The November midterm election is shaping up as a classic referendum on Donald Trump’s presidency, and California is one of the main battlefields as Democrats try to seize control of the House.
The party that holds the presidency typically plays defense in a midterm vote. But Trump’s unpopularity is driving an extraordinary surge of voter hostility toward Republicans. It’s especially pronounced in California, where the GOP is badly diminished after more than two decades of decline.
The nonpartisan Cook Political Report, which has tracked House and Senate races nationwide for decades, rates five of California’s 53 House contests as tossups, one as leaning Democratic and one as leaning Republican. All seven of those fiercely competitive races are for House seats currently held by the GOP.
Three others appear safe in Republican hands, but that could change if a Democratic wave were to become something more akin to a political tsunami.
Congressional District 10
On paper, this Central Valley district looks attractive for Democrats, who hold a 3 percentage point registration advantage. But consistently higher GOP turnout has kept the seat in Republican hands. The district takes in all of Stanislaus County and the southern portion of San Joaquin County.
Latinos — who lean Democratic — make up nearly the same share of residents as whites, but their low turnout has also given Republicans an edge. This year, healthcare could be a major issue in the district, where more than 40% of residents are enrolled in California’s Medicaid program for low-income people.
JEFF DENHAM, 51, Republican incumbent
Denham, who previously represented the area in the state Senate, was first elected to the House in 2010. Before entering politics, he served in the Air Force and later founded a company specializing in plastic packaging used in agriculture. Denham has emphasized the need for comprehensive immigration reform and his opposition to state plans to reduce the amount of water diverted from Northern California rivers for irrigation, a move being pushed by environmentalists.
He has tried to walk a tightrope on immigration in a district where immigrants make up more than 20% of residents, but his most recent work with the GOP leadership on a solution for “Dreamers” brought to the U.S. illegally as children imploded. His votes to repeal Obamacare and support the Republican tax cuts could also hurt him. Still, Denham has proved an effective campaigner who is used to facing stiff challenges and winning.
JOSH HARDER, 32, Democrat
An investor and former venture capitalist, Harder was born and raised in the district but spent most of the last decade attending school and working on the East Coast. He was vice president of a Silicon Valley venture capital firm before he moved home last year to run for Congress. Harder says he’s running to protect healthcare for residents and to “stand up to President Trump when he is wrong.”
He’s currently working as a business instructor at Modesto Junior College. Much of Harder’s financial support has come from Bay Area donors, leading Denham to cast him as a Bay Area liberal.
Congressional District 25
This is the sole Republican-held seat in Los Angeles County, in a district that stretches from Simi Valley in Ventura County through the Santa Clarita Valley and into the high desert cities of Lancaster and Palmdale.
Politics here have been changing rapidly as Angelenos flee exorbitant home prices for affordable housing inland. Between 2012 and 2018, voter registration swung from a 5-percentage-point Republican advantage to a 4-percentage-point edge for Democrats.
Latinos make up nearly 40% of the population, while Asians and blacks make up about 16%. Though there are still pockets of rural conservatives, the area has become increasingly diverse and suburbanized and has grown more politically competitive.
STEVE KNIGHT, 51, Republican incumbent
Knight is a former state legislator and Palmdale city councilman who had a 17-year career as a Los Angeles police officer before running for office. A U.S. Army veteran with a reputation for being tough on crime and illegal immigration, he has enjoyed solid support from the district’s sizable military and law enforcement communities.
Knight has survived tough challenges before, most recently in 2016, but his fundraising has been lackluster this election cycle. He’s running as an advocate for veterans’ issues and small businesses.
KATIE HILL, 31, Democrat
Hill is a former executive at PATH, a Los Angeles-based nonprofit providing services to the homeless. While there, she worked for the passage of Measure H, the county sales tax measure that raised money for homelessness initiatives.
Hill grew up in the district, lives with her husband on a farm near Santa Clarita, and isn’t shy about discussing her family’s gun collection. She’s running on a platform supporting affordable healthcare and has cast herself as a defender of the middle class.
Congressional District 39
This majority-minority district, home to the Richard Nixon Presidential Library, has grown beyond its conservative roots. Most voters live in the dense suburbs of northern Orange County with Fullerton as its focal point; the district also includes the hilly communities of Diamond Bar and Rowland Heights in Los Angeles County and Chino Hills in San Bernardino County.
