First-time candidates aim to unseat seasoned politicians in California House races

First-time candidate Jessica Morse is trying to unseat seasoned politician Rep. Tom McClintock (R-Elk Grove) in California's rural 4th Congressional District.
(Jazmine Ulloa/ Los Angeles Times; Rich Pedroncelli/Associated Press)

The only formal office Jessica Morse has ever held is president of her high school Key Club.

Now the 36-year-old Democrat is in the final days of a campaign to unseat U.S. Rep. Tom McClintock, a Republican from Elk Grove who’s spent decades in elected office.

Morse, a former national security consultant, is going up against an incumbent with a reputation as a anti-tax, limited-government conservative in a district with the highest concentration of Republicans in California.


Although McClintock, 62, won reelection handily in his last election, this race is rated “likely Republican” as opposed to solidly Republican by the nonpartisan Cook Political Report. And Morse has raised $3.2 million, double the funds pulled in by McClintock.

Morse isn’t the only green and relatively unknown candidate going after an entrenched incumbent. Many of the first-timers trying to flip long-held Republican seats to the Democrats are giving incumbents their first significant challenges in years.

“It has become the norm in this election cycle,” said Paul Mitchell, whose firm Political Data tracks the state’s electoral trends. “Every one of the congressional districts in California is being headed by Democratic challengers who have not run for anything, not even as much as a school board race.”

In coastal Orange County, polls suggest real estate entrepreneur Harley Rouda is in a virtual tie with 15-term Rep. Dana Rohrabacher (R-Costa Mesa), who won his last race by 16 percentage points. Just inland, UC Irvine law professor Katie Porter is leading Rep. Mimi Walters (R-Laguna Beach), who won in 2016 by 17 points, according to recent polling.

And some of the novices are pulling in eye-popping sums of campaign cash — in some districts, dwarfing Republican incumbents’ war chests — in a state that sits center stage in the Democratic Party’s push to flip the House on Tuesday. Nine first-time candidates challenging Republican members of Congress in California have raised nearly $60 million.

In the 25th Congressional District past the northern edge of Los Angeles, Katie Hill, a 31-year-old former executive director of a nonprofit providing housing for the homeless, has raised more than $7.3 million as of mid-October, according to federal elections filings. That’s nearly triple the contributions incumbent Rep. Steve Knight (R-Palmdale) got during the same period, about $2.4 million.

In another close race, Central Valley Democrat Josh Harder, a former Silicon Valley venture capitalist, had raised more than $7 million compared with Rep. Jeff Denham’s $4.5 million as of Oct. 17.

The cash boom is because of, in part, an influx of money to ActBlue, an online fundraising tool for progressives. Outside groups often reach out and identify targeted races for Democratic donors from all over the country, who might have otherwise been unfamiliar with the candidates, and use the system to direct funds to their campaigns, Mitchell said.

“It allows nobody candidates to get resources that wouldn’t be traditionally available to candidates who don’t have some sort of spark or celebrity,” he said.

In the 4th Congressional District, Democrats will be watching Morse’s longshot bid to turn a largely rural GOP stronghold blue.

The district stretches from Sacramento’s northeastern suburbs up to the Nevada border at Lake Tahoe, down through the Yosemite Valley and the Sierra Nevada and south to Kings Canyon National Park. Roseville, a prosperous suburb of interconnected strip malls and far-flung megachurches, is the most populous city in the district.

Democrats have never won the seat with its current boundaries. Sen. Kamala Harris is the party’s only candidate the district has ever favored in a statewide race. McClintock won more than 62% of the vote in 2016.

Kathleen Steinkamp of Roseville says she was born a Republican in a family that doesn’t cross party lines. But the 27-year-old teacher says she’s fed up with President Trump and will buck the GOP — McClintock included — at the ballot box this year.

“We all love America, but we’re kind of ashamed of it right now and we don’t really respect it as much,” said Steinkamp, who supported Trump in 2016. “I think it’s more important, even as a registered Republican, to vote for the other party and say, ‘Hey, this isn’t cool anymore.’”

Morse, casting herself as a middle-of-the-road public servant, needs disenchanted voters such as Steinkamp to turn things in her favor. A count of absentee ballots, tallied by Mitchell’s firm, gave Republicans a 14-point advantage as of Friday afternoon.

Morse has repeatedly slammed McClintock for voting to repeal the Affordable Care Act, among other key votes. She suggests the veteran congressman, a longtime resident of a city some 30 miles away from the heart of the 4th District, is a political hack who’s out of touch with his constituents.

McClintock, a tea party Republican who served 22 years in the California Legislature and unsuccessfully ran for statewide office four times, says Morse isn’t in a place to criticize.

She grew up about half an hour outside the district and recently moved back to Northern California from Washington, D.C. Now she lives in one of the district’s Sierra foothill communities.

“This is now the third election where I’ve faced a candidate who’s moved in from another state, campaigned against me for being a carpetbagger, been handily defeated and then promptly left,” McClintock said.

When the congressman served as a warm-up act for conservative provocateur Dinesh D’Souza at the Placer County Fairgrounds last month, he was asked for a prediction on a blue, red or purple wave.

McClintock drew a comparison to the widely held expectation that Hillary Clinton would win the presidential race two years ago: “I can tell you the final two weeks of this campaign feel an awful lot like the final two weeks of the 2016 campaign.”

Heather Arvin asked McClintock for a selfie after he walked off the stage. Arvin, 40, often stands outside McClintock’s Roseville office in opposition to a group of liberal protesters.

McClintock received a 96% rating for his voting record last year by the American Conservative Union, a 93% rating from the National Rifle Assn., 5% from the AFL-CIO and a zero from Planned Parenthood.

Arvin said she supports McClintock because she’s “seen him actually say things and get them done.” She couldn’t vote for Morse, she said.

“She’s a good gal, but I’m just red all the way,” the Republican said. “No matter what, I’m going to be red.”

Morse, who says her conservative family has lived in Northern California for five generations and owns land in a former mining town in Placer County, rarely mentions her own party affiliation on the campaign trail.

In one television ad, she appears seated in a canoe, rowing on a lake and demonstrating that paddling only left or right — a metaphor for national partisan fights — creates no forward progress, only spinning in circles. She talks about working for Republicans and Democrats and about taking oaths during her career to protect the Constitution, not one party over another.

Morse went to graduate school at Princeton. She was hired by the U.S. Agency for International Development and spent a year in Iraq, and worked for the State Department in Washington, D.C., and U.S. Pacific Command in Hawaii.

“I’m tired of this political rhetoric that defines winning as the other party losing,” Morse said in an interview. “Congressman McClintock is someone who often talks about the Republicans. We should be talking about our country or our community.”

But it’s the chance for a major partisan pickup that’s helped Morse raise money to spread her message.

Super PACs reported spending an additional $860,000 mostly on TV, print and online ads against McClintock or in support of Morse. The only disclosed pro-McClintock money from independent groups totals $5,000.

The congressman said he and other Republicans facing Democratic challengers are being “buried in cash.”

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Staff writer Victoria Kim contributed to this report.