Capitol Alert

California Republicans walking ‘tough tightrope’ on Trump headed into 2018

When Republican Rep. Ed Royce signed onto a bipartisan bill in Congress to ban bump stocks following the Oct. 1 shooting massacre in Las Vegas, it bothered Ryan Hoskins, a 27-year-old Yorba Linda resident and events director for Cal State Fullerton College Republicans.

Hoskins, a constituent of Royce, saw it as counterproductive to advancing the Republican agenda in Washington, and a snub to President Donald Trump, who declined to discuss stronger gun control measures in the wake of the Vegas shooting.

“We need to pressure all Republicans in Congress to start working with President Trump to pass his legislative reforms...that includes Ed Royce,” Hoskins said. “We don’t want to lose our majority.”

Hoskins’ comments reflect an attitude among Republicans that is growing more widespread as the GOP fights to retain control of Congress. Party representatives should fall in line with the president, even if they don’t agree on every policy detail, he said. Right-wing provocateur Steve Bannon, House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy and young conservatives conveyed a similar message – that achieving Republican Party wins is critical heading into the 2018 midterms – to California Republicans at their fall convention in Anaheim.

“I think everybody is in agreement that Republicans in Congress need to deliver on something for the middle class,” said Dave Gilliard, a Republican political consultant whose clients include four House Republicans being targeted by national Democrats to flip their seats blue in 2018. “Getting tax reform done is extremely important ... it’s a pocketbook issue that affects middle-class voters. It’s the most important issue as far as delivering for the base.”

But Republicans are in a tough spot.

Major policy proposals Trump and congressional leaders have unveiled this year could deal a major blow to California’s economy and hurt constituents of Republican strongholds in the Central Valley and Orange County, where Democrats are focusing their campaign efforts.

Trump’s plan to slash corporate and income taxes could hit Californians who benefit from major tax breaks hard. The state and local tax deduction is on the chopping block under Trump’s proposal.

Efforts to repeal and replace Obamacare would lead millions of Californians to lose health coverage, and premiums would skyrocket, according to the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office. Low-income people that depend on Medi-Cal for their health care, many of whom live in the Central Valley, would be disproportionately affected.

A nationwide immigration crackdown, and construction of a southern border wall between the U.S. and Mexico, would have a ripple effect across the agricultural heart of California. The state’s $47 billion farm economy relies heavily on a robust immigrant workforce, as does tourism and the state’s booming service industry.

California also has some of the toughest gun control laws in the country.

Members being targeted by Democrats – nine of the 14 House Republicans from California are on the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee target list – must decide when to embrace the president on those issues, and when to distance themselves from him.

“The one overarching theme is going to be the Trump factor – that’s the unavoidable elephant in the room,” said Mike Madrid, a Republican political strategist.

Another complicating factor: Donald Trump is deeply unpopular in California.

Statewide, Hillary Clinton defeated him by a 2-to-1 margin, winning 61.7 of the vote to Trump’s 31.6 percent. Many voters who didn’t like him simply didn’t vote for him – even in deep-red districts.

Take, for example, the vote difference between Trump and four targeted Republicans.

Reps. Royce of Fullerton, Darrell Issa of Vista, Jeff Denham of Turlock and Mimi Walters of Laguna Niguel all amassed more votes than Trump in 2016. Royce got 33,995 more votes than Trump in his district, Issa got 20,372 more, Denham got 15,525 more votes and Walters coasted through with 37,905 more.

“It’s all about how they represent their district,” said Gilliard, whose consulting firm represents all four.

Trump’s polarizing effect on California’s electorate underscores the balancing act for Republicans headed into 2018.

“We’ve had protests at our office, consistently since January, which I’ve never seen before,” Walters said in an interview. “They are very motivated and very upset that Trump won ... I take every race very seriously.”

Walters said she “fully supports” Trump.

“It is very important that Republicans back the president,” she said. “He’s the president of our party. He stands for what we stand for.”

