Capitol Alert

Retaking Congress, battling Trump: California Democrats prepare for 2018

Where do California and Donald Trump differ?

California voters rejected Donald Trump during the election, and the state's leaders continue to push back on his initiatives. On issues from health care to immigration, California's governor and Democratic leaders oppose the new president.
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California voters rejected Donald Trump during the election, and the state's leaders continue to push back on his initiatives. On issues from health care to immigration, California's governor and Democratic leaders oppose the new president.

Is fighting President Donald Trump at every turn enough? Could California help Democrats retake the House next year? Is it time to replace some of the state’s longtime political leaders with fresh faces?

That’s the backdrop to the state’s Democratic Party convention this weekend in Sacramento, a high-profile event where Democratic leaders both in Washington and California are given a stage to lay out the direction of the party and articulate its most important values.

“This weekend is a dress rehearsal for what comes next for the Democratic Party,” said David McCuan, a political science professor at Sonoma State University. “It’s a rich testing ground for a message and ideas that can unite establishment Democrats and the more progressive Bernie wing looking to move the party left. You can’t just be the party riding this anti-Trump wave, you have to be one that stands for something, and that is the challenge for 2018, and for 2020.”

As turmoil in Washington, D.C., continues, California’s Democratic activists have a lot to ponder:

The Trump factor

Democrats, who control every statewide office in California, are confronting a fundamental question as the 2018 midterm elections near. President Donald Trump is deeply unpopular here, but is fighting him at every turn enough to help a candidate succeed?

“The surest way to win in California in 2018 is to be as un-Trump as humanly and politically possible ... the fiercest Trump opponent starts out with a built-in advantage,” said Dan Schnur, a political analyst and now adjunct professor at the University of Southern California’s Annenberg School of Communications. “It’s always dangerous to predict an election 18 months out, but at this early stage of the cycle there’s no question that Democratic-leaning voters are highly motivated, and Republican candidates are on the defensive.”

Following revelations that Trump may have asked former FBI Director James Comey to drop the investigation into Michael Flynn, his former national security adviser, Democrats will hear from Rep. Adam Schiff of Burbank, who this week pressed for both an independent commission and an independent prosecutor to investigate Russian meddling in the 2016 election and any possible collusion with Trump. He says both are necessary – the commission because it operates without “political consideration” as he put it, and the prosecutor because the commission “doesn’t make prosecutorial decisions.”

California leaders also have had plenty to say about Trump’s action and rhetoric on immigration, health care and the environment, issues that have ignited passion among voters in jam-packed town halls.

Senate leader Kevin de León last month fired off a blistering attack on Trump and Attorney General Jeff Sessions for ratcheting up threats to crack down on undocumented immigrants and jurisdictions considered sanctuaries. De León, also on tap to speak Saturday, said the two are basing their law enforcement and immigration policies on “principles of white supremacy – not American values.”

Gov. Jerry Brown blasted Trump during his March trip to Washington, saying Republican efforts to repeal Obamacare are about “disease, death and suffering.” Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom, who will make an appearance after Sen. Kamala Harris on Saturday, regularly trolls him on Facebook and Twitter.

But some are arguing the party has to represent something more, noting that Hillary Clinton spent much of her campaign attacking Trump without sending a clear message about what she would do for Americans.

It’s not enough to be the “ ‘anti-Trump Party’ – we must unite around our shared progressive agenda,” Eric Bauman, a candidate for state party chairman, told delegates in a video this week.

Battle to retake the House

The debate over health care, the Trump-Russia investigations and demographic shifts that are eroding longtime Republican strongholds will make California a key battleground in the party’s national effort to regain Democratic control of the House.

“Hillary Clinton was the first Democrat to carry Orange County itself since Roosevelt in 1936. This is a whole new world,” said Bill Carrick, longtime political consultant to U.S. Sen. Dianne Feinstein. “That alone can have a very meaningful role in 2018 ... No other state has as many congressional seats up for grabs than California.”

Carrick called on the state Democratic Party to shift its focus to competitive House races. Though it’s not the state party’s practice, Carrick said it should help Democrats regain seats in the House.

“Hell yes, the party has to do that,” Carrick said. “We’re going to win down-ballot in California. This is the battleground in getting Congress back.”

The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee has beefed up its West Coast field offices and is crafting a strategy to turn growing momentum – especially among young people and those newly energized by Trump – into results.

The DCCC already wants to flip seven House Republican districts in California that went for Hillary Clinton last November, some in Republican strongholds considered more competitive this year. It indicated it’s looking to expand its the number of targets.

“If you look at the seven districts we put on our initial battlefield, you see ... they strongly rejected Donald Trump,” said Tyler Law, a spokesman for the organization. “These districts are shifting. They’re becoming more diverse, Democratic registration is improving and they’re moving quickly toward the Democrats ... Republican representatives in California have moved far right, and all we have to do is look at the Republican ‘repeal and ripoff’ (health care) bill that every single California Republican voted for.”

One congressman considered a prime target for Democrats is Rep. Darrell Issa, R-Vista, who defended his vote for the American Health Care Act in a statement after it passed the House. “Obamacare is doing real harm to California’s families and struggling businesses,” he said, “and constituents are counting on me to deliver real relief.”

Some of his constituents weren’t happy. Mass protests outside his office in Southern California following the vote drew people with signs that read “Trumpcare is fake health care,” and “Trumpcare steals from the poor & gives to the rich.”

Jack Pandol, a spokesman for the National Republican Congressional Committee, downplayed the backlash Republicans are receiving.

“We are continuing to tell our guys to stay hyper-focused on their districts,” Pandol said. “We feel like that’s a good strategy.”

Clinton districts 

Ring out the old, bring in the new?

Bill Whalen, a Republican and research fellow with the Hoover Institution, recently authored an opinion piece calling for a change in “California’s geriatric liberal leadership.”

He argues that it’s time for Pelosi, and Feinstein, and Brown to go.

It’s not about age, he says: “Rather, it’s to highlight California’s struggle to find a place in a Democratic Party that, come 2020, stands to benefit from a fresh face with fresh ideas.”

Brown will leave due to term limits, but some on the left in the Democratic Party agree about Feinstein, wondering if she will run again. She’ll be 84 next year, her husband has cancer and she had a pacemaker installed earlier this year.

Hundreds of people who showed up at a recent town hall in San Francisco heckled and booed Feinstein for taking what they see as a middle-of-the-road stance on Trump and health care.

Whalen said in an interview that the state’s leadership also needs new energy to deal with issues such as housing affordability and jobs.

“It’s not an age requirement, it’s a vision requirement,” he said. “This is a big blue state and if we’re going to talk about its future, it starts with talking about where Democrats will take the state, because odds are they’ll be running it for the foreseeable future.”

John Burton, the state party’s current chair who himself is 84 and will be replaced this weekend, isn’t buying that the party needs new blood.

“What’s a new era of leadership?” Burton asked. “If people get tired of the person, or if they’re not doing their job, they’ll kick them out.”