California Forum

For Democrats aiming to retake the House, check the odds again

Rep. Jeff Denham, R-Turlock, addresses a crowded town hall meeting in Turlock in April. Denham’s House seat is through to be vulnerable.
Rep. Jeff Denham, R-Turlock, addresses a crowded town hall meeting in Turlock in April. Denham’s House seat is through to be vulnerable.

Here we are in our never-ending campaign, more than a year before the 2018 primaries and 18 months before the general election, and the fight for control of the House of Representatives is raging.

But as much as the California Democratic Party delegates and leaders gathered in the Sacramento Convention Center this weekend may experience visions of sugar plums dancing in their collective heads, more temperate expectations would be appropriate.

To regain a majority in the House, Democrats must win 24 Republican-held seats. Nationally, Republicans hold 23 districts where Hillary Clinton beat Donald Trump in the 2016 election. Logic suggests they would be the first targets of opportunity for Democrats to pick up. Seven of those districts are in California, making our state ground zero.

The seven California Republicans whose districts favored Clinton returned home on the current recess to be greeted by ads attacking their votes in favor of their party’s health care bill, the American Health Care Act.

Two are from the Central Valley, Jeff Denham of Turlock and David Valadao of Hanford. The other five thought to be vulnerable are from Southern California, including Steve Knight of Lancaster, Ed Royce of Fullerton, Mimi Walters of Laguna Niguel, Dana Rohrabacher of Costa Mesa and Darrell Issa of Vista. The attack was funded by a liberal health care advocacy group.

Historical election results are predictive of future voter behavior and the numbers on the seven California congressional seats paint a clear picture. We evaluated the outcome of 13 races in those districts dating to 2012.

In five of the seven targeted districts, going back to 2012, the sole Democrat to have won was Clinton, in 2016. Other than in 2016, Republicans carried those five districts in every race, including governor, president, U.S. Senate and House, and every other statewide office down ballot.

Of the 13 races we evaluated at the district level, four Democrats carried Denham’s district. In Valadao’s district, Democrats won in seven of the 13 races. Based on those results, these Central Valley seats seem to be the best prospects for the Democrats.

Consistent with that read, Democrats hold registration advantages of 3 percentage points in Denham’s district and 17 points in Valadao’s district. Farther south, the Democratic edge in the seat held by Knight is 3 percentage points.

Republicans hold registration leads in the seats held by Royce (2 percentage points), Walters (9 points), Rohrabacher (11 points) and Issa (6 points).

The numbers speak for themselves. The Democrats hold 39 of California’s 53 House seats. If they are going to flip 24 seats nationwide and win back the House in 2018, they must take several seats in California.

Denham and Valadao’s seats are their best shots based on the data. That said, voters in the smaller Central Valley media markets can get to know their elected representatives, unlike in California’s urban megapolises, and there is a history of successful office holders overcoming daunting partisan odds. Jim Costa of Fresno is a current Democratic example.

Beyond that, Democrats would be down to hoping for a tsunami that overwhelms incumbents. It happens, about once a decade.

For Democrats, high-water years came in 1964 when Lyndon B. Johnson swept Barry Goldwater, and in the 1974 Watergate aftermath. For Republicans, Ronald Reagan’s election in 1980 was golden, as was 1994 when Republicans reacted to Bill Clinton’s early tenure, and the 2010 election that marked the rise of the tea party.

Democrats can find cause for hope in Trump’s bumbling and dismal poll numbers, and the unpopularity of the Trump-Ryan health care bill. But if they look at past results with clear eyes, they will see that their odds remain long.

Darry Sragow is a longtime Democratic strategist, attorney and publisher of the California Target Book. He can be contacted at Rob Pyers is research director of the California Target Book. He can be contacted at