Regina Bateson was one of 750 people who at an April town hall listened to Republican Congressman Tom McClintock voice support for efforts by leaders of his party to scrap Obamacare, question the science behind climate change and dismiss the need for an investigation into Russian meddling in the 2016 presidential election.
It was a pivotal moment for her. Soon after, she launched her campaign for California’s 4th Congressional District, a deep-red Republican stronghold encompassing the heart of the Sierras that McClintock has represented since 2009.
“Tom McClintock does not reflect the values of the 4th District. He does not act in the best interests of the district,” said Bateson, 35, a former U.S. State Department foreign service officer who recently returned with her family to her hometown of Roseville. “What we need to do is grow jobs. We need sound bipartisan land management to reduce the risk of catastrophic wildfires. We need clean air and water. We need affordable health care.”
Bateson, a Democrat and political newcomer, is one of more than 40 Democrats challenging Republican incumbents next year in 11 of the 14 House seats California Republicans hold in Congress. Between April and the end of June, the first quarter she filed, Bateson raised almost $100,000 – more than any Democrat running in the district has raised in a first quarter.
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“There’s a political earthquake happening here,” Bateson said. “It’s not about red and it’s not about blue. It doesn’t matter if you’re Republican or Democrat – people here are fed up and they have realized that Tom McClintock does not speak for them. They’re more energized and motivated than they’ve ever been before.”
Still, Bateson faces daunting odds. Republicans have dominated the sprawling, rural district for three decades. Last year was no different. McClintock easily defeated his Democratic challenger, winning nearly 63 percent of the vote in a district that also went 54 percent for Donald Trump. Voters there twice chose Republicans for president over Barack Obama, with Mitt Romney in 2012 and John McCain in 2008.
“This is one of the safest Republican seats in California, and Tom McClintock, I would argue, is probably the most popular Republican member of Congress from California,” said Mike Madrid, a Sacramento-based Republican political consultant and partner at GrassrootsLab, which studies political trends.
Democratic strategists say there’s a good chance of flipping red seats blue, especially the more competitive Orange County districts. McClintock’s district could be a long-shot, but it’s possible, said Bill Burton, a California-based Democratic consultant with the firm SKDKnickerbocker.
“I think people will be surprised. Democrats are energized, they’re raising money and putting up really credible candidates in all sorts of districts – not just the ones that seem like they have the best chance on paper,” Burton said. “The other thing to consider in California is there is going to be a very spirited race for governor, so Democrats are going to be coming out in much larger numbers than in other parts of the country.
“In districts where there’s lots of energy and good Democratic candidates raising money, there’s a chance to pull some upsets,” Burton said
Democrats need to win 24 seats next November to regain control of the House, and operatives are looking to California as a key battleground in the national fight. The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee is targeting nine Republican seats concentrated in Orange County and the Central Valley. Seven of those red districts are seen as more competitive because their voters backed Hillary Clinton over Donald Trump last year.
Democrats also see Republicans as vulnerable because of their vote in support of the GOP health care proposal, which would leave tens of millions without health coverage and increase medical costs for patients, according to nonpartisan budget analysts. All of California’s Republican congressional delegation, including the 9 members on the Democratic-target list, voted in favor of House Republicans’ health care bill.
“The cuts would be absolutely devastating to constituents in these Republican districts. That’s one of the reasons we’re seeing so many people being recruited and stepping up,” said Drew Godinich, a DCCC spokesman.
Godinich said California is “crucial” for Democrats to regain control of the House.
“For the very first time ever, the DCCC made a decision to open a western office in California, right in the heart of the Orange County districts that Hillary Clinton won,” Godinich said. “That illustrates how seriously we’re taking California. The House is definitely in play.”
McClintock’s district is not on Democrats’ national target list, but even in ruby red districts like his, challengers have a shot, Godinich said.
“We have a chance in places seen as unwinnable because of demographic shifts in California, and also the national political landscape,” he said. “There’s an opportunity to challenge these Republicans who have never really faced a real challenge before.”
Jack Pandol, a spokesman for the National Republican Congressional Committee, argued it’s Democrats who could be hurt by the health care debate.
“At the end of the day, Republicans are working to fix the problems with Obamacare,” Pandol said. “Insurers are pulling out of the market, premiums are skyrocketing. Democrats are going to be reminded of that in 2018.”
