Republicans are in trouble and they know it. Hot off the heels of several stunning high profile losses in Alabama (Senate special election), Wisconsin (state senate) and now Pennsylvania, the party is reeling. The party’s tried and true tactic of turning Nancy Pelosi into a boogeywoman failed last week and neither trumpeting tax reform or stressing law and order themes picked up the slack. So Republicans are doomed to lose the House right (though not the Senate for reasons laid out here)?
Well, not so fast. Recent events indicate the GOP might have an expected bulwark in Texas and an unexpected one in the heart of anti-Trump fervor. California? You would be forgiven if you are confused on the latter (more on this in a second).
The results of the Texas primaries on March 6th had to be a huge relief for the GOP and a massive letdown for Democrats. Keep in mind ever since Wendy Davis in 2014 Democrats have talked of turning Texas blue. Recent electoral results and the March 6th primary results put a dampener on that.
Democrats are targeting a number of Congressional seats in the state that swung hard for Clinton (TX-7, TX-23 and TX-32). The 7th district is a suburb of Houston, the 23rd is a massive rural district which stretches all the way to the outskirts of San Antonio (Bexar county) and the 32nd is a suburb of Dallas. In addition, Democrats are optimistic they can mobilize suburban and Hispanic voters around the Senate candidacy of Congressman Beto O’Rourke. Reality is not as pretty as hope.
In the primary, Beto O”Rourke garnered 700,000 less votes than Senator Ted Cruz. Supposedly Cruz is vulnerable this cycle but he sure did not show it. Total Democratic turnout in their contested Senate primary lagged the GOP’s by almost a cool half a million voters. In the Democratic contested 7th and 32nd district primaries GOP turnout still exceeded Democratic turnout (and these were uncontested primaries). The only bragging rights Democrats could take away from the night was their turnout vastly exceeded the GOP’s in the 23rd (again, a largely uncontested primary).
Setting aside the strictly numbers based argument the party came away with some less than stellar winners. DCCC targeted progressive Laura Moser advanced to a runoff. O’Rourke’s subpar showing leaves him weakened and vulnerable and the Democratic gubernatorial primary heads into a runoff between the state’s activist wing (Lupe Valdez) and the party’s business/centrist wing (Andrew White).
Texas is a red state with a burgeoning minority population but Democrats have several problems in conquering the state. First, the districts that swung for Clinton still elected Republican Congressmen and they did so by strong margins suggesting down-ballot loyalty is deep and real. The primary results only confirm this. Secondly, despite the growing minority population of the state many of these individuals are either non-citizens or too young to vote. The same cannot be said for the GOP base. And while Democratic turnout eclipsed their 2014 turnout by about 50 percent (keep in mind an abysmal year for the party), GOP turnout exceeded it by about 15 percent (a great year for the party) so the GOP base is growing even in the age of Trump.
But that is Texas. California is a different beast. Whereas Texas shifted solidly red in the 90’s the Golden State went the opposite route and only looked back with the Terminator in 2003 and 2006 (hardly a modern Republican). Since the Terminator, California has not voted for a Republican for statewide office (2006-current) rivaling Texas’s record (1994-current) for supporting any and all statewide Republicans.
Indeed, California has only shifted leftward while Texas has moved to the right. While Democrats gained four districts in 2012 the GOP gained an equal number in Texas (redistricting played a big part here). But, California introduces a new variable into the equation and it is the one scaring the shit out of the party.
In response to the state’s 2000 redistricting scheme where dozens of incumbents protected themselves (only a single seat shifted in the Democratic waves of 2006 and 2008), voters ratified a Constitutional Amendment in 2010 creating a jungle primary system. Under this system (also currently utilized in Alaska, WA State and Louisiana in regularly scheduled elections), all candidates for an election run on the same ballot (regardless of political party) and the top-two vote getters advance to the November (or special election general) ballot.
The consequences have been less than stellar for the dominant Democratic Party. Now, the party worries it could allow California to be the unexpected place where a Democratic wave crests.
In 2016, Clinton won the state by a whopping 30 percent and 3.3 million votes. She also carried 46 of the state’s 53 Congressional districts including 7 of the state’s 14 GOP held districts. Nowhere has this had a bigger impact than in formerly ruby-red Orange County. The locale where Richard Nixon, Ronald Reagan and Pete Wilson got their political start is now purple trending blue. Clinton was the first Democrat to carry the area since FDR in 1936.
Republicans hold four of the county’s six congressional seats. Ed Royce, the quintessential Southern California Republican, is retiring after 26 years on the job. To his southeast, Mimi Walters is facing the fight of her political career. To her west lies Dana Rohrabacher. And, down the coast, voters are saying good-bye to Darrell Issa, who’s ditching Congress after barely squeaking by to re-election in 2016.
The region, like much of the country and California is changing. Almost half of residents have a college degree or greater, a third of the region’s denizens are Latino and almost a quarter Asian-American. Whites make up less than half the population compared to 90 percent in 1980. All this has Democrats smelling blood.
But the variable Democrats cannot control is the deleterious impacts of the jungle primary on a massive field of candidates. While Democratic turnout and candidate recruitment has been a boon to the party almost everywhere in California it has forced the party to worry endangered Republican incumbents (many in Orange County) could squeak by November without having to face a Democratic challenger.
After the filing deadline closed last Wednesday, state party efforts to woo several candidates to drop out of contested primaries failed. The glut of Democrats running for Rohrabacher’s, Issa’s and Royce’s seats all threatened to derail the party’s chances this fall. Only in Walter’s district is a Democrat guaranteed to advance to the November ballot.
These factors all but ensure the DCCC will have to get involved to preserve their party’s chances in November. If a wave develops, depending on its size and what happens in the Midwest (and Texas), these California seats could make or break a Democratic majority making California an unexpected GOP bulwark.