Dan Morain

Everything is looking great for Democrats in 2018, except for history

As his enthusiastic young peeps applauded, San Francisco hedge fund billionaire-turned-Democratic activist Tom Steyer live-streamed his announcement from Washington that he would spend yet another $30 million to flip Republican-held House and Senate seats in 10 states.

For good measure, Steyer called out by name Rep. Darrell Issa, the Vista Republican whom Democrats dearly wanted to defeat for all the nasty things he said about Barack Obama.

A few hours later, Joe Sanberg, another wealthy Democratic activist, told a luncheon gathering at the Sacramento Press Club that he is forming Working Hero political action committee, with the singular goal of unseating California Republican members of Congress, Issa among them.


As if on cue, one of Democrats’ targets, Rep. Ed Royce, who has held his Orange County seat since 1992, announced he would not run for re-election. Then Issa announced he would not run for re-election in his San Diego-Orange County district, though it turns out he might seek the seat held by Rep. Duncan Hunter, a Republican who faces criminal investigation for wildly misusing campaign money.

Democrats had a very good week. Donna Brazile, former interim chair of the Democratic National Committee, preached to a choir hosted by the California Legislative Black Caucus in Sacramento that “we’re going to see a big, blue wave” in 2018.

Surely, it would seem, Democrats will gain most if not all seven Republican-held seats in California that Hillary Clinton won in 2016, and capture the 24 seats they need to take control of the U.S. House of Representatives.

And Republicans richly deserve to lose. Their president is unfit. They voted to strip health care for millions of Americans. They have failed to fix the broken immigration system. They passed a tax bill that will hurt upper income people in blue states while corporations and rich residents of red states will get tax cuts.

But there is this matter of history. Californians simply don’t vote in non-presidential years, at least many Democrats don’t. Based on history, 2018 turnout will look less like 2016 when 59 percent of Californians voted, and more like 2010 when Jerry Brown beat Meg Whitman and turnout was 43.74 percent. And that was the best voter turnout in any gubernatorial election dating to 2002.

Given the Republicans’ miserable standing statewide, a Democrat almost surely will replace Jerry Brown as governor in 2018, win the U.S. Senate seat, and hold most if not all of the down-ballot statewide offices.

Democratic strategist Darry Sragow, publisher of the California Target Book, which tracks state races, has this odd habit of looking at the past to gauge what will happen in congressional races.

Yes, Clinton won more votes than Trump in seven congressional districts in California in 2016. But with very few exceptions, no other Democrat, not Brown, Obama, Dianne Feinstein or Kamala Harris, has carried those districts. The notion that Democrats will win those seats “is based on nothing other than hope,” Sragow said.

True, the party that controls the White House loses congressional seats in midterm elections. But California Republican Party Chairman Jim Brulte is not in a state of despair about his party’s chances to hold congressional seats.

“Donald Trump is such a unique president that I’m not sure the historical rules apply,” Brulte said. He also cited the announcement by Wal-Mart that it will spend $300 million to raise hourly wages and $400 million on employee bonuses. It is a dividend from Trump’s corporate tax cut. “This tax reform has the ability to be a game changer,” he said.

Wal-Mart’s news was mixed. It announced it’s shutting 63 stores nationally, laying off workers. And Republicans who embrace Trump do so at their peril. A mere 30 percent of California voters approve of the job Trump is doing.

In blue California, the 2018 election could become a referendum on whether Trump should be impeached. Special Counsel Robert Mueller is not messing around. Former Trump national security adviser Michael Flynn and campaign aide George Papadopoulos, having pleaded guilty to lying to the FBI, clearly have stories to tell.

Beyond disdain for Trump, however, Democrats have a muddled message. Is it health care for all, or fixing the Affordable Care Act? If universal health care is the answer, how is funded? What about a jobs program, solutions to the high cost of housing, or a plan to confront income inequality and pay equity? Or maybe Democrats think their support for all things right and relevant will suffice; it won’t.

Democrats also may think old rules are just that. Certainly, the top-two primary is a wild card and the Latino vote could be huge. The June ballot will include former Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa for governor, Senate President Kevin de León for U.S. Senate, and Ricardo Lara for Insurance Commission. Secretary of State Alex Padilla and Attorney General Xavier Becerra will be on the ballot.

Our low-life president helps Democrats by regularly insulting people who aren’t white, most recently making a foul-mouthed reference to immigrants from El Salvador, Haiti and Africa, proving Republicans deserve to lose. But Democrats should postpone the victory laps for the moment. The smart money has never been on ignoring history.

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