McClintock declined a telephone interview, but in an email confirmed he’s running for re-election in 2018.
“I take every race seriously,” he said. “Clearly Democrats are energized, but as the recent special elections have shown, just chanting ‘resist’ isn’t working for them.”
McClintock defended his vote to repeal and replace Obamacare, and said even without a clear replacement, he supports full repeal.
“Republicans were elected to revive the economy, rescue the health care system and secure the borders. We’ve made progress on these mandates, but we have a very long way to go. If we fail to deliver, it will be a very difficult year for Republicans and rightly so,” he said. “As long as Republicans stay focused on the economy, health care reform and border security and the Democrats continue to obsess on Russian conspiracy theories and socialist economic programs, I think the Republican congressional majorities will hold.”
Republicans have a few other things working in their favor next year. Incumbents generally have an easier time coasting to re-election in off election years, and voter turnout in California is higher among Republicans.
“Mid-term elections disproportionately assist Republicans because of their turnout advantage ... Republican voters will crawl through glass and heavy gunfire to vote – they show up,” Madrid said. “The key to winning every one of these seats is two factors: You have to be losing Republican voters or you have to compel voters to stay home. There’s nothing to suggest that either of those two things is happening.
“The Republican base is secure,” he said. “In California, they may not like Donald Trump, but they’re still voting for Republicans down ticket.”
Madrid’s point was underscored by an analysis out this month from the California Target Book, which tracks political trends.
“Barring another one of this country’s periodic political tidal waves,” Target Book publisher Darry Sragow wrote, “the Democrats will be doing well to emerge with, at most, one or two pickups.”
So are Democrats kidding themselves if they think they can win in a ruby red district like McClintock’s?
“Yes,” Madrid said. “Something extraordinary would have to happen.”
Remarkable political upsets have happened, and some say 2018 could deal a major blow to Republicans.
Burton worked for the DCCC in 2006 during the presidency of George W. Bush, when Democrats picked up 31 seats in the House, defeating 22 Republican incumbents and winning eight open seats previously held by Republicans. It was the same year Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, an independent, was elected to Congress.
“Nobody thought it was possible for Democrats to take control of the House until Labor Day of that year,” Burton said. “The thing that’s similar between then and now is there’s an unpopular president, there’s a large number of credible candidates in districts across the country, and there’s an incredibly energized Democratic base.”
He said California will play a key role in the national battle.
“In wave years, you have some opposing party break-through, even in places you don’t necessarily expect because the member of Congress in that district gets tied to whatever is negative in what’s happening in the broader national environment,” Burton said.
Key to that, however, is identifying a strong, positive message, Burton and others said.
“Democrats are going to have to go beyond an anti-Trump resistance message,” said Juan Rodriguez, a partner at SCN Strategies, who ran Sen. Kamala Harris’ campaign last year. “They have to ignite their base and have a very clear message that fundamentally addresses their electorate by identifying what I would classify as a new contract for the disappearing middle class that feels like they’ve been left behind.”
Brad Hill, of Rocklin, voted Republican until last year. He said he’s ready for a change.
“I used to identify as a Republican, but I changed my registration last year. I couldn’t identify with the party anymore,” said Hill, 32, active with the group Indivisible. “As far as McClintock goes, one of the things that concerns me is he’s a climate change denier ... then there’s all this stuff on health care. I have a family member with serious medical issues who the Affordable Care Act has really helped.”
Bateson, who voted for Clinton last election, is hoping to draw a share of her support from Republican voters.
“This is not about partisanship, it’s about representation,” she said. “My focus is really on local issues – jobs, health care, the environment. The people of our district are being left behind because we do not have a voice in Congress.”
At a glance
Democratic target list for California’s House Republicans:
- Rep. Darrell Issa, R-Vista
- Rep. Steve Knight, R-Lancaster
- Rep. Jeff Denham, R-Turlock
- David Valadao, R-Hanford
- Rep. Ed Royce, R-Fullerton
- Rep. Dana Rohrabacher, R-Costa Mesa
- Rep. Mimi Walters, R-Laguna Niguel
- Rep. Devin Nunes, R-Tulare
- Rep. Duncan Hunter, R-Alpine