Capitol Alert

Democrats bank on ‘Trump effect’ in California congressional races

Before November 2016, Molly Scholes of Roseville couldn’t have picked her congressman, Republican Tom McClintock, out of a lineup. But since Donald Trump was elected president she’s become “a regular caller to his office,” she told The Bee.

She’s also leading a grassroots effort to boot McClintock from a massive district that stretches south to Fresno County and replace the conservative lawmaker with a Democrat, first-time candidate Jessica Morse.

Scholes is the founder of Moms 4 Morse, which sprung out of an e-mail she sent to a dozen female friends in Placer County 48 hours after Trump’s election, urging them to form a network to “make a difference” — and prevent a repeat of 2016. The group now has more than 700 members on its Facebook page, and is conducting weekly canvassing outings, knocking on hundreds of doors in East Roseville and Granite Bay on behalf of Morse’s campaign.

Scholes is part of a nationwide surge in Democratic activism, post-2016, that has raised the party’s hopes of what’s been dubbed a “blue wave” this November — a backlash to Trump and his policies that will sweep Republicans out of office around the country. Much of the energy on the left has focused on winning control of the House of Representatives, where Republicans currently enjoy a 43-seat majority. Democrats need to win 23 of those seats to gain a majority and, with it, a powerful check on President Trump’s agenda.

Trump, meanwhile, is using the threat of a Democratic House to rally his own supporters. “A blue wave in November means open borders, which means massive crime,” the president warned at a West Virginia rally in late August. “A red wave means safety and strength, that’s what it is.”

California, for once, finds itself right at the center of that fight, with between seven and ten genuinely competitive races.

The president isn’t on the ballot this year, nor is he expected to come stump for Republican candidates in California the way he is elsewhere. Yet his influence in the 2018 election is unavoidable in a state where his popularity is among the lowest in the country.

And voters like Scholes — educated, suburban women who can’t stand Trump — could tip the balance. “My observation is what’s happening in the organizing in District 4 is the majority of the feet on the street and the people doing the work are women,” Scholes said.

Republicans are countering by highlighting state-level policies and problems. Betsy Mahan is among those who think Democrats are overly optimistic.

Sacramento County Republican Party Chairwoman Betsy Mahan says she’s seeing a surge of interest at local headquarters from people who think this election is less about a president who’s kept his promises and more about how Democrats have mismanaged the state.

“Do I see people coming in here and saying bad things about Trump? No… We have a lot of people who are very very encouraged by what he’s accomplishing,” she said. “I see people coming in here and saying we need to get things done in California.”

Mahan pointed, in particular, to the sky-high cost of living in the state. Her oldest child has moved to Idaho because he couldn’t afford a California apartment. “People are feeling like they are under siege,” she said.

Republicans, however, face two distinct challenges in the state. Demographics have been shifting against the party in traditional strongholds in Orange County and San Diego for years. Democrat Hillary Clinton won five congressional districts in Southern California in the 2016 election, becoming the first Democratic nominee to win Orange County since 1936. She also won two Central Valley districts held by Republicans, around Modesto and the outskirts of Fresno. Democrats are heavily targeting all seven of those congressional seats.

The second problem for Republicans: Trump’s nativist rhetoric doesn’t play particularly well in these diverse districts, where immigration and globalization are not dirty words.

Anti-Trump energy — and fundraising — have even put in play congressional seats that have long been safely in Republican hands, including McClintock’s 4th District and Rep. Devin Nunes’ district outside of Fresno.

Democrats and their allies are now hoping that the president’s push to advance his divisive agenda motivates their electoral base, which tends to stay home in midterm elections.

“I think every midterm election is a referendum, at some level, on the sitting administration,” said Tom Steyer, the liberal billionaire who is pouring millions of dollars into grassroots organizing efforts in California’s most competitive congressional races. “Given the extremely high profile and the extreme reaction to this president, I think it’s only fair to say it’s only more so than normal.”

“If you’re a member of the Republican party, you’re a member of the Trump party,” Steyer added.

Steyer’s NextGen America is just one of a bevy of liberal groups working to turn out Democratic voters on election day. Indivisible, which formed in response to Trump’s election, has about 800 local groups registered in the state, more than any other. The aim is to help voters hold their member of Congress accountable, although each group has its own local focus.

The group Swing Left, which also formed in the wake of 2016, also has a “huge portion” of its membership in California, Executive Director Ethan Todras-Whitehill told the Bee. Swing Left helps people who live in districts with non-competitive congressional races get involved in nearby “swing” districts with competitive contests. The seven GOP districts that Clinton won in 2016 are among those they are directing volunteers and donors toward. All seven races rank in the top ten of Swing Left’s fundraising “leaderboard.”

Republicans says Democrats are focusing on Trump to avoid California’s real issues.

“I do think the reason Democrats want to talk about Donald Trump is because after almost eight years … of control, they’ve kind of made a mess of the state,” California Republican Party Chairman Jim Brulte said. “This election should really be about the future of California.”

Republican members of Congress from the state have donated hundreds of thousands of dollars to a ballot initiative campaign to repeal a recent gas tax increase, an issue they think will draw conservative voters to the polls, particularly in Orange County. In the Central Valley, candidates are talking up Republican efforts to bring more water to state’s agricultural nexus.

They are also working to portray the Democrats running in what are mostly Republican-leaning districts as “absolutely out of touch and far left,” as National Republican Congressional Committee spokesman Jack Pandol put it.

Paul Mitchell of Political Data Inc., a voter data analysis firm in Southern California, says there is likely to be a “Trump effect” in the state’s most competitive congressional elections, “because of the nature of those seats and the potential for Democrats to win back Congress” by flipping them.

That’s particularly true, he said, for the five Southern California races in districts Clinton won in 2016 — the 25th, 39th, 45th, 48th and 49th — Mitchell said. In addition, the 50th district, Duncan Hunter’s San Diego County seat, is now in play thanks to Hunter’s indictment in August for allegedly misusing campaign funds for personal purposes and then lying about it.

Mitchell believes Democrats have a bigger challenge in the San Joaquin Valley, where they are focused on ousting Republican Reps. Jeff Denham and David Valadao in the 10th and 21st Districts (Nunes’ 22nd district, which Trump won comfortably in 2016, is a much longer shot). Unlike the more affluent, suburban districts in Southern California, Democratic voters inland “are more blue collar, less New York Times-reading, latte-drinking, offended-by-what’s-happening-in-DC” types, he said.

They also include many minorities and young people, who have lower turnout rates and, polls show, are less engaged in the 2018 election.

McClintock’s 4th district, which stretches from Lake Tahoe down to Kings Canyon, is something of a hybrid. Most of the population is centered in wealthy suburbs outside of Sacramento, but it also includes large chunks of rural land. Republicans have a double-digit voter registration advantage there, although nearly a quarter of voters are independent. Trump won the district by nearly 15 percent in 2016.

Given those demographics, McClintock remains the heavy favorite, despite being outraised by Morse over the last year.

That hasn’t deterred newly energized political activists like Scholes.

The mother of two teenage girls emphasized that she’s not just against the current Republicans in office, but is excited to support Morse and her agenda. She acknowledged, however, that Trump’s 2016 victory hangs over this year’s campaign.

“I did some light phone banking for Hillary toward the end of her election and I actually deeply regret not doing more,” she said. In 2018, “I want to leave it all out on the field.”

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