Capitol Alert

Here’s who could challenge Tom McClintock for Congress in 2020

A new crop of Democrats is sizing up a challenge to Republican Rep. Tom McClintock in California’s 4th Congressional District after McClintock’s 2018 opponent, Jessica Morse, decided to forgo a rematch.

Sean Frame, a Placerville Union School Board member and local businessman, declared his candidacy in November 2018. And at least one other Democrat is also considering jumping in.

Brynne Kennedy, founder of a San Francisco-based human resources management software company, is having conversations with local organizers about the race, several Democratic activists in the district confirmed. Kennedy stepped down as CEO of her company, Topia, in February and now lives in Roseville, according to her LinkedIn profile.

Some local activists are skeptical about a candidate who lacks deep ties to the district, arguing it’s a crucial element for any Democrat seeking to unseat McClintock (who, himself, has never lived in the district).

“I’m uncomfortable with someone from outside the district coming in,” said Suzanne Eckes-Wahl, who was recently elected as a state Democratic party delegate and has been involved with the local Indivisible group. “I think that you need a local who knows how to work across party lines and who has been doing that.”

Frame, himself, is making his local connections a focus of his campaign. He told the Bee he plans to emphasize the shared problems facing district residents, like access to the Internet and the rising risk of wildfire, and how they can work together on solutions.

“We’re in the same boat,” said Frame, but convincing voters of that “can only be done by someone that’s lived here and knows these issues … on a visceral and personal level.” Kennedy did not respond to a query about her potential campaign.

As a co-founder of El Dorado Progressives, a non-profit formed after President Donald Trump’s election to advocate for liberal priorities like protecting Obamacare and the environment, Frame also has an activist base in one of the most populous parts of the district.

But those ties could also make it difficult for him to connect with the No Party Preference voters and some Republicans whose support he would need to pull off an upset of McClintock in 2020.

McClintock’s political consultant, Chris Baker, said the six-term congressman is prepared to “run just as competitively as we did in 2018.”

Baker, however, was skeptical Democrats would be able to make the race any closer in 2020 than they did last year. Morse outspent McClintock two-to-one, Baker noted, and still lost the race decisively.

“I don’t know that any Democrat can do better than Morse did,” Baker said. “But if they want to try again, I guess we can’t stop them.”

Morse’s defeat last year, despite a spirited campaign and unprecedented fundraising, has many Democrats feeling far less bullish about ousting McClintock, even with Trump’s reelection campaign sure to mobilize Democratic voters.

Amy Champ, California Democratic Party regional director for part of the 4th district, acknowledged that “the numbers are very tough in this district,” which covers all or part of ten counties, including the Sacramento suburbs of Roseville and Placerville as well as Sierra Nevada destinations Lake Tahoe and Yosemite.

According to the latest voter registration statistics from February, Republicans make up 41 percent of the district versus just 28 percent for Democrats, with ‘no party preference’ and minor party voters totaling 31 percent.

Morse, a former State Department and U.S. Agency for International Development staffer and first-time candidate, made inroads with those independent voters in 2018.

Local Democratic group Sierra Forward commissioned a post-election survey, conducted online last November by the Prime Group, that found Morse and McClintock roughly split independent voters. That would mark a dramatic improvement from 2016, when McClintock won 75 percent of those voters.

But while Morse whittled McClintock’s margin of victory down to single digits, she still lost by 8 percentage points.

To have any shot at victory in November 2020, the next Democratic challenger will need to win independent voters outright.

Local Democrats believe Morse was weighing a rematch until last month. But she opted to join Gov. Gavin Newsom’s administration, instead. In a March 29 press release, the governor’s office said it had appointed Morse as deputy secretary of forest resources management at the California Natural Resources Agency.

Without Morse’s “name carrying the race and building on that name recognition, we’re almost back in the same place” as at the start of the 2018 race, Champ said.

It’s also unclear if Frame or Kennedy will be able to tap into Morse’s donor network, which helped her outraise McClintock in 2018.

That fundraising attracted national Democratic attention, with party leaders rallying behind Morse in the months leading up to the November election. But the party’s Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee did not include the district in its initial list of Republican-held districts it is targeting in 2020.

Some local Democrats nevertheless believe that the infrastructure the party built in the midterm election, as well as a core network of activists mobilized by Trump’s 2016 victory, give them a shot at an upset next year.

Eckes-Wahl said she thinks Democrats “can do it this time because of the organization” that’s taken root since 2016.

“Jessica did a great job of laying a foundation in terms of organizing here,” Frame said. But “If we haven’t been organized in this district for 40 years, we can’t just expect to turn it around in one election.”

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Emily Cadei works out of the McClatchy Washington bureau, where she covers national politics and writes the Impact2020 newsletter. 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.