Op-Ed: Five California races define the Republican gamble on the midterm elections

Dana Rohrabacher addresses supporters on, June 5 in Costa Mesa, Calif.
Dana Rohrabacher addresses supporters on, June 5 in Costa Mesa, Calif.
(Los Angeles Times)

Five California House Republicans face particularly challenging environments as the midterm campaigns ramp up. Reps. Steve Knight, Dana Rohrabacher, Mimi Walters, Jeff Denham and David Valadao all represent House districts that backed Hillary Clinton over Donald Trump in 2016.

Each of the five voted to repeal the Affordable Care Act after California, through the ACA, covered more than twice as many previously uninsured adults as any other state.

They all voted for legislation that sought to punish locales that don’t fully cooperate with federal immigration authorities, even though California cities were among the law’s top targets.

They jointly backed House-passed legislation to override state gun control laws and allow anyone granted a permit in any state to carry their concealed weapons in every state. And all but Rohrabacher backed the Republican tax bill pushed by President Trump, though its limits on deducting state, local and property taxes would bite California as hard as any state.


Instead of trying to reassure swing voters uncertain about a turbulent presidency, Republicans are focusing on maximizing turnout among base GOP voters.

In all these ways, and more, this set of California Republicans represent the GOP’s defining gamble heading into the 2018 election’s final weeks. With few very exceptions, even Republicans in the most closely contested districts have chosen to unify behind an agenda that provoked nearly unbroken opposition from congressional Democrats. And they have locked arms around Trump by renouncing serious oversight of his administration.

Trump loyalty is a distinctive political strategy: Instead of trying to reassure swing voters uncertain about a turbulent presidency, Republicans are focusing on maximizing turnout among base GOP voters who support Trump no matter what. Their goal is to offset a surge among voters repulsed by the president especially in white-collar suburbs. In the process they are sending a clear signal that, if they retain their majorities, they won’t change course to check or restrain Trump in the future.

The White House tweets out predictions of a “red wave” in November, but Republicans are virtually assured at least some losses. Since World War II, the president’s party has lost an average of 36 House seats in the nine midterm elections when his approval rating stood below 50% on election day. Trump’s national approval rating is averaging only around 40%. An undertow that strong will inevitably pull down some Republicans with it.


Because opinions about Trump are so highly polarized, and Republicans have lashed themselves so closely to him, he may provoke an unusually splintered result. The midterm elections seem less likely to unfold as a uniform red or blue wave that submerges all parts of the country and more likely to harden jagged boundaries and deepen divides between the parties.

The most vulnerable House Republicans are clinging to well-educated and often racially diverse suburban districts inside otherwise Democratic-leaning metropolitan areas such as New Jersey, Pennsylvania, northern Virginia, Illinois, Minnesota and Colorado. In California, Knight’s Santa Clarita district qualifies, as do Walters’, Rohrabacher’s and the two open-seat districts in Orange County.

White-collar recoil from Trump — particularly among college-educated white women, who are breaking toward Democrats at historic rates in polling — appears certain to flip many of these seats from red to blue.

Gains in the suburbs of liberal metro areas alone could carry Democrats close to a House majority. But to ensure that they reach 218 seats — and to build a cushion — Democrats must succeed with two more challenging groups of seats.


One is more conservative suburban districts in states that have usually leaned Republican. That list includes seats around Dallas; Houston; Charlotte, N.C.; Kansas City, Mo.; and potentially Atlanta. Though Trump has lost ground in these places, the recoil is less visceral and the Republican roots there are stronger.

Even more important may be whether Democrats can reclaim districts with substantial rural, small-town and white working-class populations. Democratic candidates are seriously contesting Republican seats fitting that description in northeast and southwest Iowa, upstate New York and downstate Illinois, among other places. On this front, the key may be whether Democrats can recapture the votes of white women without a college education, who preponderantly backed Trump in 2016 but have expressed more unease since, not only over his behavior but also his efforts to repeal the ACA.

The divergent reaction to Trump is also defining the Senate battle this fall. Trump’s continuing strength among blue-collar and rural white voters provides Republicans with good opportunities to oust Democratic senators in North Dakota, Indiana and Missouri, though some slippage for Trump has raised Democrats’ hopes of defending the latter two. In West Virginia and Montana, though the president’s popularity is fueling serious challenges, the GOP’s prospects don’t look as strong.

Erosion in Trump’s support has also helped solidify the Senate seats of Democratic incumbents in four Rust Belt states he carried: Ohio, Wisconsin, Michigan and Pennsylvania.


The Democrats’ best Senate pickup opportunities are in Nevada and Arizona, where Trump faces resistance among white-collar whites and minorities alike. In Texas, Democrat Beto O’Rourke has electrified his party but still faces difficult odds against Ted Cruz. In all these Sun Belt contests, Democrats will benefit if they can improve typically lackluster Latino turnout.

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Ironically, at such a polarizing moment, the Senate could be decided by two races featuring older moderate white Democrats: incumbent Bill Nelson, who is laboring to hold off outgoing Republican Gov. Rick Scott in Florida; and challenger Phil Bredesen, who is contesting an open Republican seat in Tennessee. Democrats likely must win both to have any chance of recapturing the upper chamber.

In addition to solidifying the Rust Belt/Sun Belt and the city/rural split between the parties, November’s election is likely to widen the gap between what I call the Democrats’ “coalition of transformation” and the Republicans’ “coalition of restoration.” The former is made up of diverse, younger, white-collar and, increasingly, secular metropolitan voters — and the latter is centered on white, older, blue-collar and Christian non-urbanites. Trump didn’t create the conflict between those two sets of Americans, but he is systematically heightening it.


As the divisive and disruptive Trump presidency barrels forward, the fierce struggles of 2018 represent a titanic collision between what America has been and what it is becoming. And this is just the warm-up for 2020.

Ronald Brownstein is senior editor at the Atlantic and senior political analyst for CNN.

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