A burgeoning population of Asians and Latinos makes up about two-thirds of the district. Voter registration between the two parties is just about evenly split. Hillary Clinton beat Donald Trump here by nearly 9 points in 2016, and Democrats see the district as one of their best pickup opportunities, especially now that 13-term incumbent Ed Royce is retiring.
YOUNG KIM, 55, Republican
An immigrant from South Korea with an extensive political background, Kim is running in a district where more than a third of residents are immigrants and about a fifth of registered voters are Asian American. She worked for Royce for two decades before being elected to the state Assembly in 2014. She was unseated in 2016 by the same Democrat she’d previously defeated.
In her congressional campaign, Kim has promised to fight for lower taxes and has criticized California’s “sanctuary state” policy. Kim enjoys the backing of Royce, who is still well regarded among many in the district. But Trump’s immigration policies complicate Kim’s effort to broaden her appeal beyond Republicans. She would be the first Korean American woman elected to Congress.
GIL CISNEROS, 47, Democrat
Cisneros was a manager at Frito-Lay when he and his wife hit a $266-million lottery jackpot in 2010. Since then, the couple has become well-known in Democratic circles for their education-related philanthropy, including funding for a news assignment desk that bears their name at the USC Annenberg newsroom.
Cisneros has campaigned on affordable healthcare, stricter gun laws and passing the DREAM Act. A former Republican who switched parties in 2008, Cisneros has played up his status as a Navy veteran. He has injected more than $4.5 million of his own money into his campaign so far.
Congressional District 45
This was a heavily Republican district when Rep. Mimi Walters was first elected here in 2014. Since then, the GOP voter registration advantage has shrunk by half to about 7 percentage points; in 2016 Hillary Clinton outperformed Trump by 5 percentage points.
But no Democrat for congressional or statewide office has ever broken the 50% mark in this district, contained entirely within Orange County and stretching from Anaheim Hills south to Mission Viejo. More urban areas like Irvine are liberal and fast-growing; smaller, inland communities skew more conservative.
MIMI WALTERS, 56, Republican incumbent
A former state legislator and Laguna Niguel city councilwoman, Walters has long run on a pro-business, anti-tax platform. She previously worked as a stockbroker, and then she ran a business with her husband that provided medical staff to California prisons. A resident of Laguna Beach, Walters is one of several California members of Congress who do not live in the districts they represent.
Walters rallied her House colleagues to donate money to a ballot measure that would repeal the California gas tax hike, which Republicans hope will spur GOP turnout in November. Walters has focused much of her attention on touting the Trump tax cuts, which may actually raise taxes for many in her district by eliminating many deductions for state and local taxes. She has campaigned on her work to pass a bill establishing rights for sexual assault survivors in federal criminal cases and to fund firefighter training.
KATIE PORTER, 44, Democrat
A UC Irvine law professor, Porter is testing the limits of progressivism in this politically transitioning district. A supporter of government-funded single-payer healthcare, she has cast herself as a consumer advocate who stood up to big banks when she was tasked with overseeing the distribution of California’s share of the national mortgage foreclosure settlement.
She also frequently mentions her endorsements from U.S. Sens. Kamala Harris of California, who appointed her to that role, and Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts, a liberal favorite. A single mother of three, Porter spoke openly during the primary about her experience as a domestic abuse survivor.
Congressional District 48
This district hugs nearly the entire Orange County coastline, stretching from conservative Seal Beach to Laguna Beach, a progressive city founded as an artist’s colony. Republicans dominate voter registration here by 10 percentage points.
The district’s fiscally conservative tendencies are leavened by a strong support for environmental protections. It also has more diverse, Democratic-leaning pockets like the Vietnamese enclaves of Westminster and Garden Grove and Latino-heavy Costa Mesa.
DANA ROHRABACHER, 71, Republican incumbent
The 15-term incumbent got his start in politics as a speechwriter for Ronald Reagan and previously worked as an editorial writer for the Orange County Register. The image he’s built over the decades as a surfer with a libertarian bent has competed in recent years with his push for better relations with Russia, leading one publication to name him “Putin’s favorite congressman.”
Rohrabacher now appears to be trying to mobilize his loyalists by emphasizing hard-line immigration stances. He voted against the Trump tax cuts, citing its potential harm to his constituents and its ballooning of the deficit.
