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Battleground 2018: How California’s Red Districts Can Alter the Nation’s Political Landscape

Harvard Political Review, California, 21 November 2017 - A quick glance at a map of presidential election results in California over the past 24 years shows a consistently blue state amidst a changing political landscape. Reagan-era conservatism seems to have faded from the Golden State, but the Republican base that propelled Nixon and Reagan into the White House endures in several of California’s suburban and rural counties.

Republicans control 14  of California’s 53 Congressional districts. Of those 14 districts, seven voted for Hillary Clinton, yet kept their Republican incumbents in the House. Over one-fourth of California is represented by a Republican representative in Congress. Despite this figure, red districts like the suburban Orange County and rural Fresno County have become lost amidst the progressive areas that surround them.

The coming election cycle will change that narrative. Last year, Orange County elected a Democratic candidate for the first time since 1936. The historically conservative county is shifting away from its enduring Republican base, and changing the direction of national politics in the process. An influx of left-leaning Hispanic and young voters offers Democrats a strong opportunity to win these conservative districts and tighten the GOP’s 24 seat advantage in the House.

A Tale of Two Districts

Behind the skyscrapers of downtown Los Angeles lies California’s 38th District. In Los Angeles County, Hispanics—who compose 48 percent of the total county population—are the largest racial minority, and may soon become the majority. The 38th is no exception to this trend. Over 61 percent of the district’s population is Hispanic. While the district claims a respectable median household income of nearly $60,000 per year, this still falls short of to the state median household income by over $6,000 per year.

The district’s politics reflect its demographics. Democratic incumbent Linda Sanchez has consistently run on a platform of progressive economic and social policies. The daughter of Mexican immigrants, Sanchez brands herself as a pro-immigrant rights, pro-middle class politician. Thus far, Sanchez’s constituents have approved. Sanchez has held her seat in the House since 2002, and won the most recent election with more than 70 percent of the vote.

Adjacent to the predominantly Hispanic, working class 38th lies the conservative, upper-middle class 39th. In contrast to the 38th, only 35 percent of the population in Orange County’s 39th identify as Hispanic, with the majority identifying as white or Asian.

More staggering is the difference in income. With a median household income above $76,000 per year, the average household in the 39th makes $10,000 more per year than the average household in California, and $16,000 more than the average household in the neighboring 38th. The 39th also has a higher percentage of college educated constituents—about 39 percent compared to 21 percent in the 38th.

The politics of the 39th reflect its demographics. Congressman Ed Royce, a moderate Republican, has retained his seat in the House since 1993 by relying on his middle- to upper-middle-class base. The district’s overwhelming support for fiscally conservative economic policies have kept it a Republican stronghold over the past two decades.

Changes within the 39th cast doubts upon the staying power of its conservatism. The district is tilting towards Democrats as it grows increasingly diverse, younger, and more civically engaged. If Republican incumbents cannot meet the changing demands of their constituents, they will find themselves out of office. As the demographics and political attitudes of the 39th shifts, it may begin to parallel the left-leaning politics of the 38th.

In 1990, Republicans held a 20 point lead amongst registered voters in Orange County. That margin has narrowed to three points in recent years. According to Andrew Godinich, press secretary for the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee’s Western Offices, this shift is attributable to an increasingly young, diverse, and immigrant district. Godinich also told the HPR that those within the GOP base are trending leftward: “it’s college educated whites who are drifting away from Republicans.”

This increase in young voters is leading the shift from Republican dominance towards a more even playing field for both parties in the 39th. “There’s been a shift of younger voters ages 18-25 from Democratic or Republican to no party preference,” Neal Kelley, the registrar of voters for Orange County, told the HPR. “That has been one of the fastest growing areas. When you look at the numbers that have gone from Republican or another minor party to Democrat, that has also risen from 18 to 25.”

Similarly, a growing Hispanic population in the traditionally conservative Fresno County has sparked a leftward shift across the district. Today, over half of all residents in Fresno county identify as Hispanic. Higher concentrations of Hispanics in specific Congressional districts, such as the 21st District which has a 72 percent-Hispanic constituency, could prove troublesome for California Republicans, especially in light of the President Trump’s removal of DACA and stringent immigration platform.

