s job approval rating (27% adults, 31% likely voters) is similar to what it has been since he took office. Today, 70 percent of Republicans approve of the way he is doing his job, while an overwhelming majority of Democrats (91%) disapprove. Independents are far more likely to disapprove (69%) than approve (27%). Approval ratings for Congress are also low (24% adults, 18% likely voters). However, in contrast to Trump, Congress gets a poor rating across parties: only 18 percent of Democrats, 22 percent of independents, and 24 percent of Republicans approve.”

Issa is a tough campaigner and knows he’s in for a fight.

That means that most of the targeted Republican must thread a needle.  Given President Trump’s unpopularity in deep-blue California, embracing him too tightly carries political peril.  But at the same time, a Republican incumbent must recognize Trump’s 70 percent approval rating among California Republicans and cannot therefore go too far in the pursuit of independents and Trump non-admirers.

Again, with the exception of Hunter, a quick and unscientific survey of the targeted members’ websites finds little mention of Trump.

Jobs, repealing Obamacare and protecting the Second Amendment are popular themes. Hunter is not a complete supporter of the president – he faulted the roll-out of Trump’s immigration order – but “Trump is doing things right” was the headline on a February statement from Hunter.

Here’s a rundown on the imperiled Republicans:

Darrell Issa, 49th District — Southern Orange County and Northern San Diego
In an unexpectedly tight race, Issa won his last election by a mere 1,621 votes. He is on lists of “most endangered Republican” and has cultivated a high profile as chairman of the House Oversight Committee with caustic opposition to Barack Obama. The political and demographic makeup of his district has changed during Issa’s nine terms, making it more difficult for Republicans. But Issa is a tough campaigner and knows he’s in for a fight.

Steve Knight, 25th District — Northern Los Angeles County and Simi Valley
Democrats outnumber Republicans in Knight’s district, and it’s becoming more Democratic with each passing year. One of Knight’s best hopes lies in the desert chunk of his district, with lots of older, white, Republican-leaning voters who tend to turn out in midterm elections. On the other hand, the November 7 Democratic victory in Virginia, admittedly across the continent, came on a wave of heavy turnout among fired up, anti-Trump Democrats.

Asked about the impact on people who will buy a home in the future, he said, “Those people do not represent a very high portion of the electorate.” — Dana Rohrabacher

Jeff Denham, 10th District — Central Valley including Modesto
Hillary Clinton won Denham’s district last year by 3 percentage points; so did Denham. Denham has paid close attention to water issues critical to farmers in the Central Valley, and that has counted in his favor. However, he has also voted in favor of the American Health Care Act as a replacement for Obamacare, which may prove problematic for him. Nine Democrats and an independent are elbowing each other for the right to face Denham next year.

Dana Rohrabacher, 48th District — Coastal Orange County
This will be Rohrabacher’s toughest re-election effort.  He has been dogged by questions about his relationships with figures associated with the ongoing Russian investigations and what some regard as a curious affinity for Russia. Rohrabacher’s fundraising has not been strong. There is no lack of potential opponents –- at last count he had nine potential opponents. Rohrabacher also raised eyebrows recently over a comment on a possible clause in the Republican tax bill.  It caps the mortgage interest deduction at $500,000 for new mortgages, half of the current $1 million cap. It’s supposed to have an outsized effect on California, loaded with homes costing $500,000 or more. Asked about the impact on people who will buy a home in the future, he said, “Those people do not represent a very high portion of the electorate.”

David Valadao, 21st District — Central Valley including part of Bakersfield
Democrats have an 18-percentage-point advantage in Valadao’s agricultural district, but Valadao did well last time out, outrunning Trump by 16 percentage points and Clinton by 2 percentage points. He has endorsed the Republican tax reform plan, saying it will strengthen the economy, an important point in a district with an unemployment rate hovering around 7 percent. His most prominent potential opponent so far is Emilio Huerta, who lost heavily against Valadao in 2016. Democrats cling to the hope that they can oust Valadao in a district that the numbers seem to indicate is made for a Latino candidate.

That’s the whole goal – to get press and to get me to say something they can use against me in the campaign.” — Mimi Walters

Ed Royce, 39th District — Northeast Orange County, eastern Los Angeles County and part of San Bernardino County
Royce is aiming for his 14th term, and his campaign will be well financed.  He is chairman of the powerful Foreign Affairs Committee and has a classic Republican pro-business voting record.  Royce won by a comfortable 10 percentage points in 2016, but Clinton won his district by 9 percentage points, an ominous sign for his chances. In addition, a growing number of Democrat – leaning Latino and Asian voters has now made the 39th a majority-minority district. Right now, Royce has six potential challengers.

Mimi Walters, 45th District — Inland Orange County including Irvine
In 2014, Walters won her first term with nearly two-thirds of the vote.  Her margin shrank to 58 percent in 2016, still a comfortable, albeit shrinking, level of support. Much of her 2016 campaign revolved around her desire to end Obamacare. A group of activist constituents have been pressing Walters to hold a town hall meeting, but she has so far been cautious. “That’s the whole goal – to get press and to get me to say something they can use against me in the campaign,” she said in an April radio interview. California Senator Kamala Harris and Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren have already endorsed Democrat Katie Porter, but Walters is likely to face a long list of potential opponents – there are already seven lining up to run against her.

Duncan Hunter50th District — Inland San Diego County
Hunter represents a solidly Republican district and is viewed by most pundits as likely to hang onto his seat, despite wistful Democratic hopes of taking him out. Those hopes were raised last March, when the House Ethics Committee disclosed the FBI was investigating possible misuse of campaign funds to explain why it was not pursuing its own probe. Hunter’s lawyers have issued a statement saying any use of campaign funds for jewelry, family trips, school uniforms and flying the family rabbit on a plane was “strictly inadvertent and unintentional.” So far, six potential challengers are in the field.

The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee has just added another California House member to its list of 80 potential targets – Tom McClintock of Elk Grove, representing California’s 4th District. It’s a deep red district, where McClintock won 63 percent of the vote in 2016 and Donald Trump won 54 percent.  But Democrats have been encouraged by the November 7 success, and McClintock has been dogged by activists at town hall meetings. Placement on the DCCC list does not automatically assure party investment, however. Put it in the long shot category – the very long shot.


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