The arm of the Democratic Party in charge of winning control of Congress is moving senior staffers from Washington, D.C., to Orange County in hopes of flipping Republican-held House seats out west during the 2018 midterm elections.
The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee is aiming to defeat seven California Republicans who represent congressional districts where Hillary Clinton beat President Donald Trump — including a cluster of seats in Los Angeles, Orange and San Diego counties.
The committee will send staffers in charge of overseeing House races in California, Nevada, Oregon and Washington to work out of an Irvine office in an effort to make inroads in Republican strongholds that have traditionally been sure bets for the GOP.
Rep. Ben Ray Luján of New Mexico, the chairman of the committee, said the move was made to “be as close to the voters and the campaigns as possible.”
“Democrats are on offense across the map — including in districts that have not seen a serious challenge in a long time, if ever — and many of those targeted seats are in California,” he said in a statement. “Moving out west is one of the improvements that we’re making at the DCCC in order to maximize gains in the midterms.”
Fred Smoller, a political science professor at Chapman University in Orange who writes about politics in the region, said the move could have an impact on challengers as they build their campaigns for 2018. The news that Clinton beat Trump in Orange County turned heads nationally, Smoller said, and emboldened Democrats to expand the map of winnable seats into the area, where the Republican Party’s grip has loosened.
“Democrats in Washington, D.C., do things based on cold thinking and based on numbers,” he said. “I think [the staffing move] will register particularity with local activists that these are serious races and there is a real chance to turn things around.”
An office in Irvine puts staffers and party resources in close proximity to a cluster of Republican-held seats that Democrats are targeting.
With the primary 14 months away, GOP Rep. Dana Rohrabacher — whose district includes the coastal cities of Seal Beach, Huntington Beach and Newport Beach — is already facing attacks and debate challenges from one of his four declared opponents over his friendly stance with Russia.
Three different Democrats announced that they would challenge two-term Rep. Mimi Walters (R-Irvine), who represents an inland district including Villa Park and Mission Viejo. Two challengers are UC Irvine professors and one, Katie Porter, already has the endorsement of her former Harvard Law School professor, liberal favorite Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.).
Two challengers are running against Republican Rep. Darrell Issa of Vista, whose district includes San Clemente in Orange County and continues south along the coast to Oceanside and Encinitas in San Diego County.
Democrats targeted Issa, an early Trump supporter, relatively late in the 2016 election cycle and gave him a run for his money: The eight-term incumbent eked out a victory against political newcomer Doug Applegate with 50.3% of the vote.
About 130 miles to the north, at least two Democrats are going after Lancaster Republican Rep. Steve Knight in north Los Angeles County. Democrats have gained a narrow lead among registered voters there in recent years.
The DCCC’s political director for the western United States will be located in the Irvine office along with staffers tasked with helping campaigns raise money, research candidates and coordinate digital operations. They will also organize volunteers and workers in the field. DCCC spokesman Tyler Law said the committee hasn’t had a full-time senior staffer stationed out west since the 2000 election cycle.
The committee also has to protect vulnerable incumbent Democrats including Rep. Ami Bera of Elk Grove, who represents a swing district outside Sacramento, and freshman Rep. Salud Carbajal (D-Santa Barbara) as well as two incumbents in Nevada. Democrats are also targeting two seats in Washington state.
But Darry Sragow, a veteran campaign consultant who helped Democrats regain control of the state Assembly in 1996, said putting an office in Orange County won’t help the cause if the committee doesn’t find good candidates and a good strategy.
“Where the operation is really doesn't matter: It’s about looking at voting patterns and figuring out if some of these seats can become Democratic,” he said.
More than anything, Sragow said, the committee will need to find a way to deal with the political micro-climates unique to California.
“The political landscape of California is littered with bodies of operatives from other places who thought they could come in here and achieve amazing results and they never do because they don’t understand the place,” he said.
The committee’s new western political director, Kyle Layman, has experience in Southern California politics, having managed Rep. Raul Ruiz (D-Palm Desert) to a much talked about upset win over Republican congresswoman Mary Bono Mack in 2012.
Smoller said the staffing move to California also has the benefit of showing potential donors and supporters, including a newly energized base that has been protesting several GOP members of Congress, that Democrats are being aggressive as 2018 approaches.
“They are trying to convince people that they can win,” he said.