Walters is one of seven House Republicans seen as particularly vulnerable in 2018. She and the others represent large swaths of Orange County and the Central Valley, areas that Hillary Clinton carried last year.

That may not matter.

“Republicans are going to need some victories, they’re going to need something to run on. If they have health care and tax reform, that’s plenty,” Madrid said.

Madrid said House Republicans will likely distance themselves from Trump in some areas such as immigration, but he argued the president’s unpopularity in California will have little effect on them in the 2018 midterms. Those who have become the focus of attacks from the left, for their vote to repeal and replace Obamacare, for example, will likely coast to reelection next year, he said.

“It’s really hard to motivate Democrats to show up in the numbers that they need to pick off these seats,” Madrid said. “They’d have to have a higher turnout than they did in 2016 – a record turnout year, with their candidate Hillary Clinton winning more votes than anyone has in California since Franklin Delano Roosevelt.

“Even then, no Republican lost their seat,” he added. “The reason why is even though people weren’t happy with Trump at the top of the ticket, they were still voting Republican down-ticket. They’re still Republicans, it’s not like they’re crossing over and voting Democrat.”

Republicans aren’t just playing defense. The National Republican Congressional Committee has targeted four Democratic House seats in California to flip red.

Meanwhile, Republican leaders are helping targeted House members.

“This administration understands the importance of California,” McCarthy said in Anaheim. He and Vice President Mike Pence recently raised $5 million for targeted House Republicans on a three-day fundraising trip across the state, he said.

Garry South, a Democratic strategist, said Republicans shouldn’t get too comfortable.

“What we’re seeing across California is these seats becoming less Republican,” South said. “In 2000, we had 24 House Republicans vs. 28 Democrats. Today there’s just 14 Republicans and 39 Democrats ... the trend is clear.

“Slowly but surely, the demographics of this state are grinding the Republicans to pieces,” South said. “There are more millenials, more Latinos, more Asian Americans ... they all tend to vote Democratic and they are more liberal on many fronts, whether you’re talking about same-sex marriage or recreational marijuana or the death penalty. Republicans are just being essentially squeezed out of California.”

Hoskins, from the Fullerton College Republicans, said he recognizes the changes in Orange County, which swung blue last year for the first time in a presidential election since Republican Alf Landon was defeated by FDR in 1936.

“It’s definitely a tough tightrope they’re walking, especially in Orange County, and the growing liberal constituencies here,” Hoskins said of House incumbents. “I think now, more than ever, it’s important to stand firm on Republican ideals and find new ways of expressing them to immigrant communities – Latinos, Asian Americans. Let’s bring them into the party.”

2018 Republican targets:

▪ Rep. Jeff Denham, R-Turlock. Facing eight Democratic challengers.

▪ Rep. David Valadao, R-Hanford. Facing one Democratic challenger, Emilio Huerta, son of United Farm Workers co-founder Dolores Huerta.

▪ Rep. Devin Nunes, R-Tulare. Facing three Democratic challengers.

▪ Rep. Steve Knight, R-Lancaster. Facing three Democratic challengers. One of them, Brian Caforio, surpassed Knight in total third-quarter fundraising.

▪ Rep. Ed Royce, R-Fullerton, facing five Democratic challengers. One of them, Andy Thorburn, raised $2.1 million during the third-quarter fundraising period, compared to Royce’s $705,000.

▪ Rep. Mimi Walters, R-Laguna Niguel. Facing six Democratic challengers, including one, Brian Forde, who out-fundraised Walters in the third quarter.

▪ Rep. Dana Rohrabacher, R-Costa Mesa. Facing seven Democratic challengers and one Republican.

▪ Rep. Darrell Issa, R-Vista. Facing three Democratic challengers, including one, Paul Kerr, who out-raised him last period.

▪ Rep. Duncan Hunter, R-Alpine. Facing four Democratic challengers and two Republican opponents. Two Democrats, Josh Butner and Ammar Campa-Najjar, both raised more than Hunter last period.

Related stories from Sacramento Bee