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A Californian is the top Republican in the House. Can his party recover back home?

Trump vs. California

Since President Donald Trump took office, his administration has been at odds with California Democrats over policies from immigration to tax reform. Here's a primer on Trump's ideological battles with the state.
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Since President Donald Trump took office, his administration has been at odds with California Democrats over policies from immigration to tax reform. Here's a primer on Trump's ideological battles with the state.

Three years after he first bid for the job, Bakersfield Rep. Kevin McCarthy has finally landed the top Republican leadership position in the House of Representatives.

But for the six-term congressman, the circumstances are less than ideal: He will lead a shrunken Republican caucus — including a decimated California Republican delegation — that no longer controls the House agenda. And while McCarthy expressed optimism this week that Republicans can reclaim the majority in the House in 2020, his new national role won’t necessarily help win back seats in his home state, experts say.

“McCarthy can continue to benefit the state because of his close relationship with (President Donald) Trump,” said Dan Schnur, a professor at the University of Southern California Annenberg School of Communication, “but ironically that relationship is going to prevent him from doing much to rebrand the party in his own state.”

“Look, we know the challenge of what we’re working on,” McCarthy told reporters in Washington after winning his party’s election to be House Minority Leader Wednesday afternoon, alluding to Republicans’ loss of 38 House seats and likely more to come. “We took a beating inside the suburban areas.”

Nowhere is that more true than in California, where a slow-moving blue wave has helped Democrats claim five of seven targeted Republican seats. In Southern California, Republican Reps. Mimi Walters, Dana Rohrabacher and Steve Knight have all now gone down to Democratic challengers, and a Democrat won retiring Republican Darrell Issa’s seat in San Diego. GOP Rep. Jeff Denham of Turlock conceded his race to Democrat Josh Harder on Tuesday evening.

One other Orange County congressional seat is now teetering on the brink -- Democrat Gil Cisneros has overtaken Republican Young Kim in the 39th district, with votes still being counted. If Kim loses, Republicans will hold just eight of 53 congressional seats in the state next year.

Schnur, a onetime adviser to former Republican Gov. Pete Wilson, explained the election results by referencing the famous Wallace Stegner quote, “California is America, only more so.’”

“The same suburban college-educated female voters who turned out for Democrats in droves across the country dealt a virtual death blow to the California Republican delegation,” he said.

As the state’s most powerful Republican, McCarthy raised hundreds of thousands of dollars to try to save his most vulnerable colleagues. He also poured $300,000 into a failed ballot initiative to repeal the state’s recent gas tax increase, in hopes it would help mobilize conservative voters. None of it worked.

Some leading Republican voices in the state say that has a lot to do with a president who’s been at war with California since his early days in office — and one with whom McCarthy has been closely aligned. “Number one, (the election) was about the backlash to Donald Trump,” said Bill Whalen, a fellow at Stanford University’s Hoover Institution.

The backlash was particularly strong among women voters, Whalen said, highlighting national exit polls from last week’s election that showed Republicans lost women by 19 points. Former California Assembly Leader Kristin Olsen also pointed the finger at the White House.

While the Republican supervisor from Stanislaus County emphasized that the party’s decline in California long precedes the current president, Olsen said Trump’s “divisiveness, hostility and hate” have accelerated that trend. “It just reinforces in people’s minds that Republicans don’t like people,” Olsen told McClatchy. “Why would somebody go vote for a Republican if they think that person doesn’t even like you?”

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President Donald Trump holds up a “Presidential Memorandum Promoting the Reliable Supply and Delivery of Water in the West,” after signing it during a ceremony, Friday, Oct. 19, 2018, in Scottsdale, Ariz. Standing behind the president from left, Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., Rep. Devin Nunes, R-Calif., Rep. Jeff Denham, R-Calif. (AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster) Carolyn Kaster AP

McCarthy, however, has assiduously courted the president and embraced a number of Trump’s most divisive proposals. Most recently, he introduced legislation to fully fund Trump’s proposed border wall on the border with Mexico. That’s earned him Trump’s affection (and the label “my Kevin”), which analysts agree can help California.

“For example, let’s say the Trump administration really wanted to make life difficult for, lets say, federal funding for the (University of California) system,” said Whalen. “McCarthy, I think, is the kind of person who has the ability to body block that kind of move. ... He provides a good backdoor channel (to the White House).”

McCarthy’s national role, however, doesn’t always line up with state interests. He was, for example, an avid supporter of the GOP law to overhaul the tax code, which restricted several deductions that benefited many Californians, as well as a bill to repeal Obamacare, which is broadly popular in the state. And he worked to keep fellow California Republicans on board for those proposals.

Democrats hit California Republicans on both issues relentlessly during the 2018 campaign. Rep. Walters’ vote for the tax overhaul, for example, cost her the support of the National Realtors Association, which opposed the caps on state and local tax deductions. The Realtors’ state and federal arms spent nearly $3.5 million to defeat her.

Matt Rexroad, a campaign strategist for Knight, said the Los Angeles County congressman’s healthcare vote was an issue in his race against Democrat Katie Hill, which he lost by roughly 10,000 votes and counting. But Rexroad, who also advised McCarthy’s re-election campaign, said the future Minority Leader can’t be held responsible for Republicans’ losses in the state. “I don’t see how anyone gets there,” he said. The election results were “not isolated to California.”

McCarthy, himself, pointed to historical trends to explain Republicans’ losses last week. “One of the things that happens when a party wins the White House, on average they lose 32 (House) seats,” he said on NBC Thursday morning. “So we knew history was against us.”

Another culprit? Former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg. He “spent more than $100 million” on the election, McCarthy noted Wednesday in Washington. “Michael Bloomberg was very effective at defeating a lot of Republican women … You look at what he did in California.”

According to federal campaign finance records, Bloomberg’s Super PAC spent a total of $10.3 million on California House races. $9.6 million of that went to just two districts held by male Republicans, Knight and Rohrabacher. A Super PAC supporting House Republicans, the Congressional Leadership Fund, spent roughly the same amount on those two races — $5.8 million to support Knight and $4 million to boost Rohrabacher, federal records show.

McCarthy remained confident Wednesday that House Republicans will be able to win back suburban areas in the next election. “We’re going to have to work harder, I think our message is going to have be clearer,” he said.

In California, analysts say what Republicans will have be particularly clear about are their differences with the White House. Republicans in so-called “blue states” have to run “more aggressively away from the national brand,” said Schnur. “We didn’t see much of that this year in California.”

Olsen said that until recently, she thought Republicans in the state could try to walk a middle line — not embracing Trump but also not “throwing him under the bus.” She no longer believes that’s enough. “I think that Trump has created such toxicity within the Republican brand that it has to be called out, specifically called out, and a different way has to be modeled,” she said.

Emily Cadei works out of the McClatchy Washington bureau, where she covers national politics and policy for McClatchy’s California readers. A native of Sacramento, she has spent more than a decade in D.C. reporting on U.S. elections, Congress and foreign affairs for publications including Newsweek, Congressional Quarterly and Roll Call.

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