Capitol Journal

In high-tax California, a vote to scrap deductions could be the kiss of death for endangered House Republicans

Some of America’s most important political races will be run next year in seven California congressional districts. That seems strange.

Normally, these contests would be obscure asterisks outside their local areas. The Republican incumbents would win, most of them comfortably. But these aren’t normal times. They’re Trump times.

Sure, the office of California governor is super powerful. Voters next year will choose Gov. Jerry Brown’s successor. But politically, the odds are 99 to 1 it will be another Democrat, and that’s being generous to the GOP. Same with the U.S. Senate election. And the state Legislature is a cinch to remain under Democratic dominance.

But the U.S. House elections will help determine whether one-party Republican rule continues in Washington or if Democrats recapture at least one half of Congress. That will largely determine the fate of President Trump’s policy agenda.

A big factor in whether those California House Republicans survive could be how they vote on the GOP tax overhaul pending in Congress. Despite Republican leaders’ claims that the legislation would cut taxes for most people, independent analysts say both rival bills have middle-class tax hikes written all over them.

That’s particularly true in high-tax California because of the proposed elimination — or serious crimping — of state and local tax deductions on federal returns.

“My assumption is that people who take advantage of the deductions for state and local taxes are exactly the people who vote, and probably disproportionately vote Republican,” says Darry Sragow, a longtime Democratic strategist and now publisher of the nonpartisan California Target Book, which handicaps congressional and legislative races.

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“I would think if Republicans manage to enact legislation that kills state and local tax deductions, they arguably are putting a deadly weapon to their foreheads — and pulling the trigger.”

Even if the bill fails to pass but a Republican votes for it, Sragow adds, a Democratic rival can capitalize by claiming that the incumbent “doesn’t stand with the voters. He votes 180 degrees opposite them.”

Those seven endangered Republican House members include five from Southern California: Darrell Issa of Vista, Dana Rohrabacher of Costa Mesa, Mimi Walters of Irvine, Ed Royce of Fullerton and Steve Knight of Palmdale. The other two are from the San Joaquin Valley: David Valadao of Hanford and Jeff Denham of Turlock.

What all seven have in common — and a big reason analysts think they’re vulnerable in next year’s elections — is that their districts voted for Democrat Hillary Clinton over Republican Trump.

But tending to debunk this perceived evidence of vulnerability, Sragow says, is the fact that in the five Southern California districts, Clinton is the only Democrat in a statewide partisan race the voters have supported since 2012. They didn’t even back Brown or U.S. Sen. Dianne Feinstein in their blowout wins over Republicans whose names virtually no one remembers.

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What that shows is consistent support for any Republican not named Trump.

“If voters behave as they have,” Sragow says, “those five seats are going to be very difficult for Democrats to pick up — barring a national wave election, a tsunami. Whether the incredible amount of heat generated by Trump creates that, nobody knows.”

There were early glimpses of a potential tsunami in last week’s elections in Virginia, New Jersey and elsewhere. Democrats romped. Suburbs that resemble Republican districts in Southern California voted Democratic, with many voters motivated by their dislike of Trump.

The heart of Trump resistance is California. And Democratic strategists hope that citizens who don’t consistently vote — Latinos especially — will be so disgusted with the president that they’ll cast ballots next November.

Nationwide, Democrats need to pick up 25 seats to take back the House.

That GOP tax bill could anger significant numbers of middle-class Republicans in the targeted California House districts. The state and local tax deductions are widely used in those districts to reduce federal income taxes.

In Walters’ and Rohrabacher’s districts, the average state and local tax deduction totaled $18,200 for 2015, according to the Government Finance Officers Assn. In Issa’s district, it was $16,524; in Royce’s, $15,575, and in Knight’s, $16,723. In the poorer San Joaquin Valley, the deductions were much less: about $10,000 in both districts.

Overall in California, about 6 million taxpayers — one third of the total — itemized deductions on their tax returns, claiming an average of $18,400 for state and local taxes. The Bay Area boosted the average.

Issa is the only California Republican member of Congress, as of writing this, to oppose the tax proposal. Others feel a strong loyalty to one of the measure’s strongest advocates, House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy of Bakersfield. There are 14 GOP members in all. Democrats dominate the delegation with 39.

“We can do better than this,” says Issa, who won reelection by only half a percentage point in 2016. He’s considered the most vulnerable among the threatened House members.

Rohrabacher is also regarded as threatened. One reason is that voters gradually have been deserting the GOP in Orange County and registering as independents.

In 1992, Republicans amounted to 52% of Orange County voter registration. Last November, it was down to less than 38%. Democrats stayed practically the same at around 34%. Independents rose from 10% to nearly 24%.

And a tsunami could be brewing. Endangered Republicans must decide whether to fall in line behind Trump and the party leadership, or protect their itemizing taxpayers.

george.skelton@latimes.com

Follow @LATimesSkelton on Twitter

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