HARLEY ROUDA, 56, Democrat
Rouda is an Ohio-born real estate investor who moved to Laguna Beach seven years ago. A former Republican, Rouda became a Democrat last year after nearly two decades as a political independent.
Rouda poured more than $1.6 million of his own money into the primary. He has said he’s running to protect healthcare coverage and strengthen environmental protections. He has backed the impeachment of Trump and single-payer healthcare, favorite causes on the left.
Congressional District 49
RATING: LEANS DEMOCRATIC
This district spans the more conservative south Orange County cities of Dana Point and San Clemente and northern San Diego County, including Oceanside and swaths of Encinitas and Solana Beach.
It also includes Camp Pendleton, a Marine base that gives the district a big military and veteran constituency. The district is also home to a vocal group of Democratic activists who helped pressure nine-term GOP incumbent Darrell Issa to stand aside in this race after he barely won reelection in 2016.
Republican voters outnumber Democrats by 5 percentage points.
DIANE HARKEY, 67, Republican
Harkey is chairwoman of the state Board of Equalization, which oversees many of California’s tax collection policies. A former state legislator who worked in corporate finance and banking before entering politics, she has positioned herself as a pro-business candidate who will fight tax increases, oppose California’s sanctuary state law and scale back regulations.
MIKE LEVIN, 39, Democrat
Levin is an attorney specializing in environmental issues. He previously served as executive director of the Orange County Democratic Party and most recently was director of government affairs for FuelCell Energy, an energy storage company that focuses on carbon capture.
He supports government-funded single-payer healthcare, a $15 federal minimum wage and free tuition at community colleges.
Congressional District 50
RATING: LEANS REPUBLICAN
This is one of the most conservative districts in California. Based in inland San Diego County and part of Riverside County, Republicans dominate nearly all of the major cities in this region. Trump won by 15 percentage points here in 2016 and Democrats make up just 27% of voters, the lowest share in any California congressional district.
There is a strong military influence here; more than 10% of adults are either veterans or active-duty service members, and residents here skew much older and whiter than those in other battleground districts Democrats are trying to capture this year.
DUNCAN HUNTER, 41, Republican incumbent
Hunter was first elected in 2008 and succeeded his father, former GOP Rep. Duncan L. Hunter, who held the seat for nearly three decades. A Marine Corps veteran, Hunter enlisted in the military following the Sept. 11 attacks after spending several years in the computer industry. He has emphasized his work advocating for veterans issues and has said he supports Trump’s policies to secure the border.
Hunter and his wife, Margaret, were indicted in August on charges they used more than $250,000 in campaign funds for personal expenses, including payments to nail salons, their children’s private school and an airline ticket to fly the family rabbit. The Hunters have pleaded not guilty to the charges, which were the result of a months-long investigation by the FBI. The scandal has led several election-watchers to move this race into a more competitive column.
AMMAR CAMPA-NAJJAR, 29, Democrat
Campa-Najjar is a public affairs strategist who previously worked in the Department of Labor under President Obama and for Obama’s reelection campaign. He most recently was a communications director for the U.S. Hispanic Chamber of Commerce. Born to a Mexican mother and a Palestinian father, Campa-Najjar grew up mostly in the San Diego suburbs. He also spent a few years in the Palestinian territories. He graduated from San Diego State University.
Campa-Najjar has embraced single-payer healthcare and a rapid shift to renewable energy. His grandfather led a group of terrorists who killed 11 people at the 1972 Munich Olympics. Campa-Najjar has said he never met his grandfather and that he’s committed to promoting peace in the Middle East.
THREE TO WATCH
Congressional District 4
RATING: LIKELY REPUBLICAN
Centered in California’s gold country, this district is one of the most rural in the state. It runs from Truckee, north of Lake Tahoe, through Yosemite and into Kings Canyon National Park to the south. The largest chunk of residents, who are overwhelmingly white, live in Placer and El Dorado counties, which include the populous and wealthy suburbs of nearby Sacramento.
Trump won here in 2016 with 54% of the vote, a good 15 percentage points better than Hillary Clinton. Winning this district is a real long shot for Democrats: It has the highest share of registered Republican voters in the state, and no Democrat except for Sen. Kamala Harris (who ran against a fellow Democrat) has ever won in any congressional or statewide race here.
