Could the GOP Deficit in California Grow This Year?

Turnout could be a problem for Golden State Republicans

With Democrats trying to tie California Rep. Jeff Denham to the Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump, the GOP is now spending in the Golden State's 10th District, too. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call File Photo)
With Democrats trying to tie California Rep. Jeff Denham to the Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump, the GOP is now spending in the Golden State's 10th District, too. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call File Photo)
Posted October 27, 2016 at 5:00am

Republicans have a California problem.

The party has been slowly losing representation in the state’s congressional delegation over the past two decades. And with GOP enthusiasm for Donald Trump lacking, there’s concern about low turnout hurting the state’s Republican incumbents.

The party doesn’t have a Senate candidate to drive turnout (Democrats finished 1-2 in the June open primary), and depending on whether the presidential race is called early on the East Coast, California Republicans may have even less of an incentive to show up to vote.

Meanwhile, Democrats are going all in on the Trump comparisons, spending big to try to tie four Golden State incumbents to the GOP presidential nominee. It’s an effort that began earlier this year but that has intensified since the release of the 2005 “Access Hollywood” recording in which Trump made lewd comments about groping women. 

At the beginning of this cycle, the concern was about GOP recruitment in California — namely that Republicans wouldn’t have the candidates to go on the offensive in a blue state in a presidential year. Still, one of the party’s three chances to knock off a Democratic House incumbent is in California, and they have another chance to flip a blue seat red.

But Republican incumbents and outside groups are now having to match Democrats by spending defensively in some districts that didn’t look like they’d be as competitive at the beginning of the cycle.

In the 10th District, for example, the Congressional Leadership Fund, the super PAC tied to House GOP leadership, recently announced a $2 million campaign against Democrat Michael Eggman. He’s running against three-term Republican Rep. Jeff Denham in a district that’s 42 percent Hispanic. The Rothenberg & Gonzales Political Report/Roll Call rates the contest as Leans Republican.

Republicans always knew Denham would have a race; he was an early add to the National Republican Congressional Committee’s Patriot Program since he sits in a district that President Barack Obama carried twice.

But Trump has given Democrats an opening to make this race even more competitive. Eggman and the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee are tying Denham to Trump, while polling from the House Majority PAC, which backs Democratic House candidates, has showed Eggman leading by 1 point. The NRCC is not spending here. But the Congressional Leadership Fund saw an opportunity to shore up a district that could be more susceptible than others to a Democratic wave. 

The most surprising competitive race is in Rep. Darrell Issa’s 49th District. The eight-term Republican and former chairman of the Oversight and Government Reform Committee is facing a challenge from Democrat Doug Applegate in a district Mitt Romney won by 6 points in 2012. Polling has been mixed here: Democrats have showed Applegate up, while Issa’s own polling has had him leading, but with a slighter margin than he enjoyed earlier this year.

As the wealthiest member of Congress, Issa has plenty of resources to spend, but the competitiveness of this race seems to have caught him off guard. With such a high-profile incumbent, Republicans see this race as a referendum on Issa himself. But Democrats are doing everything they can to tie him to to the most high-profile Republican on the ticket. Fighting back against those Trump comparisons, Issa used Obama’s image in a recent campaign mailer. The race is rated as Leans Republican.

Less surprising are the Democrats’ efforts to go after GOP incumbents in the state’s 21st District, held by Rep. David Valadao, and the 25th District, held by Rep. Steve Knight — both on the NRCC’s Patriot Program since the spring and both rated Republican Favored. 

American Action Network, the conservative nonprofit advocacy organization affiliated with the Congressional Leadership Fund, recently announced it is spending $750,000 for TV and digital advertising for the 21st District. Obama won this seat twice, and it’s heavily Hispanic. That’s prompted the House Majority PAC to go up with a contrast ad that knocks Valadao for saying he’d support Trump if he became the GOP nominee, then introduces his opponent Democrat Emilio Huerta. 

And in the 25th District, which Romney narrowly carried in 2012, Democrat Bryan Caforio is invoking Trump, too. “Unlike extremist Congressman Steve Knight, I’ll stand up to bullies like Donald Trump,” he says in a recent ad attacking the GOP incumbent, who scared Republicans early in the cycle with his lackluster fundraising

Republicans’ representation in the state’s congressional delegation has withered since the mid-1990s when the party held almost 50 percent of the state’s then-52 House seats. Today, the party holds 14 of 53 seats, or 26 percent.  

It’s not all defense for Republicans here, though. The 7th District presents the rare opportunity for the party to defeat a sitting Democrat. The party has its sights set on Rep. Ami Bera, whose father pleaded guilty to making illegal contributions to his son’s campaigns. But Sacramento County Sheriff Scott Jones, the GOP candidate, has baggage of his own, which has kept this race Leans Democratic.

The GOP’s chances of flipping the 24th District, currently held by retiring Democratic Rep. Lois Capps, look tougher. Republican Justin Fareed is taking on Democrat Salud Carbajal in this district twice carried by Obama by double digits. Democrats here, too, are arguing that the GOP candidate and Trump “go together.” The contest here is rated Democrat Favored.