Dan Morain

Democrats have big ambitions and an ability to blow it

During the 2016 campaign, Republicans could dodge questions about Donald Trump’s rhetoric. That will become impossible in the coming two years. Rep. Darrell Issa could be vulnerable in his district, where Trump lost by 23,565 votes.
During the 2016 campaign, Republicans could dodge questions about Donald Trump’s rhetoric. That will become impossible in the coming two years. Rep. Darrell Issa could be vulnerable in his district, where Trump lost by 23,565 votes. The San Diego Union-Tribune

As they so painfully proved in 2016, Democrats are perfectly capable of misreading the electorate and eating their own. Still, Dave Gilliard, the veteran Sacramento strategist for six California Republican congressional members, cannot help but notice certain warning signs.

Four of his clients won re-election in districts that Donald Trump lost. That would be enough to make any consultant nervous. But that’s not what concerns Gilliard the most. This year is feeling a little like a mirror image of 2009, only this time the left is worked up.

“The anger is on the Democrat side,” Gilliard said. “That anger turns into activism, and that does drive turnout. No question.”

It’s only February of what is supposed to be an off-election year. But campaigns long ago became perpetual, and Democrats have big ambitions for 2018. They start with an energized base, and 23 House Republicans who won districts carried by Hillary Clinton. In California, Democrats already have announced they are taking aim at three Gilliard clients: Jeff Denham of Turlock, Ed Royce of Orange County and Darrell Issa of Vista. Issa won re-election by 1,621 votes; Trump lost in Issa’s district by 23,565 votes.

Trump isn’t helping. He’s making too many changes too quickly, making up yarns, stumbling, bullying and failing to reach beyond his base to voters in the middle. Worst of all, he is in our faces. Constantly. Most good citizens cast votes every few years and go about their business, without dwelling on government. Trump is impossible to ignore.

If he’s not banning travel from seven Muslim-majority countries or squabbling with Arnold Schwarzenegger over some dumb television show, he is getting into a spat with Australia. Who fights with Australia?

Perhaps Trump is appealing to his voters in the states that propelled him to the Oval Office. The notion of banning Muslims, or deploying soldiers to the Mexican border – whether or not he spoke in jest, as his aides later claimed – plays better in Wisconsin than in California.

In California, Trump got a smaller percent of the presidential vote than any Republican since Alf Landon in 1936. And no part of California, not Tom McClintock’s district in the Sierra, not Doug LaMalfa’s in far Northern California, not Kevin McCarthy’s district in Bakersfield, is becoming more Republican.

“These guys should be scared,” Democratic consultant Garry South said. “It may seem overly ambitious for the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee to target six or seven seats, but it is entirely logical.”

It’s especially reasonable given the angst and anger on display when millions of people marched nationwide the day after the inauguration, and when thousands more demonstrated last weekend. Many other acts of defiance get much less attention, like the one involving Cleveland Clinic, the renowned medical center in Ohio.

Brendan Cohn-Sheehy, a neuroscience researcher seeking a Ph.D. and a medical degree at UC Davis, doesn’t have tons of time for activism, given his studies. But then Trump’s travel ban left Dr. Suha Abushamma, a first-year resident at Cleveland Clinic from Sudan, stranded in Saudi Arabia. As it happens, Cleveland Clinic has planned a fundraiser for later this month at Trump’s Mar-a-Lago resort in Florida.

That prompted 1,380 (and counting) medical students, faculty and related personnel to sign a letter to Cleveland Clinic Director Delos “Toby” Cosgrove, who happens to be a Trump adviser, demanding that he cancel the event and condemn Trump’s immigration ban. (Cosgrove hasn’t budged.) At least 91 Californians signed the letter, including 52 from the UC Davis School of Medicine, Cohn-Sheehy among them.

“This new climate is essentially directly threatening all the things we hold dear as academics, and as scientists,” Cohn-Sheehy said.

During the 2016 campaign, the 23 Republicans who won in districts where Trump lost could dodge questions about Trump’s crazy rhetoric. That will become impossible in the coming two years. They’ll either cast votes that bind them to Trump, or become apostates to Trump’s cause. And not just in Washington. In California, where Democrats have been on a roll, the Democratic-controlled Legislature will force votes on issues requiring Republicans to take stands for or against Trump’s policies.

“He’s playing Russian roulette with the American people,” state Senate President Pro Tem Kevin de León said. “People are exhausted. I think they are horrified by his executive orders.”

Republicans gamely say it’s far from bleak, noting that a dozen House Democrats won seats in swing state districts carried by Trump. The California Republican Party is using Democrats’ opposition to Trump in fundraising appeals, mimicking his jihad against the press. “The left has a powerful ally on their side: the media. They have used lies and scare tactics in an attempt to derail his presidency,” a GOP pitch said last week. So long as Republicans control the White House and Congress, they can raise vast sums.

And they can count on Democrats eating their own. Former Vice President Joe Biden, beloved by the Democratic base, had the audacity to endorse Barack Obama’s labor secretary, Tom Perez, to become Democratic National Committee chairman. Sen. Bernie Sanders, who supports the more liberal Rep. Keith Ellison of Minnesota, denounced Biden’s move as representing the “failed status-quo approach.”

Last weekend, about 200 lefties despoiled Sen. Dianne Feinstein’s Presidio Heights neighborhood, demanding that she oppose Trump’s selection for attorney general, Sen. Jeff Sessions, R-Ala. Feinstein, part of what’s left of the center, later said she will vote against Sessions. Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., not a moderate, endured protests when she voted to confirm Ben Carson as Trump’s housing secretary.

Yes, there are warning signs for Republicans, but it’s not all bleak. One bright spot is their opponent.