Strong leads in districts like the 21st, combined with shrinking gaps in other traditionally Republican districts, offer a promising outlook for hopeful Democratic candidates. In Fresno County, a rising number of registered Democrats has shrunk the gap on the county’s Republican majority. Countywide, the number of registered Democrats is now about four percentage points higher than Republicans. In other districts, Democrats have a more commanding lead: in the 21st, Democrats hold a 17-point lead over Republicans in the number of registered voters.

Ground Zero

In response to these shifting demographics, Democrats are gearing up for an on-the-ground fight in California. “We’ve moved our Western offices to California,” Godinich said, noting that this move included “an entire team focused on data and analytics, research, press to be closer to the races … to fully understand the culture of California and the issues facing California.”

“Orange County is the Ground Zero in California politics next year,” communications director of the California Democratic Party John Vigna told the HPR. “With so many candidates in Orange County, it’s hard to keep track of them. But it’s a good thing. It shows enthusiasm.”

This competition is most evident in Districts 39 and 45. With six Democratic candidates in the 39th, opposition to incumbent Royce runs deep. Among the five challengers is former White House staffer and Congressional Chief of Staff, Sam Jammal. “The district has become much more diverse and younger,” Jammal told the HPR. “The community has changed and our Congressman hasn’t. Fundamentally, he just doesn’t fit the district anymore.”

In the 45th, seven Democratic challengers are running to unseat longtime incumbent Mimi Walters. While such a large number of candidates could lead to an intra-party split in the vote, it also shows the magnitude of the opposition to Republican candidates and a fundamental shift in political beliefs in Orange County.

Capitalizing on Trump’s unfavorable stances towards Hispanics will be critical to Democrats’ strategy in California. In light of Trump’s recent repeal of DACA, Congressman David Valadao of District 21 teamed up with five other House Republicans to denounce the removal of the policy. While this public dissent against the president may have cost Valadao respect amongst his Republican colleagues, some Democratic strategists see it as necessary to retain control over his district, where more than 71 percent of voters identify as Hispanic. “Valadao is running scared,” said Vigna. “Trump has really awakened a fighting spirit in the left that really wasn’t there before. Because things are so stark, Valadao can no longer hide. He has to move toward the center.”

In 2018, on-the-ground strategy will remain key for Democrats. Increasing voter registration and appealing to marginal Republican voters are becoming the tactic of choice, largely due to lessons learned from previous elections. In 2016, Republican incumbent Darrell Issa won California’s 49th—also a part of Orange County—by a margin of only 1600 votes. Such a close margin has given Democrats hope that with strong on-the-ground voter mobilization, they can flip the 49th District in 2018.

To Win the War, Start With the Battle

With the opportunity presented by changing demographics and political attitudes in the Golden State, Democrats are revamping and redesigning their approach to the 2018 election. On the brink of gaining a majority in the House, the DCCC hopes that the seven Republican districts in California that voted for Clinton will serve as the tipping point for similar districts across the nation.

Potential swing districts across the nation are gearing up for a political battle. The committee feels that it can reclaim the House because of historic trends that favor the minority party in the midterm elections, the breadth of Democratic challengers, and low approval ratings for both Trump and Speaker Paul Ryan. As such, the committee is implementing a variety on-the-ground, grassroots strategies across the country—including training nearly 3000 additional staffers, placing organizers in Republican-held districts, and partnering with progressive third party organizations to create a more effective party platform.

Despite the uptick in on-the-ground efforts, some remain skeptical that Democrats have a realistic chance at reclaiming the majority in the House. Skeptics cite the continued presence of an older generation that continues to vote Republican, and the fact that Latinos repeatedly vote in smaller percentages than other demographics. Despite these obstacles, candidates like Jammal remain optimistic. “My job is to talk to those voters and engage them. That’s how you get people out,” Jammal said.

As Democrats push forward in swing districts across the nation, the party hopes that districts in Orange and Fresno County will serve as the turning point in breaking up the Republican majority in Congress. The ability of the Democratic Party to create a message that resonates with voters, improve voter turnout, and increase civic engagement, as well as Republicans’ ability to move toward the center will ultimately determine whether Democrats can flip districts in Orange and Fresno Counties in 2018.


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