Thanks to Trump, Democrats may see gains in once-safe GOP districts in California

Trump drags down Republicans in California

Donald Trump is a huge issue in the California congressional race between Democrat Michael Eggman and Rep. Jeff Denham, R-Turlock.
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Donald Trump is a huge issue in the California congressional race between Democrat Michael Eggman and Rep. Jeff Denham, R-Turlock.

The Pacific Coast north of San Diego is a wonderland of rugged hills, sparkling blue water, long sandy beaches, surfers and smoothies, an area with a mix of affluence and military presence that’s one of the last Republican strongholds left in coastal California.

What’s missing in this region – once home to Richard Nixon’s Western White House – are Donald Trump yard signs or much other visible support for the Republican presidential nominee, and that’s a problem for Rep. Darrell Issa, a Republican pit bull against President Barack Obama who embraced Trump and now faces his toughest re-election battle.

The release of video footage of Trump bragging in explicit terms about groping women has only escalated problems that began with his statements calling Mexican immigrants “rapists.” Nearly 1 in 5 people in Issa’s changing district who’ve registered to vote since California’s June primary are Latino, and there’s no shortage of resentment of Issa’s description of Trump as the “obvious choice” for president.

“The more the word is getting out that Issa is endorsing Trump, it doesn’t bode well for Issa in the Latino community,” said Bill de la Fuente, who works on Latino business development in Issa’s home city of Vista.

Democratic challengers are trying to defeat some House Republican incumbents by linking them to GOP presidential candidate Donald Trump. Ads against the lawmakers frequently invoke Trump's name.

California Republicans running for re-election to the U.S. House of Representatives are struggling in the age of Trump, with their challenge intensified by the growing numbers of registered Latino voters. This is Issa’s first tough race since being elected to Congress 16 years ago, and he is not alone.

Rep. Steve Knight, from Lancaster in northern Los Angeles County, also is fighting for his political life as he scrambles to distance himself from Trump, and the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee sees an opening in the Central Valley congressional district around Modesto, now represented by Republican Rep. Jeff Denham of Turlock, a Trump supporter. The committee is spending nearly $700,000 to unseat Denham, whose district now has a population that is more than 40 percent Latino.

The 11-year-old footage of Trump bragging about groping women, followed by women accusing him of groping, has increased the pressure on California Republicans to the breaking point. Knight – after spending the year refusing to say whether he supports Trump or not – announced after the video’s release that he now “cannot support either candidate for president.”

Denham and Issa condemned Trump’s remarks but neither withdrew support for his presidential campaign.

In some of these districts if (Republican) turnout is 5 percent less than it was four years ago then that’s the ballgame.

Kurt Bardella, former spokesman for Republican Rep. Darrell Issa

Trump is toxic for any Republican who is running for office, and all of them are worried about what he means for their races, said Kurt Bardella, a former spokesman for Issa who now runs his own consulting firm.

Republican candidates are terrified that Republican voters won’t show up at the polls because they don’t want to vote for either Trump or Hillary Clinton, he said. That’s especially a danger in California, where the U.S. Senate race is between two Democrats, so there’s nothing at the top of the ticket to draw Republicans out to vote other than the presidential race.

“In some of these districts if (Republican) turnout is 5 percent less than it was four years ago then that’s the ballgame,” Bardella said.

Republican congressional candidates in California are counting on voters like Elizabeth Szu, an Asian-American Republican from the wealthy southern Orange County town of Ladera Ranch with a long history of voting Republican. She once organized a Southern California campaign rally for then-President George H.W. Bush.

She definitely won’t vote for Trump, and she might even vote for Clinton, but Issa still has her vote, after she confronted him about his support for Trump at an event on the edge of a sun-kissed Ladera Ranch park, where soccer moms cheered as smartly uniformed kids kicked the ball around on perfect grass. She said she was satisfied with Issa’s explanation that his support for Trump was based on getting Republicans appointed to federal courts.

Issa, who as the wealthiest member of Congress has plenty of money to spend on campaigning, can prevail in his race against retired Marine Col. Doug Applegate if there are enough voters like Szu, since registered Republicans still significantly outnumber Democrats in the district.

But it’s a different story for Denham and Knight, who represent congressional districts where registered Democrats now outnumber Republicans. Knight, the most vulnerable Republican member of Congress in California, long tried to avoid the Trump issue by refusing to say whether he would vote for the Republican presidential nominee before the video release forced his hand.

Nick Chavez, a third-generation Mexican-American who works in construction in Palmdale, in the high desert an hour’s drive north of Los Angeles, said he hadn’t been impressed with Knight’s waffling over Trump.

“Either put up or shut up,” said Chavez, a registered Republican who is leaning toward voting next month for Knight’s Democratic challenger, Bryan Caforio.

Knight’s district runs from Santa Clarita, a low-key bedroom community of Los Angeles where the surrounding area doubles for the Old West in films and television (scenes from HBO’s “Westworld” were recently filmed there), north along the highway to the working class Antelope Valley cities of Palmdale and Lancaster.

About a quarter of the registered voters in the district are Latino and their registration numbers are growing as the election nears, according to Political Data Inc., a California firm that tracks election data for campaigns.

Caforio’s campaign is on the offensive against Knight for not renouncing Trump until after the groping video was leaked 31 days before the election, with Caforio saying in an interview that Trump is “running the most racist, misogynistic, bigoted campaign in the history of a presidential candidate.”

Knight’s response in an interview to questions about his long silence on Trump was that he’s never before endorsed a presidential candidate and “in this campaign it’s served me well.”

At this point there’s nothing beneficial that a Republican candidate can say about Trump.

Dan Schnur, Jesse M. Unruh Institute of Politics, University of Southern California

On paper at least, Denham’s fertile San Joaquin Valley district appears even more primed for a Democratic takeover.

The agricultural heart of California, where vast orchards and groves of almonds, walnuts, grapes, oranges and other crops stretch toward the Sierra Nevada mountains, the area is heavily Latino, and Denham and Rep. David Valadao represent districts that are increasingly Democratic.

Al Moncada, a longtime Latino Republican activist from Manteca, said he’d switched his voter registration to independent because of Trump and was a supporter of Denham’s Democratic opponent, Michael Eggman.

Denham “aligned himself with a man that represents everything Republicans have fought against all these years, discrimination and all these things,” Moncada said. “Trump has taken the Republican Party back to slavery years. It is sad, but that’s the way Latinos and African-Americans and other minorities feel.”

Hope for Denham can be found, though, on quiet, leafy Main Street in the small city of Turlock on the southern edge of the congressional district. Several voters said that while they didn’t care much for Trump they were going to go ahead and vote for Denham.

“He supports the Hispanics,” said Joel Calderon, a Turlock Latino voter who thinks Denham is trying to find middle ground on the issue of immigration.

The Denham campaign did not respond to repeated requests for an interview to discuss the congressman’s support for Trump.

“At this point there’s nothing beneficial that a Republican candidate can say about Trump,” said Dan Schnur, director of the Jesse M. Unruh Institute of Politics at the University of Southern California.

Schnur said it was clear that Trump was dragging down Republicans running for Congress in California, especially after the bombshell release of the video where the Republican presidential nominee brags about groping women.

“That doesn’t mean every Republican congressional candidate will lose, but it means there is a significant downside to having Trump at the top of the ticket regardless of how you handle it,” Schnur said.

Sean Cockerham: 202-383-6016, @seancockerham