BY GRANT BONHAM
Two special elections over the last month have featured big, surprise wins for the Democratic Party. While neither the primary election in Georgia’s 6th Congressional district nor the election in Kansas’ 4th landed a Democrat in the house, they were both symbolic victories showing Democrats gaining votes in previously red districts. Some Republicans are waking up to these results and turning away from President Donald Trump, but others who embraced him more fully in the past or who have stayed silent are increasingly being targeted by the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee. This targeting of vulnerable Republicans has a surprising level of significance for California, a state that Hillary Clinton won by over 4.3 million votes. In 2018, seven Republicans in California will be up for re-election in districts that Clinton won. If there is any time and place for the Democrats to generate a referendum on Trump, it is in California in 2018.
In the 2018 midterm elections, a “D” next to any candidate’s name will represent a sliver of resistance against Trump and his policies. Most Republicans have to spend considerable time weighing their stances on everything he does and reflecting on their constituents’ response. Some Republican politicians fully support Trump and his wall, such as Rep. Rohrabacher (R-Huntington Beach), who plans to charge foreigners $1 million for a visa into the US to fund the wall. Others, such as Rep. Walters (R-Irvine), supported the Affordable Care Act repeal and have given tacit approval to Trump’s actions. These two Republican politicians’ districts are perfect examples of districts that can be easily won by a Democrat who simply has to deny support for Trump and stay moderate on issues that are important to the local voters. A winning strategy for these 2018 elections must rely on a mix of bolstering party support for Democratic candidates and grabbing newly vulnerable seats in districts that are defecting from Trump. Yet in California this strategy can be even more focused while still providing heavy dividends for Democrats in the house.
No other district will have as much at stake as California’s 49th. Darrell Issa, Congress’ wealthiest member and an Obama watchdog and then apologist, has represented northern San Diego County and parts of Orange County for almost 18 years. Bolstered by a moderate Republican base and his $262 million, he has safely held the seat until last year’s challenger, Democrat Doug Applegate, came within striking distance. Now there is even more hope for Democrats to flip this seat as news from Georgia and Kansas show a wave of voters going blue. Issa’s latest challenger, Mike Levin, has already emerged as a prominent threat in the 49th by outraising Issa in the first financial reporting cycle. Levin, as a candidate and as a personality, is running as a stark character difference and policy expert opposite Issa’s background. As a successful Orange County businessman and Army veteran, Issa often sways to his more militaristic background in his assaults on Democrats and their usual limits on business. Levin brings fresh life to this district as a graduate from Stanford and Duke Law School, and he is an environmental protection lawyer from San Juan Capistrano. Levin works particularly well for the coastal district because he is strong on the issues that matter to the region, such as environmental protection, immigration and economic growth, while also preferring more fiscally conservative and socially progressive measures. In an area that is known for its rolling hills and amazing beaches, Levin has already made inroads with local donors and seems to embody an approach that favors more issues specific to the district going forward.
For Republicans, the largest issue going forward is not simply how to deal with these new challengers but how to campaign on their values against the challengers. Take, for example, John Ossoff’s campaign in Georgia. Ossoff and his staff ran a pointed campaign looking to capitalize on moderate Republicans and independents who hoped to oppose President Trump. After Ossoff considerably stirred the pot and polled far better than expected, the Republicans had to act quickly to defend their district. Their response? A morning Twitter storm from the White House and attack ads pointed at Ossoff’s character, claiming he was too young for office. Republicans nationwide turned the Georgia election into one full of negative attack ads and spiteful language, yet never substantively attacked Ossoff’s policy or countered with a viable candidate of their own. The once safe red district was swamped with 11 uninspiring Republicans, of whom no single candidate managed over 20 percent of the vote. While this large candidate pool is unique to the vacant district, Republicans have shown deep weaknesses that will likely be pervasive in other elections moving into the political spotlight.
Those who stand firmly in opposition to Trump risk losing far-right support and may inspire low turnout on election day. Yet those who support Trump risk even more by nudging moderates into the open arms of centrist Democrats. If Republicans come to the middle after supporting Trump or the Affordable Care Act, they will risk losing any genuine pattern of voting and be seen as flip-flopping on issues that voters care about. Going forward, Republicans desperately need a political identity and a universal platform to campaign on if they will continue to control Congress, the presidency and the Supreme Court. With congressional and presidential approval ratings at all time lows, there is little hope for the Republican Party after their upset in November. California is crucial to flipping the House, and Republicans who have faced easy elections in the past should brace for battle in 2018.