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Republican congressional wins in California won’t avert party’s ‘death spiral,’ analysts say

Members of Congress wearing masks raise their right hands
Rep. Young Kim, center, is among four state Republicans who in November retook districts that Democrats had flipped in 2018.
(Kent Nishimura / Los Angeles Times)

California Republicans scored a major victory in November by recapturing four of seven congressional seats that had flipped to Democrats two years earlier.

The wins marked a short-term resurgence for the GOP, which has struggled for decades as the state became a blue bulwark. But it’s unlikely they signal a major change in the political dynamic, given that the victories were by thin margins.

With Latino and Asian American populations growing and redistricting looming, long-term trends are still challenging for Republicans in areas that are purple or leaning red.

Still, the four winning congressional candidates, all of whom are from immigrant backgrounds, have shown that Republicans can capture slivers of farm country and suburbia by avoiding political extremes and appealing to diverse communities.

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In the short term, that strategy can be successful in politically mixed districts, as Republicans refine their outreach to ethnic groups and field strong candidates, like Korean Americans Young Kim and Michelle Steel, who can put their own immigrant success stories front and center, analysts said.

It remains to be seen how politics in these battleground districts will play out once President Trump leaves office.

“It’s probably a recognition that a death spiral is just that — it’s not a straight line,” said Mike Madrid, a Republican consultant and former political director of the California Republican Party. “The way parties die is not in one moment. They erode over time.”

The four congressional districts that flipped back to Republicans — David Valadao’s Central Valley district, Mike Garcia’s Los Angeles and Ventura County district and the predominantly Orange County districts won by Kim and Steel — all chose Democrat Joe Biden over Trump, according to an analysis by the Daily Kos.

Valadao, who is a dairy farmer, represents a mainly agricultural district that is three-quarters Latino and had held the seat for three terms before losing to Democrat TJ Cox in 2018.

Garcia’s district includes communities like Simi Valley, Santa Clarita, Palmdale and Lancaster, which combine semirural settings with affordable commuter housing.

Kim and Steel will represent well-heeled districts mostly within Orange County, which more than any other region is emblematic of California’s Democratic shift.

White residents are now a minority in Orange County, with a population that is 34% Latino, 22% Asian and 40% white.

In a sign of how far the county has moved from its deeply conservative roots, Hillary Clinton beat Trump there in 2016 — the first Democratic presidential candidate to win the county since 1936. The election also revealed how hugely unpopular Trump was among moderate suburbanites.

In the 2018 midterms, after two years of Trump’s norm-shattering behavior, Orange County voters broke Democratic in several congressional districts long held by Republicans.

Though the county favored Biden over Trump by a 9-point margin in November, voters in Kim’s and Steel’s districts ended their brief Democratic representation in Congress by choosing Republicans.

Statewide, Californians chose Biden over Trump by a lopsided 64% to 34%.

The last two elections showed that voters in swing districts wanted moderation — Democratic representatives to balance out Trump and Republicans as a counter to Biden, Madrid said.

“People were voting for a divided government. They were rejecting extremism,” Madrid said. “They were voting against Donald Trump at the top of the ticket. They were voting against what they viewed to be extremist voices from the Democratic Party to keep a check on a Biden presidency.”

The landscape for Republicans could change, for better or worse, this year when a bipartisan citizens commission redraws congressional districts.

“They could get some safer seats but not as many competitive seats,” said Rob Stutzman, a Republican consultant and president of Stutzman Public Affairs. “The way reapportioning might work, you may see more Republicans consolidated in the same districts.”

Still, some political experts said the GOP stands a fighting chance if candidates can appeal to the same racially diverse voters who abandoned the party in 2018.

The party’s success in battleground districts in 2020 can be attributed to expanded outreach in ethnic communities, including deploying volunteers from those communities to find common ground with voters, said Bryan Watkins, regional field director for the California Republican Party.

“We won the suburbs because we had a presence there that reached out to a larger base,” Watkins said. “There’s a California dream, and our candidates embody that. Their stories resonate with people not only because of who they are, where they came from and what they’re doing now, but also what they can do for these communities when they get to Washington.”

Fred Smoller, associate professor of political science at Chapman University, agreed that the winning Republican candidates had personal stories that voters could relate to.

“The Republicans that ran were able to appeal to a more diverse electorate,” Smoller said. “The GOP has to create a more inclusive message and expand to more people of color if they’re going to remain competitive.”

Steel, who was born in South Korea, was able to speak about her experiences as an immigrant and small-business owner and her qualifications representing local residents on the county Board of Supervisors, Smoller said.

She appealed to traditional conservatives by hammering home a low-tax message, though her ties to Trump hurt her in the 48th District, which includes the tony coastal cities of Newport Beach and Huntington Beach.

Steel’s Democratic opponent, Harley Rouda, had defeated longtime incumbent Dana Rohrabacher in 2018.

Though Rohrabacher was hobbled by his homophobic statements and a preference for Russian President Vladimir Putin, Steel had less personal baggage and pulled off a 7,000-vote victory.

Rouda, who was a Republican until three years ago, has already announced his intention to run for the seat again in 2022.

Kim, who was also born in South Korea, won by 1 percentage point over Democrat Gil Cisneros, who had beaten her two years before to represent the 39th District, which spans three counties and includes communities like Fullerton, Hacienda Heights and Chino Hills with many Asian immigrants.

She had honed her outreach skills through years of working for Republican Ed Royce, who held the seat for decades, and she was well-known among Korean speakers for hosting a Korean-language radio show. In 2014, she became the first Korean American Republican woman to serve in the California Assembly.

With Marilyn Strickland of Washington state, Kim and Steel will be the first Korean American women in Congress.

Democrats are also emphasizing outreach to communities of color. This election, they rolled out a multimillion-dollar campaign targeting Asian Americans in key congressional districts nationwide that included ads in Chinese, Vietnamese and Korean.

“A lot of these districts are going to remain purple for the foreseeable future — the razor-thin margins tell us that,” said Darwin Pham, deputy national press secretary for the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee. “We have a new and changing electorate, and we need to continue to build on how we listen to, engage with and reach out to different communities”

Zev Yaroslavsky, a former L.A. County supervisor and L.A. city councilman, expects those districts to be highly competitive for years to come.

“For Republicans to be a viable party, they’re going to have to expand their base. They can’t just rely on white voters, because that number is dropping,” said Yaroslavsky, a Democrat and director of the Los Angeles Initiative at the UCLA Luskin School of Public Affairs. “As we’ve seen, the trend is a more purple 50-50 split in these areas.”

Yaroslavsky pointed to the race between Garcia and Democrat Christy Smith in the 25th District.

Katie Hill, the Democrat who won the seat from incumbent Republican Steve Knight in 2018, resigned less than a year into her term after allegations that she had sexual affairs with a congressional aide and a campaign staff member.

Garcia, a former Navy pilot and Raytheon executive who is the son of a Mexican immigrant, has already been representing the district after beating Smith in a May special election to replace Hill.

Smith conceded the November election to Garcia after several weeks of vote counting showed him in the lead by 333 votes.

Valadao beat Cox by less than a percent to win back his 21st District seat representing much of the agricultural San Joaquin Valley.

Watkins sounded an optimistic note to counter other analysts’ poor prognosis for California Republicans.

He said politicians like Valadao, the son of Portuguese immigrants whose family farm in Hanford consists of two dairies as well as alfalfa, almond, corn and wheat fields, are the future of the Republican Party.

“This year gives us a blueprint of success for us in the future,” Watkins said. “When we have the right candidate, message and leadership, anything is possible.”

Times staff writer Maloy Moore contributed to this report.


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