SF Chronicle: California Dems giving House Republicans run for their money

Repost from the San Francisco Chronicle

State Dems giving House Republicans run for their money

By John Wildermuth, July 22, 2018
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Democrats looking to flip GOP-held House seats in California are turning in surprisingly strong fundraising performances as the election approaches — a sign, they hope, of an insurgent energy that will be needed to win districts that have gone Republican for decades.

But votes, not dollars, are what make election winners, and GOP leaders are convinced they have the issues to bring their voters to the polls in November.

Democrats outraised their GOP opponents in 10 of the state’s 14 Republican-held congressional districts in the three months that ended June 30, in some cases by huge margins, according to campaign finance reports made public by the Federal Election Commission.

Harley Rouda, Democrat running for California’s 48th Congressional district seat in Congress, speaks during his campaign rally in Laguna Beach (Orange County) in May. | Photo: Bill Clark / CQ-Roll Call

In Orange County’s 48th Congressional District, for example, Democrat Harley Rouda took in $1.4 million, compared with $294,049 for Republican Rep. Dana Rohrabacher of Costa Mesa — who has been in Congress since 1989. Going into the general election campaign, Rouda, an attorney and businessman, had slightly more money in the bank than Rohrabacher, $482,623 to $479,365.

“California Democrats are seizing on the unprecedented grassroots support we’re seeing across the state to run competitive, well-funded campaigns,” said Drew Godinich, a spokesman for the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee.

Democrats see the early flow of campaign cash as a sign that voters are so unhappy with President Trump that they’ll punish the Republicans who hold House seats in longtime conservative areas like Orange County and the Central Valley. Winning some of those districts will be necessary if the Democrats are to flip the 23 seats nationwide that would give them control of the House.

Well-funded Democrat Jessica Morse is vying for the House seat held by Rep. Tom McClintock, R-Elk Grove (Sacramento County). | Dakota Fine

“Our fundraising success is proof positive that there is energy for change in our community, from the suburbs to the foothills and everywhere in between,” said Jessica Morse, the Democrat who is trying to seize the Fourth Congressional District seat Republican Tom McClintock of Elk Grove (Sacramento County) has held for a decade.

Incumbent Tom McClintock is behind in fundraising, with $1.19 million in receipts and Morse reporting $1.46 million as of June 30. | Max Whittaker / Special to The Chronicle 2013

Republican leaders think the Democrats are seeing a mirage.

“The more money that flows from Nancy Pelosi and wealthy Bay Area liberals to these Democratic candidates, the more we understand where their true loyalties lie,” and it’s not for the conservative programs backed by the president and his party, Jack Pandol, a spokesman for the National Republican Congressional Committee, said in an email.

Issues like the proposed border wall, tougher immigration rules, the GOP tax cut and the repeal of California’s gas-tax increase will play well in districts with a history of voting for Republicans, party leaders believe.

While money is key to any election campaign, Democrats need to harness both the disenchantment with Trump and the enthusiasm for political change, said Vince Rocha, executive director of the Democratic group Red to Blue California.

“We have to tell people that they can’t wait for 2020, when Trump is on the ballot again,” he said. “They have to know that a vote for a Democrat for Congress is a vote against Trump, and that the way to hold Trump accountable today is by voting for a Democrat.”

There’s plenty of anecdotal evidence of a Democratic surge in California, where Democrat Hillary Clinton steamrolled Trump in the 2016 election, 62 percent to 32 percent.

Rep. Devin Nunes, R-Tulare, chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, gets a pat on the back from Rep. John Carter, R-Texas, after a House Republican conference meeting on Capitol Hill in Washington last year. | Photo: Doug Mills / New York Times 2017

“Driving through neighborhoods in Fresno, it’s 10-1 in yard signs for (Democrat Andrew) Janz,” who’s running an uphill campaign against GOP Rep. Devin Nunes of Tulare, Rocha said. “That’s where you see enthusiasm — people who will cut small checks and make phone calls. Maybe (Nunes’) people aren’t so interested.”

Some of the Democratic candidates’ money reports may be misleading, as there were primary races in which cash flooded in at the last minute to help challengers finish in the top two and advance to November.

But the money does mean something — it shows enthusiasm in GOP districts where Democrats in the past have surrendered without a fight.

In Nunes’ 22nd Congressional District, for example, his Democratic opponent in 2016 didn’t raise the $5,000 required to file a federal campaign finance report. This year, with the Nov. 6 general election still months away, Janz already has collected $2.87 million. That’s dwarfed by the $7.42 million Nunes has taken in but represents more than enough for a serious election challenge.

It’s a similar situation with Rohrabacher. Two years ago, he crushed a Democrat who raised only $109,844 for her entire campaign. This year’s Democratic challenger, Rouda, already has collected $3.19 million, which includes more than $1.62 million out of his own pocket.

Democrats also are touting the primary turnout as a sign of enthusiasm that can carry over to November.

“California saw the highest turnout for a gubernatorial primary in 20 years, with more than 7.1 million Californians casting their ballots,” Democratic Secretary of State Alex Padilla said in a campaign release. “Compare that to 4.4 million ballots cast in the last gubernatorial primary just four years ago.”

But when Paul Mitchell, vice president of the nonpartisan analytics firm Political Data Inc., did just that — compare the totals — he found that the primary numbers weren’t as exciting as Democrats might like.

“The 37 percent turnout might be the highest of the century, but it still fits nicely with the other non-presidential years,” Mitchell said. The only exception was 2014, which set a record-low turnout for a statewide election of 25 percent.

While preliminary estimates show that Democratic turnout in June was 49 percent to 33 percent for Republicans, that’s not much of an indication of the “blue wave” Democrats are hoping for in November. There’s a good chance many of those votes came in places like the Bay Area, where the party already holds sway.

One problem for the Democrats is that “young people, renters, Latinos and others don’t vote in this type of (non-presidential) election,” Mitchell said. “It’s possible it will become a more ‘us versus them,’ ‘good versus evil’ election that may ramp up the turnout, but it’s hard to tell people that their future depends on how they vote for state schools superintendent.”

So for Democrats in California, the congressional battle is now a matter of bringing their voters out in November, of convincing them that enthusiasm isn’t enough unless it ends up getting people into a voting booth.

“We do a good job of registering voters, but that’s just the first step,” said Rocha, of Red to Blue California. “Now we have to get them to turn out.”

It’s not just a question for November, said Kelly Dietrich, founder of the National Democratic Training Committee, which provides basic help to rookie candidates at every level of government.

“In 20-plus years in politics, I’ve never seen an election cycle like this,” he said. “After 2016, everyone was ready to take action.”

More than 18,000 would-be Democratic candidates have registered for online assistance, “which is a lot of people who want to get involved,” Dietrich said.

“We need to be concerned not just about what we can do in the next four months, but also about what we can do in 2020, 2022 and 2024.”