GOP isn’t giving up on California House seats, but even Republicans say wins are unlikely

Fresh off severe losses at the ballot box, Republicans are laying plans to reclaim ground in blue California.

They’re ranking the seven California congressional seats that Democrats flipped in November as among the GOP’s top targets for 2020, according to a list the party released last week.

It’s an ambitious and some would say impossible goal for a year when President Donald Trump is expected to run for re-election, according to veteran lawmakers and Republican strategists.

“Trump at the top of the ticket is the No. 1 handicap to Republicans in those districts,” said Rob Stutzman, a veteran GOP political strategist based in Sacramento. “No question.”

The battle is already playing out with the National Republican Congressional Committee trying to skewer new Democratic lawmakers who represent historically red parts of the San Joaquin Valley and Southern California.

For instance, the NRCC last month sent text messages to Republican voters when new House members supported Nancy Pelosi of San Francisco as House speaker.

Republicans want voters to view the next election as a chance to rein in the power of the new Democratic majority in the House of Representatives. The NRCC is trying to paint Democrats in moderate districts as in step with their most progressive colleagues.

“Some voters wanted a check on the president, and that referendum has been resolved,” said Scott Baugh, former GOP Assembly leader in California who ran for Congress in one of the Orange County districts taken by Democrats. “Now it will be on the Democrats and how they handle their House majority, and they’ll be facing backlash.”

Republicans have also sent out targeted announcements on each candidate connected to issues such as the Green New Deal, anti-Semitism and border security.

What do farting cows have to do with 2020?

The freshman Democrats, meanwhile, have tried to avoid those issues while projecting themselves as focused on less controversial topics, such as farmer insurance and economic opportunity.

Reps. TJ Cox, D-Fresno, and Josh Harder, D-Turlock, for example, made sure to get spots on the largely bipartisan Agriculture Committee. Harder made a point to visit a dam in his district early this year, demonstrating his interest in local water and agriculture.

In one example of NRCC targeting, the party asked Cox to weigh in on how he planned to deal with “farting cows” in his district. That’s an issue in Cox’s Southern San Joaquin Valley district, where dairymen have been purchasing methane digesters to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and comply with state air quality regulations.

The Republican messages connect cow farts to a Democratic proposal to fight climate change with a so-called Green New Deal, which the GOP characterizes as a threat to the dairy industry. Cox has not said publicly what he thinks of the Green New Deal.

Trump at negative 30

It’s still early in the cycle, but Republicans have not improved their share of House seats in California since 1994.

Most Republican strategists contacted by McClatchy said the NRCC might be too ambitious with Trump on the ballot in a state where he has historically been unpopular. Trump’s approval rating was negative 30 points in California in January, according to a Morning Consult poll, one of the lowest in the country.

The Republican strategists said a couple California seats could be in play — particularly if the Democratic presidential nominee was a staunch progressive such as Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Massachusetts.

“Cox isn’t the strongest candidate, for example,” said Kevin Spillane, a veteran Republican political consultant based in San Diego, pointing out that Cox had originally been running in a different district with a crowded Democratic field before relocating his campaign to the 21st district around Fresno. Cox won the seat by less than 1,000 votes.

“These are purple districts, so people will be watching how liberally he votes and how in touch he is with his district,” Spillane said.

Stutzman also pointed to Democratic Rep. Katie Porter’s 45th congressional district as one Republicans could reclaim. Porter of Irvine defeated two-term Republican incumbent Mimi Walters in November. Stutzman called Porter a “misfit” for the district.

“I mean, you’re telling me an Elizabeth Warren protegé can last in Irvine?” Stutzman said. “I don’t know.”

Democrats’ targets

Democrats, too, have dreams of expanding their dominance in California. The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee has said it will target the seats held by Reps. Devin Nunes, R-Tulare, and Duncan Hunter, R-Alpine.

Baugh said both sides are “likely posturing” and don’t believe they’ll pick up as many seats as they’re publicly targeting.

Hunter is facing trial for alleged ethics violations. Voters knew about the charges and he was still elected.

Nunes also is a tough target. He won re-election by five percentage points, overcoming a well-funded challenge by Andrew Janz.

Republican Strategists said Nunes’ national profile — he was a Trump loyalist from his position as head of the House Intelligence Committee — and the Democratic message that he was no longer helping his district likely contributed to Nunes’ fairly close election.

“Losing the majority kind of saved him from himself,” Stutzman said.

Mike Lynch, a longtime Democratic strategist in the San Joaquin Valley, agreed that Nunes would be difficult to unseat. However, he said “that’s more realistic than Republicans taking back Harder’s seat.”

“A Democrat that won in 2018 will have to work hard to lose next time,” Lynch said. “Unless the Democratic presidential nominee is a bozo, they should be OK in California.”

Kate Irby is based in Washington, D.C. and reports on issues important to McClatchy’s California newspapers, including the Sacramento Bee, Fresno Bee and Modesto Bee. She previously reported on breaking news in D.C., politics in Florida for the Bradenton Herald and politics in Ohio for the Cleveland Plain Dealer.