Capitol Journal: It’s time for the California Republican Party to stop living in denial: Trump cost them big

President Trump was embraced by the seven Republican congressional candidates in California who lost in the 2018 midterm election.
(Saul Loeb / AFP/Getty Images)
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A new dissection of votes from the November election has produced solid evidence that President Trump cost California Republicans seven congressional seats.

That was half the state’s already measly GOP House contingent. Democrats now outnumber Republicans 46 to 7 in the California delegation.

More precisely, it was the Republican candidates’ kowtowing to the very unpopular president and his congressional agenda that cost them the support of local voters.


As it turned out, even little-known gubernatorial candidate John Cox ran better in six of their districts than did the Republican congressional candidates. And four were well-established incumbents with a long history of election victories.

The smart thing for the California Republican Party to do would be to stop living in denial and accept the costly lesson: To survive in competitive California congressional districts, a GOP candidate must stay as far away from Trump as possible.

If the president asks for a vote, leap to the other side. If he flies out to California, run for cover.

That, of course, carries different risks. A partisan elected official who repeatedly crosses party leadership — especially if it includes a president or governor — is apt to lose campaign money, key committee assignments and any hope of passing bills.

But a wise political leader — for example, legendary Assembly Speaker Willie Brown (D-San Francisco) — would advise his members to vote however necessary to win reelection and keep the party in power.

Clearly, House Republicans in California got no such advice from Trump or their then-majority leader, Rep. Kevin McCarthy of Bakersfield.


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“Republicans are now at this historic low in California, but it will only get worse if Trump heads the ticket in 2020,” longtime Republican political analyst Tony Quinn wrote last week in the blog Fox & Hounds.

“Any Republican up [for reelection] next year ought to hope that somehow Trump is impeached and convicted, and that Vice President Pence is at the top of the ticket.”

Quinn is editor of the nonpartisan California Target Book, which handicaps congressional and legislative races. A Target Book researcher, Rob Pyers, analyzed the election votes in each district. Quinn reported the numbers in his blog post.

The Republican losers were Reps. Dana Rohrabacher of Costa Mesa, Mimi Walters of Irvine, Steve Knight of Palmdale, David Valadao of Hanford and Jeff Denham of Turlock, plus two non-incumbent former legislators, Young Kim of Fullerton and Diane Harkey of Dana Point.

In all but Valadao’s district, underfunded Cox ran better than the congressional contenders. So did former Republican Insurance Commissioner Steve Poizner, bidding unsuccessfully for his old job as a nonpartisan independent. Also, the failed GOP-sponsored gas tax repeal, Proposition 6, carried every GOP-held congressional district.


“Had the Republicans run as well as the gas tax repeal, they would have picked up three seats instead of losing seven,” Pyers says.

The crucial misstep for the Republican losers was voting for Trump’s tax cuts — which actually were tax hikes for many of their constituents — and to kill popular Obamacare. Only Rohrabacher opposed the tax bill.

The tax and Obamacare votes tied the Republican House members tightly to Trump and made them fat targets.

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Democratic candidates wisely ran on healthcare, pledging to preserve the ban on insurance companies denying coverage because of preexisting medical conditions.

The so-called tax cut especially hit upper-middle income and wealthy Californians. Many reside in the Orange County suburban districts that Republicans were trying to defend. It hurt these voters by capping state and local tax deductions at $10,000 on federal returns.

It’s not as if the seven Republican House candidates hadn’t been forewarned about Trump’s toxicity. In each of their districts, Trump lost in 2016 to Hillary Clinton. But they didn’t adapt, which is symbolic of the GOP itself in California.

GOP leaders have been blaming their shellacking on everything except Trump: The Democrats raised more money, they were better organized, they used a new law to “harvest” votes — collecting people’s sealed mail ballots and delivering them.

“Republicans can point their finger at anybody they want but unless they’re pointing it at themselves, they’re not going to learn the lesson of the 2018 election,” says Darry Sragow, a longtime Democratic strategist who publishes the Target Book. “The lesson is what the Republican Party is selling in California under Donald Trump, the voters simply aren’t buying. The [border] wall is one example.

“Second, for some perverse reason, he has made a habit of sticking a finger in the eyes of California. Beyond policy, it’s gotten personal.


“The numbers,” Sragow adds, “paint a crystal clear picture of why the Republicans did so badly in California.”

“It’s hard to dispute that and I’m not going to try,” says Republican consultant Wayne Johnson, Cox’s campaign guru. “If the election was a referendum on Trump — and to an extent it was — that was a losing hand in California.”

Johnson says the GOP congressional candidates “were saddled with a Beltway message, talking about low unemployment, business is doing great, the tax cuts. Well, none of that translated to California voters.”

“Cox’s message was the exact opposite: We’re actually in trouble in California. The homeless population is going through the roof, we’ve got the highest poverty rate in the country, high cost of living….”

Cox got walloped by Democrat Gavin Newsom. Yet he still won roughly a half million more votes than the Trump lemmings running for Congress.


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