TOM McCLINTOCK, 62, Republican incumbent
McClintock built his reputation as an anti-tax, limited-government conservative starting in his mid-twenties, when he was elected to the state Legislature to represent Ventura County. He cast himself as “frugal Tom,” often referencing a cheap, dark JCPenney suit he wore for years. He has emphasized reining in spending on social programs to control the national debt, as well as stricter enforcement of immigration laws. After voting against an early version of the GOP tax cut, McClintock became the only House Republican to change his vote to help pass it.
He mounted several failed campaigns for statewide office, including a bid in the 2003 recall election for governor. McClintock was first elected to Congress in 2008 to represent a seat hundreds of miles from his state Senate district.
JESSICA MORSE, 36, Democrat
Morse is a national security strategist with a background working for the military, the State Department and the U.S. Agency for International Development. Her portfolio included U.S.-India defense relations and a role coordinating aid to Iraq; detractors accuse her of inflating her resume and responsibilities.
Morse pitches herself as a Northern California native, a contrast with McClintock, who lives in Northern California but outside the district. She has emphasized local issues such as protection of public lands and natural disaster and fire prevention policy. She has out-raised McClintock in several quarters since entering the race.
Congressional District 21
RATING: LIKELY REPUBLICAN
This is a largely rural Central Valley district that, despite its hard tilt toward registered Democrats, has long been out of their grasp. Democrats have a registration advantage of 17 percentage points over GOP voters.
The region is home to both water-hungry industrial farms and massive oil drilling operations inland.
Latinos make up nearly three-quarters of the population and nearly 60% of registered voters. But their historically low turnout, as well as the independent-minded nature of Central Valley politics, makes this area more like a swing district. Issues such as immigration and healthcare are acutely felt in this largely poor, immigrant-heavy district.
DAVID VALADAO, 41, Republican incumbent
Valadao comes from a family of Portuguese dairy farmers and was first elected to Congress in 2012. The son of an immigrant from the Azores Islands, Valadao often takes a softer line on illegal immigration than some of his GOP colleagues, a necessity in a region where agriculture depends on migrant labor.
A former state legislator who became involved in politics through the family business, Valadao sits on the powerful House Appropriations Committee, a post he’s used to funnel federal funding back home. Valadao has withstood Democratic challengers mostly because of his focus on local issues such as irrigation and water storage.
T.J. COX, 55, Democrat
Cox is an engineer and a business owner who founded two nut-processing companies. He now serves as president of the Central Valley New Markets Tax Credit Fund, a community development group focused on local investments.
Cox previously ran for Congress against former GOP Rep. George Radanovich in 2006 but lost by more than 20 points. He’s promised to push for a path to citizenship for recipients of DACA, or Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, and for affordable healthcare and safe drinking water.
Congressional District 22
RATING: SOLIDLY REPUBLICAN
Unlike the other Central Valley districts on Democrats’ wish list this year, the 22nd is solidly Republican. The GOP has about 10% more registered voters than Democrats. Contained within Fresno and Tulare counties, it’s an area flush with large-scale dairy farms, vineyards and citrus groves.
The district also includes two major urban areas, with a majority of voters living in the cities of Fresno and Visalia. Latinos make up nearly half of the population but less than a third of the district’s voters, and the electorate has proven cycle after cycle to be reliably conservative, with Trump beating Clinton by nearly 10 percentage points.
DEVIN NUNES, 44, Republican incumbent
An eight-term incumbent first elected at age 29, Nunes has built formidable clout and a political war chest to match. He sits on the powerful Ways and Means Committee and is chairman of the House Intelligence Committee. It’s in the latter post that Nunes has been thrust into the limelight, first as a leader in Congress’ investigation into Russian election interference and then during the furor over a memo he drafted about FBI surveillance of a former Trump campaign advisor.
Nunes has spent much of his career focused on water storage and irrigation. He won reelection in 2016 with 68% of the vote. His high-profile role defending the Trump administration has brought a financial boon: As of June 30, he had more than $6 million in the bank.
ANDREW JANZ, 34, Democrat
Janz is a Fresno County prosecutor specializing in violent crimes. He grew up in Visalia, earned his law degree from Southwestern Law School and and worked as a law clerk in Las Vegas before returning in 2014 to join the Fresno County district attorney’s office.
Janz has promised to protect Social Security and Medicare and bring in federal funding to improve water storage infrastructure. He has used Nunes’ notoriety to shore up his campaign coffers, too: By midyear, Janz had raised more than $2.8 million for the race.