Capitol Alert

2018 was bad for California Republicans. With Trump on the ballot, 2020 could be worse

California’s last outstanding congressional race was finally called for Democrats over the weekend, ending a brutal election cycle for the state’s Republicans.

With President Donald Trump on the ballot in 2020, political experts say the party’s prospects for regaining congressional seats are not likely to improve anytime soon.

Democrat Gil Cisneros officially defeated Republican Young Kim in the Orange County race to succeed retiring GOP Rep. Ed Royce on Saturday, giving Democrats six of the seven Republican-held districts they targeted in 2018 — and every Orange County House seat.

The Associated Press called the seventh race, for Rep. David Valadao’s southern Central Valley seat, on election night. But the three-term Republican’s lead has dwindled since then, and there’s still an outside chance Democrat T.J. Cox could flip the seat.

Kyle Kondik, managing editor of the political handicapper Sabato’s Crystal Ball, said that when it comes to Republicans clawing back any of those seats in 2020, the outlook is “bleak.”

“I just wouldn’t look at any of those seats that flipped and say, ‘Oh, Republicans have a great chance to win any of those back,’” Kondik said.

Kristin Olsen, the former Republican leader in the state Assembly, agreed. “I think 2020 is going to be an extraordinarily difficult year for Republicans at the state and national level. I think if there’s hope to rebuild, it’s a long-term effort.”

Donald Trump’s polarizing presidency is a big part of the reason why. In 2018, anti-Trump voters proved they were highly motivated in the state’s competitive congressional races.

In Orange County, turnout was roughly 60 percent, a double-digit increase over the last midterm election, in 2014. But that’s still far less than the 80 percent of voters that cast ballots in the 2016 presidential election. Democrats typically fare better when turnout is higher.

Trump’s reelection race is only likely to amplify Democrats’ turnout bump in two years’ time, said voter data expert Paul Mitchell. At the same time, it will make it more difficult for local Republicans to separate themselves from a White House and national party that has alienated many Californians.

“Democratic challengers ran against Donald Trump here, and the Republican incumbents ran away from him” in the 2018 midterm election, observed Dan Schnur, a professor at the University of Southern California Annenberg School of Communication. “But it’s going to be even harder to run away from him when his name is on top of the ballot.”

Royce, the Orange County Republican who is leaving Congress at the end of the year, argues GOP candidates can win in a changing Southern California, even in a fraught presidential election year. They just have to ground themselves in local issues, not national ones, he said.

“We need independent-minded leaders who maintain a constant presence in their communities,” Royce told McClatchy.

He and other Republicans in the state cited Kim as a model for the future, despite her narrow loss to Cisneros. The former Royce aide and state assemblywoman was “a local homegrown candidate who has that connection, that presence in the community,” Royce said.

The answer is Young Kim,” agreed Bill Whalen, a fellow at Stanford University’s Hoover Institution. “She is decidedly a product of local politics ... and a good story to tell,” as a Korean American immigrant who moved to the state to attend the University of Southern California.

Royce said he’d encourage Kim to run again, but that the decision is up to her.

One silver lining for California Republicans in 2020: there aren’t many competitive congressional districts left for them to lose.

If he holds on, Valadao will automatically be the most vulnerable Congress member in the state, said Kondik, “given how close (his race) ended up being.”

Beyond Valadao’s 21st congressional district, however, it’s hard to see how “Democrats can squeeze out any more from that state.”

Indeed, in the three so-called “reach” districts that Democrats tried to make competitive in 2018, Republican Congressmen Devin Nunes, Tom McClintock and Duncan Hunter all won comfortably.

Hunter’s race was the closest of the three, thanks to his federal indictment in August for misusing campaign funds.

If Hunter runs again in 2020, Schnur said that Democrats might have a shot at winning that congressional district — assuming they “nominate a candidate with greater appeal to the political center.” But he added, “that’s probably about as far as it goes” for Democratic pickup opportunities.

Beyond 2020, congressional redistricting in 2022 promises upheaval for members of Congress from both parties.

It’s hard to predict how the new district lines will be drawn after the decennial census in 2020, especially given California’s use of an independent commission rather than partisan lawmakers to determine its congressional and legislative maps.

But longtime Democratic consultant Bill Carrick says the same demographic trends that just led to Republicans’ demise in Orange County are “going to be more dominant after the next census.”

“Some of these districts that Republicans have are going to be very hard to keep together,” Carrick said.

On a more optimistic note for the GOP, Kondik said California Republicans could view redistricting as a chance for a fresh start.

“The current map has worked out so poorly for them, it’s almost hard to imagine it getting worse,” he said.

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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.