Trump vs. California
Inspecting prototypes for his proposed wall along the Mexican border during his first presidential visit to California on Tuesday afternoon, President Donald Trump couldn't resist getting in a few digs at the state.
"They have the highest taxes in the United States. The place is totally out of control. You have sanctuary cities where you have criminals living in the sanctuary cities," he said. "The governor's doing a terrible job running the state of California."
His harsh message revealed nearly everything you need to know about what Trump thinks of California – and why the country's largest, and most proudly liberal, state may be his ticket back to the White House in 2020.
As California Democrats have positioned themselves as a bulwark in the anti-Trump "resistance," and boosted their political prospects in the process, Trump has pushed back with equal vigor, rallying his supporters.
A visit to Sacramento by Attorney General Jeff Sessions last week, to tout a lawsuit against California's "sanctuary state" law and two other controversial policies protecting undocumented immigrants, was followed hours later by a screaming email from Trump's re-election fundraising committee: "California vs. THE LAW."
"The President is calling on you to stand by him in the face of such flagrant lawlessness," the campaign urged supporters.
Even his first official visit to California this week – coming later in his term than any president since Franklin Roosevelt – was a finger in the state's eye. California leaders strongly oppose the border wall project.
"Every politician needs a foil," said Bill Whalen, a research fellow at the Hoover Institution and a former speechwriter for Republican California Gov. Pete Wilson. "It's giving Donald Trump very good talking points for Ohio, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, Michigan, where the sanctuary issue doesn't play as well."
Trump is far from the first politician to run against California, which is viewed by so much of the rest of the country as a bastion of kooky, extreme – and possibly dangerous – left-wing values. Even Democrats do it on occasion.
At the 1984 Republican National Convention, where President Ronald Reagan was nominated for reelection, his ambassador to the United Nations, Jeane Kirkpatrick, denounced the "San Francisco Democrats" whose foreign policy had driven her from her longtime party. Then-presidential candidate Bill Clinton landed the soundbite of the night at a 1992 Democratic primary debate when he told Gov. Jerry Brown, "Jerry, chill out! You're from California – chill out. Cool off a little."
House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi is a favorite boogeywoman in congressional races across the country. When Democrat Jon Ossoff was inundated with donations from California in a special election for a Georgia House seat last summer, Republicans ran a television ad featuring San Francisco hippies celebrating Ossoff and Pelosi as "one of us."
But Republican political consultant Mike Madrid said Trump has capitalized on the dynamic in an "unprecedented" way, making it a central part of his political rhetoric since the early days of his campaign, when he blasted San Francisco for the sanctuary policy that he blamed for the shooting death of Kate Steinle.
"Being able to show California’s excesses in the other states helps him. It allows him to frame the debate in very stark terms," Madrid said.
Jack Pitney, a professor of politics at Claremont McKenna College and former Republican congressional aide, attributed some of Trump's enduring venom to anger over his popular vote loss. The president has repeatedly blamed "millions" of illegal votes in California for that outcome.
"He’s very much aware that California more than accounts for Hillary Clinton’s margin in the popular vote," Pitney said. "He personalizes everything, and he sees California as the enemy."
That doesn't mean it's not also an effective strategy.
Whalen compared it to the political dynamic in 2004, when then-San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom began issuing marriage licenses to gay couples, long before most Americans supported such unions.
While it made Newsom a hero among liberal factions in California, he was scorned by conservative groups across the country for breaking the law. Republicans were able to use his example as they pursued anti-gay marriage constitutional amendments to drive up turnout in 11 states, including Ohio, which decided the election that year.
Whalen said the Ohio initiative, which received hundreds of thousands of votes more than President George W. Bush, may have helped push Bush to his narrow victory there and a second term.
"You could make the argument that this is how 2020 is going to line up," Whalen said, with support for contentious sanctuary policies running far ahead in California of the rest of the country. "Timing is everything."
And the growing defiance, which reached a boiling point last week when Brown accused the president of "basically going to war" with California, only helps Trump make his case that he is needed to keep the state in line.
"He’s playing to those differences, and California is making it exceptionally easy," Madrid said. "California is working on the reelection effort for Donald Trump right now."
The trouble is, what benefits Trump in the Rust Belt states that unexpectedly swung the 2016 election for him could also spell doom for California Republicans fighting to hang on to their seats in the upcoming midterms. Half of their congressional delegation is targeted by Democrats as top pickup opportunities to take back the House in November.
"Obviously, this issue by itself isn’t going to change outcomes, but it’s one more bit of fuel in the Democratic gas tank," Pitney said.
Madrid notes that anti-Trump sentiment has changed the turnout for special elections and primaries over the past year, driving more low-propensity Democrats to the polls. The president's constant attacks on undocumented immigrants, from increased enforcement raids to canceling protections for "Dreamer" youth, are particularly motivating for Latino voters, whose numbers have spiked by double digits in states like Texas and Virginia.
Latinos will be a crucial demographic for Democrats in November, and Trump's photo op at the border wall is exactly the fire they need, Madrid said. "To do this in California is begging Latinos to show up and vote."