California has emerged as the epicenter of the already-intense battle for the House in 2018, as both parties rush resources and manpower to a state that could determine the chamber’s balance of power.
With 18 months still to go until the election, Democrats and Republicans are mapping out TV advertising plans across the state, setting up headquarters, digging into polling, and hiring operatives. The showdown has swiftly drawn in Hollywood players, major donors, and grass-roots activists.
California is home to seven vulnerable Republican incumbent in districts where Hillary Clinton beat Trump — more than a quarter of the seats Democrats need to flip. And there are early indications that the landscape taking shape will benefit Democrats: a turbocharged liberal movement galvanized by the House GOP-led Obamacare rollback, shifting demographics that have moderated California’s last remaining conservative bastions, and rising discontent with the president.
“This struggle [in California] is the priority, no question,” said Tom Steyer, the billionaire San Francisco environmentalist whose NextGen Climate group started running digital ads against the vulnerable Republicans after their votes for the House health care bill last week. “If you look at the numbers, the vulnerability of these Republican Congress people is disproportionately here.”
The maneuvering is playing out in public — with both sides spending hundreds of thousands of dollars to advertising in the state’s expensive media markets — and behind the scenes. The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee for the first time has moved its entire western regional political office from Washington to Irvine, California.
The department will house at least eight full-time staffers and be overseen by Kyle Layman, a veteran Democratic operative and former Capitol Hill chief of staff. The decision to open the office in Southern California, which will give the DCCC proximity to a handful of competitive contests, was made by the group’s new executive director, Dan Sena.
Democrats this week began airing drive-time radio ads in Southern California aimed at a handful of House Republicans who backed the health care bill. The purchase, coming at such an early stage of the election cycle, reflects the high political stakes in California.
Republicans are mobilizing, too. Hoping to buttress the party’s incumbents and blunt the Democratic offensive, American Action Network, a group closely associated with House Speaker Paul Ryan, has opened four field offices across the state. The organization has also begun work on a data project to gauge public opinion. And, like Democrats, they are airing ads: Since January, American Action Network has run commercials boosting nine California Republicans.
This week, the group shifted its focus to inoculating Republicans on the health care bill, launching an ad blitz geared toward generating support for the legislation. Every California Republican voted for the bill.
“I think if Democrats are going to win the majority, they’d have to win seats in California — they’d need to in order to make the math work,” said Republican Carl DeMaio, a former San Diego city councilman who ran for Congress in 2014. But, he added: “There’s no complacency here among Republicans who are being targeted.”
Democrats are seeking out prized recruits with intriguing, outsider pedigrees. One is Josh Butner, a former Navy SEAL who has begun attacking his Republican opponent, Rep. Duncan Hunter, over an investigation into alleged campaign finance violations.
"People feel it’s part of a systemic problem in the way Washington works," Butner said of the allegations against Hunter.
Party officials have also been in contact with Hans Keirstead, a biologist who in 2014 sold his stem cell research firm for more than $120 million. Keirstead, whose work was once featured on “60 Minutes", is seen as a possible challenger to veteran GOP Rep. Dana Rohrabacher, who has come under scrutiny for his ties to Russia.
As unrest simmers over the GOP’s attempted Obamacare rollback, Democrats have also been in touch with another political newcomer with a medical background: Mai-Khanh Tran, a Wall Street analyst-turned-pediatrician. Tran, who plans to highlight her background as a refugee who worked her way through Harvard as a janitor, is expected to run against GOP Rep. Ed Royce, the powerful longtime chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee.
In going after entrenched figures like Rohrabacher and Royce, Democrats are re-engineering a strategy they last used with success in 2006. During that midterm election, then-Rep. Rahm Emanuel oversaw an offensive he described as “thinning the heard” — dislodging established Republican members of Congress who had grown complacent after coasting to reelection for years.
Emanuel sought out formidable challengers in many of the right-leaning districts. And with the help of a favorable political environment that year, some of them won.
This time, Democrats are also targeting newer, less established California Republicans, such as Reps. Mimi Walters and Steve Knight, as well as some lawmakers who represent more marginal districts, like Reps. David Valadao, Jeff Denham and Darrell Issa.
The Democratic focus on California is in part driven by the fact that seven of the state’s Republicans reside in districts that Clinton won, and all of them took a major risk in voting for a GOP health care bill that lacks broad public support. A number of Democratic strategists took note when Issa and Walters were spotted near the front of the GOP celebration at the White House Rose Garden after the bill’s passage last week, and have saved footage of them with Trump for future ads.
The push is also motivated by what Democrats see as a changing political landscape in the state. Many of the targeted districts are becoming younger, more diverse — and less conservative.
While Republicans have long been able to count on areas like Orange County, that region — filled with wealthier, highly-educated voters who have been hostile Trump — may be less friendly in 2018.
"It’s the natural evolution of where the Democrats go to pick up seats,” said Ben Tulchin, a San Francisco-based Democratic pollster who worked for Bernie Sanders in 2016. "If you look at the middle of the country at the rural, exurban working-class districts where we didn’t do very well, there’s only so many Democrats you can squeeze out of those districts. But go to California and there’s a higher number of younger voters, Latino voters. And you can go in, register and engage."
Dave Min, a law professor who is trying to unseat Walters, said the changing nature of the conservative district, combined with what he described as anger over the health care vote, had given him hope. His district, like the one Tran is running for, has attracted Asian-Americans in recent years.
"There’s lot of energy," he said.
The party’s onslaught has drawn the interest of Hollywood donors. In the past, some of them have been reluctant to open their wallets for congressional races. But the desire to rein in Trump in the White House with a Democratic House has caused some of them to reconsider.
Donna Bojarsky, a Democratic strategist who has advised the likes of former Los Angeles Mayor Tom Bradley and actor Richard Dreyfuss, said the rise in activism is palpable. “People are impassioned now,” she said.
If anything, some Democrats are worried that enthusiasm may be too running too high at this early stage of the election ctcle. With so many Democrats crowding into races, Democrats run the risk of crowded primaries that drain resources and undermine the goal of unseating GOP incumbents.
One concerning development for the party: Multiple Democrats are already challenging Issa and Walters.
“It isn’t necessarily an organized effort,” said Democrat Fabian Núñez, a former speaker of the state Assembly. Whether the party can work in unison, he said, is the “real question.”