In May, when Rep. Mike Garcia won a special House election in suburban Los Angeles, it was the first time since 1998 that the GOP had flipped a Democratic-held House seat in the state. It had been even longer, since 1994, that Republicans took out an incumbent House member. Yet in the election this month, they have already done that three times — with Republican Michelle Steel beating Democratic Rep. Harley Rouda in a coastal Orange County district, Republican Young Kim dispatching Rep. Gil Cisneros, and former Rep. David Valadao defeating Democratic Rep. TJ Cox to reclaim his Central Valley seat.
Garcia is currently running ahead of Democrat Christy Smith in a race that remains too close to call.
“The pendulum is swinging back,” said Jim Brulte, a former California Republican Party chair and longtime legislative leader. “For every action there’s an equal and opposite reaction. That’s not just physics. It’s also political. And I think you’ve started to see the reaction to total Democrat control in California.”
That’s a heady assessment in a state where Democrats hold every statewide office and supermajorities in the legislature — and where the last Republican presidential candidate to carry the state was George H.W. Bush in 1988. Democrats hold a registration advantage of more than 20 percentage points over Republicans statewide, a margin that has grown since 2016.
Still, it wasn’t long ago that the Republican Party in California was written off for dead. Its success this month not only added to Democrats’ dismal down-ballot showing across the country, it dealt a blow to House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s delegation in her home state, a beacon of the Democratic Party. More important, it served as a reminder of how volatile portions of the political landscape remain even in California, a state that will be critical in the midterms in two years.
“It suggests that no one should sign the death certificate for the California Republican Party just yet,” said Darry Sragow, a longtime Democratic strategist and publisher of the nonpartisan California Target Book, which handicaps elections in the state.
Nowhere was the Republican Party’s rally more apparent than in Orange County, a one-time citadel of conservatism that Democrats finally cracked in 2016. Hillary Clinton became the party’s first presidential nominee to carry the county since 1936, then it toppled two years later — with Democrats sweeping all four congressional races in Orange County. Last year, registered Democrats surpassed Republicans there.
But this month, Rouda and Cisneros, whose district includes part of the county, both lost their seats to Republicans, at least one of whom, Steel, appeared to overperform Trump in her district, according to Target Book data.
To Republicans, that was the kind of result that suggested a future for the party in the post-Trump era. The icing on the cake was the fact the party’s victories came in a high-turnout presidential election — normally disastrous for the GOP in California — after Republicans for years opposed efforts to make it easier to vote. Turnout in the state was expected to reach about 80 percent.
Recalling how often California Republicans in past years had suffered under criticism that “you guys could only win because we had record low turnout, or you guys can win in a special election, but not in a general,” Jessica Millan Patterson, the chair of the state Republican Party, said, “This should be a real wakeup call for California Democrats. … We had record-high turnout, and we were able to flip … possibly four congressional seats.”
The party’s House gains reflected the GOP’s improvement nationally in congressional races, with Republicans tipping back some of the most competitive seats in California that they lost two years ago. But Republicans in the state also stepped up their voter registration and mail ballot collection efforts, adopting some of the same practices, including what critics call “ballot harvesting,” that Democrats have used.
In some ways, the Republican down-ticket victories have had the effect of flipping the traditional post-election script in California. For years, Republicans would sidestep their many defeats in House and legislative contests and statewide races and instead point to their successes in local contests as evidence of growth.
But in Orange County this week, the local Democratic Party was promoting the election of more Democrats, including women and people of color, to local governing bodies, while noting that Biden carried the county by a larger margin — 9 percentage points — than Clinton.
Ada Briceño, chair of the Orange County Democratic Party, described the outcome as a “mixed bag,” while cautioning against reading into it any lessons for 2022. House Democrats had a weak performance across the country, not just in California, largely because of turnout driven by Trump.
“I think that Donald Trump sort of created the chaos on our ballot results that we’re seeing, and I think we will come to some sort of normality after Trump,” she said. “California is California. … We’re a very progressive place.”
Amanda Renteria, who was national political director of Hillary Clinton’s 2016 campaign and who ran unsuccessfully against Valadao in 2014, said that in that House district, there “wasn’t nearly as much energy on the ground as in 2018,” in part because Democrats were more focused on the presidential election in swing states.
In addition, she said, the coronavirus pandemic had the effect of stunting a Democratic message on the economy that might have resonated in rural areas such as the Central Valley, or with Latinos — a group with whom Trump made modest inroads and who represent about 40 percent of California’s population.
“It’s not about telling the Prop. 187 story anymore,” she said, referring to the 1994 initiative to restrict services to undocumented immigrants — a measure that was widely faulted for the GOP’s long decline in California. “That is of a different era and a different time.”
Instead, Renteria said, “We’ve got to start thinking about a real Latino economic agenda and show some tangible results of that.”
Statewide, there’s no evidence that Democrats have anything to worry about, with the party’s registered voters outnumbering Republicans in the state nearly two-to-one. Given that math, some House Republican pick-ups should have been expected after the GOP’s ranks shrunk to seven of the state’s 53 congressional seats in 2018.
“This is not a state that’s 80 percent Democratic,” said Garry South, a longtime Democratic strategist in the state. “It was inevitable that two years later, Republicans were going to try to claw some of those lost seven seats back, and so they did. … But let’s be honest, that still leaves them with only 11 seats out of 53.”
He said, “That’s something to pop the champagne corks about?”
It isn’t — yet. But the Democratic Party’s House majority is narrow enough that House races here will be critical in two years, when Republicans have a credible chance of reclaiming the House. A president’s party traditionally loses seats in the first midterm. And for Republicans in California, there is finally a modicum of hope.
The state’s Democratic governor, Gavin Newsom, beat his Republican opponent, John Cox, two years ago by about 3 million votes and has enjoyed high public approval ratings. But he has been best recently by controversy surrounding his attendance at a birthday party at a fancy restaurant amid the pandemic. San Diego Mayor Kevin Faulconer, a moderate Republican, said recently that he is “seriously considering” a run for governor.
Patterson said it’s the 2022 election — against Newsom — where the GOP could make its mark. There are other heavily Democratic states with Republican chief executives, such as Vermont and Massachusetts. California had a Republican governor, Arnold Schwarzenegger, as recently as 2011.
“I believe that 2020 was about setting the table, and 2022 is when we can truly bring balance back to California,” Patterson said. “If we’re able to recruit a candidate that can run and win in California, that is when we’ll find balance.”