Republican leaders are quaking at the thought of Donald Trump as their party’s presidential nominee, even if a good third or more of their voters are just as enthusiastically supporting the real estate tycoon and reality TV star.
The establishment’s view is that Trump would not only lose the presidency but also ravage the party down the ballot, in Senate, congressional and legislative races where Republicans would suffer for his presence because many GOP voters would stay home.
But in California, home to several contested congressional races that are key national fights, it’s more complicated. Trump would both hurt Republican candidates and help.
The most intriguing locale is the Central Valley, where Republicans have held on to several seats despite fierce Democratic efforts to seize them.
Ordinarily, a Republican presidential nominee who can regularly draw tens of thousands of supporters to his rallies while defying all the rules of political gravity would seem to be a boon for threatened down-ballot candidates.
In other states, Trump has won over many of the type of voters who live in those districts, blue-collar workers who are economically stressed and less educated on the whole than the rest of the state.
In the New Hampshire and South Carolina primaries, Trump captured about 4 in 10 of those without college degrees and earning under $50,000 annually — a high proportion in a multi-candidate field. That too, would seem to help Republicans, since those voters often side with Democrats.
But in California, many of those districts also have a high proportion of Latinos, the group that is most vociferously against Trump due to his portrayal of immigrants here illegally and his threat to deport 11 million of them.
So here Trump would be the prime motivator for both sides, Republicans using him to boost GOP turnout and Democrats using him to boost theirs.
The 21st congressional district covers parts of Fresno and Kern counties and has been sought after by both parties. On paper, Democrats should have an advantage, considering that they outnumber Republicans. And 54% of the district’s voters are Latino, according to the nonpartisan California Target Book, which studies elective races in the state. That, too, should spell success for Democrats.
But Republican incumbent David Valadao has been able to win there, in part by breaking with Republican leaders on immigration. He and Rep. Jeff Denham of Turlock, who represents a similar district, called last year for passage of immigration measures that their colleagues in the House were blocking.
Valadao won by 16 percentage points in 2014, a Republican year, and would be expected to face a tighter race this year since Democratic turnout rises in presidential years.
So his race will be one place to chart the effect of Trump, were he to become the nominee. Only 7% of district residents over age 25 had a college degree, according to recent census data. Of the other 93%, those who are Latino voters would be expected to show up against Trump; those who are white would be far more inclined to show up to support him.
The same may be true in the Fresno County district occupied by Democrat Jim Costa, who in a 2014 surprise won his district by less than 2 percentage points.
Although Democrats say they are confident a higher presidential year turnout makes Costa’s seat safe, his district also appears ripe for a Trump clash. More than 4 in 10 of the district’s voters are Latino; at the same time 88% of the residents over 25 lack a college degree.
Trump has made trade one of his premier issues, inveighing against President Obama’s support of trade pacts. Costa was one of two dozen Democrats who sided with Obama, angering organized labor.
Republican Johnny Tacherra lost to Costa in 2014 and is challenging him again. His strategist, Lee Neves, said he sees Trump as a positive in the district and in others in the Central Valley.
“Whoever the nominee is, you have to look at the positives he brings to the race,” said Neves, who supports Trump challenger Marco Rubio, the senator from Florida. “With the Donald, one of the positives is he is able to reach out and connect, he is able to reach out to a blue class worker. In the Central Valley, that’s a farmer. In the city of Stockton, it’s someone who works in a factory every day.
“Trump is speaking to a lot of their issues, like trade, like crime.”
Neves and Republicans argue that the hit Trump takes among Latinos will matter less in the Central Valley because its Latino voters are more conservative.
Nationally, however, the disdain for Trump among Latinos has been nearly universal. A Washington Post-Univision poll released Thursday found that 8 in 10 Latinos — a level rarely reached in surveys — had a negative view of Trump. Seventy-two percent said their view of him was very unfavorable, the most negative category.
A January survey for the Public Policy Institute of California found that only 13% of Latinos in the state had a favorable view of Trump.
Democrats blame a low turnout among Latinos for their inability to claim Republican seats that, on paper, they should own. In Trump, some party officials believe, they have found a vehicle to drive those voters to the polls.
“He is the new face of their party,” said Kelly Ward, executive director of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee. “This, plus his hateful rhetoric toward the Hispanic community, his insulting comments about women and his generally negative demeanor, will turn voters against Republicans up and down the ticket in November.”