California is critical to Democrats’ plans to win the U.S. House in November — and, most likely, to re-install Rep. Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) as speaker. The party is targeting seven districts currently represented by Republicans in which Hillary Clinton won more votes than Donald Trump in 2016.
Democrats likely need to win most of those seven if they are to win the two dozen they need to win a nationwide majority. But thus far, Republicans in these districts seem to be holding the line.
One reason is the statewide referendum to repeal the 12-cent gas tax increase passed by Democrats in 2017. Another reason is the recent rise of a grassroots movement to defy California’s new “sanctuary state” laws. Still another reason is the Democratic Party’s lurch to the left, under the influence of the so-called “Resistance,” which has alienated some voters in swing districts. And Republicans are inspired by the fact that the party has a gubernatorial candidate at the top of the ticket in John Cox.
But the simplest reason that Republicans are running even — or better — in many districts is that they have stronger candidates.
The net effect is that the vaunted “Blue Wave” has hit a “Red Tide” in California. One key data point: in the June 5 primary election, more Republicans than Democrats turned out to vote in six out of the seven districts, except for the 49th district.
Here is a roundup of where things stand in the seven key districts — and a few wild cards — two weeks before early voting:
CA-10: Incumbent Rep. Jeff Denham (R-CA) has irritated conservatives by pushing a moderate line on immigration. But he has led on the issue most important to his voters: namely, water. He has cast his Democratic opponent as Josh “Bay Area” Harder — with some success, after Harder declined to attend a bipartisan rally against the state’s controversial new Bay-Delta water plan last month. Though Democrats are making a strong push, Denham is up in internal polls, according to sources.
CA-21: Rep. David Valadao (R-CA) was thought to be vulnerable until June 5, when he defeated Democrat challenger T.J. Cox by an almost two-to-one margin, 62.8% to 37.2%. Valadao and Cox will face off again in the November election.*
CA-25: Rep. Steve Knight (R-CA) is slightly ahead of Democrat challenger Katie Hill, 47% to 45%, according to a New York Times Upshot / Sienna College poll conducted this week. Knight has a long pedigree in the traditionally Republican district, which takes in the northern part of Los Angeles and Ventura counties, and includes the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library.
CA-39: Republican Young Kim, a former state assemblywoman, has opened up a 6-to-10 point lead against Democrat Gil Cisneros, a relative unknown, in the diverse suburban district that is currently represented by retiring House Foreign Affairs Committee chair Ed Royce (R-CA). Cisneros is also facing allegations of sexual misconduct from a fellow Democrat.
CA-45: Rep. Mimi Walters (R-CA) was among the most vulnerable Republicans in 2018, but was confident enough to vote for President Donald Trump’s tax cut, even though the cap on state and local tax deductions might hurt wealthy homeowners in her district. Her opponent, Democrat Katie Porter, seems to have flip-flopped on the gas tax, which she now opposes.
CA-48: Rep. Dana Rohrabacher (R-CA) is tied with challenger Democrat Harley Rouda, according to a New York Times Upshot / Sienna College poll that shows a 45%-45% tie. The local media are on Rouda’s side, seizing every opportunity to remind voters Rohrabacher is pro-Russia. Rouda, a former Republican, is focusing his attacks on President Trump.
CA-49: Republican Diane Harkey, a member of the State Board of Equalization, is one of the strongest Republican candidates — in one of the toughest districts to defend. Though the New York Times Upshot / Sienna College poll puts her 12 points back of Democrat Mike Levin, she cites internal polling that has her ahead, and Levin has fully embraced the unpopular Pelosi.
Wild cards: Democrats have an outside chance at winning CA-50, after Rep. Duncan Hunter Jr. was indicted last month — though challenger Ammar Campa-Najjar faces new questions after changing his legal name after the primary. Campa-Najjar claims to be tied, though a public poll still puts Hunter eight points ahead in the traditionally Republican district. Elsewhere, Kimberlin Brown Pelzer acould surprise in her effort to replace Raul Ruiz in the 36th district, and Internet sensation Elizabeth Heng is within single digits of Democrat Rep. Jim Costa in the 16th district, though both incumbents are still fairly safe.
If the Democrats have an exceptionally good night, they could win three or four seats. That may not be enough. And if Republicans do very well, they could defend all seven seats. The “smart money” is betting on a net GOP loss of only one or two seats. That is bad news for Democrats, who need to do better in California if Pelosi is to take back the speaker’s gavel.
Joel B. Pollak is Senior Editor-at-Large at Breitbart News. He is a winner of the 2018 Robert Novak Journalism Alumni Fellowship. He is also the co-author of How Trump Won: The Inside Story of a Revolution, which is available from Regnery. Follow him on Twitter at @joelpollak.
* Under the rules of California’s “top two” or “jungle” primary, all of the candidates compete in a common primary election and the two highest vote-winners advance, regardless of party. There were only two candidates in the 21st district primary.