Newsletter: California Democrats who won House battlegrounds might be even stronger for 2020

Essential Politics

Democrats made history two years ago by knocking off seven Republican congressional incumbents, a key component of the party’s takeover of the House of Representatives. GOP candidates are already lining up in hopes of taking back some of those seats.

But brand-new voter registration data suggest that won’t be so easy. In fact, there are very few pieces of good news for Republicans in the report released last week by state elections officials.


While voter registration is a dynamic thing and the numbers change every day, this analysis examines the official state report issued 154 days before the primary election in March and compares it with the same period in 2018. (The report also offers a fascinating comparison to 2016, but we’ll get to that in a moment.)

Simply put: In almost every House district in which a Republican incumbent lost in 2018, Democrats have either expanded their lead in registered voters or narrowed the registration gap — thus boosting their chances of holding the seat in 2020 and perhaps giving them some room to embrace their party’s effort in the impeachment inquiry against President Trump.

Democrats outnumbered Republicans in three of the seven districts at this same point before the 2018 election season and now are clearly the dominant party in four of the districts — those currently represented by Reps. Josh Harder (D-Turlock), T.J. Cox (D-Fresno) and Gil Cisneros (D-Yorba Linda) and the one that was represented by Democrat Katie Hill until her recent, abrupt resignation.


Democrats have just about doubled their registration edge in Harder’s San Joaquin Valley district and in Hill’s former district encompassing outlying communities in Los Angeles and Ventura counties. For Cisneros, the numbers are especially good: His seat representing Orange County as well as parts of Los Angeles and San Bernardino has flipped from a Republican plurality to now having Democrats as top dogs.

In the other three districts — won in 2018 by Reps. Katie Porter (D-Irvine), Harley Rouda (D-Laguna Beach) and Mike Levin (D-San Juan Capistrano) — longtime Republican dominance has again weakened. None are more notable than Porter’s Orange County district, where Republicans had a 14.2-percentage point advantage in 2016 and now have seen that gap shrink to less than 4 percentage points.

As hinted at earlier, many of the comparisons to this same point in the 2016 election calendar show even larger GOP voter registration erosion in California battleground districts and even some downsizing in relatively safe Republican seats.

In the Sierra Nevada foothills of the state’s 4th Congressional District, represented by Rep. Tom McClintock (R-Elk Grove), Republicans have gone from a 15.5-point registration advantage in 2016 to a 12.2-point advantage. In the Central Valley district of Rep. Devin Nunes (R-Tulare), the GOP lead in voter registration over four years has been cut almost in half, with now only a 7-percentage point advantage over Democrats. A similar trend can be seen next door in the district of House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Bakersfield).

If there’s any real problem spot for Democrats in the newly released voter registration report, it’s in the 21st Congressional District represented by Cox, where Democratic dominance has slightly shrunk since 2016. There, the real growth in voters has been those who choose “no party preference.”

And unaffiliated voters, it should be noted, continue to be the big long-term story of California’s electorate, as voters become less formally partisan even as they align with Democrats on election day. So-called independent voters could be a key factor in the race to succeed Hill — joined over the weekend by the man she beat two years ago, former Rep. Steve Knight. And they are probably part of the story in Rouda’s coastal Orange County district too, where GOP registration has shrunk since the era of Trump began in 2016.

One other thought on the congressional voter registration data: Next year’s elections will be the last in all 53 districts, each of which will be redrawn in 2021 after the coming census. Some Central Valley, Sierra foothills and Northern California cities are likely to see big changes in the maps based on a booming population. That, in turn, could come at the expense of urban areas in Southern California represented by a bevy of veteran Democrats.

20,328,636 AND COUNTING

California’s total electorate has grown by more than 3 million people since the snapshot taken at this same point in the 2016 election cycle. The state’s 20.3 million voters are more than the total number of registrants in Pennsylvania, Wisconsin and Michigan combined. Not that there’s any reason to highlight those three states, right?

“We’ve seen a significant increase in voters,” California Secretary of State Alex Padilla told reporters last week. “I am expecting record voter turnout in 2020.”


-- Bolivian President Evo Morales announced his resignation Sunday under mounting pressure from the military and the public after his reelection victory triggered weeks of fraud allegations and deadly protests.

-- Chanting “humanity first,” dozens of people protested outside the UCLA hall on Sunday where Donald Trump Jr. was speaking as part of a promotional tour for his new book.

-- A somewhat reluctant Supreme Court will hear arguments Tuesday in this year’s most far-reaching immigration case over Trump’s revocation of a policy that allowed more than 700,000 immigrants brought to the country illegally as children to temporarily live and work in this country.

-- As the impeachment inquiry against Trump moves into a public phase this week, leading Democrats — joined by at least one GOP lawmaker — on Sunday rejected Republican demands for public testimony by the whistleblower whose complaint set the process in motion.

-- With some Democrats growing anxious about an uncompromising progressive at the top of the ticket, Mayor Pete Buttigieg of South Bend, Ind., is packing venues in Iowa and New Hampshire by talking about moderation and reconciliation.

-- Ex-felons in Florida had their right to vote restored through Amendment 4. But within months, Florida’s Legislature tried to limit the effect of the initiative.


-- Taft is a red “oil field strong” town in blue California, but residents don’t let politics get in the way of supporting each other through day-to-day life.

-- Westlands Water District, a sprawling Central Valley farm district with ties to the Trump administration, is poised to get a permanent contract for a massive quantity of cheap federal irrigation supplies.

-- In the year since the Camp fire, Gov. Gavin Newsom and California Legislature pushed through laws requiring cities and counties to identify inadequate evacuation routes in residential developments built in hazard zones and increased funding to update the 911 system and reduce the kinds of vegetation that fueled the deadly blaze.

-- In a dramatic shift to how Southern California cities plan to grow over the next decade, a regional agency has decided to push for more housing in coastal rather than inland communities.

-- California Supreme Court justices seemed skeptical last week that the Legislature acted legally to require presidential primary candidates to disclose their tax returns.

-- More than 5,000 people have signed a petition begging Del Norte County not to cut down the redwoods lining Wonder Stump Road outside the unincorporated community of Fort Dick.

-- The former head of the L.A.-based anti-poverty nonprofit Youth Policy Institute improperly used the organization’s funds to pay the property taxes on his house, buy furniture for his home office and make national political donations, the group alleged in new court documents.


Essential Politics is written by Sacramento bureau chief John Myers on Mondays and Washington bureau chief David Lauter on Fridays.

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