On the heels of a historic election that swept Republicans from congressional power in Orange County, members of the GOP already are brainstorming how to win back the seats they lost to Democrats.
But as party leaders and strategists talk, one thing seems clear: Republicans don’t agree on why they lost their one-time stronghold.
Was it pure backlash against President Donald Trump? Did Democrats merely outspend and out-hustled the GOP? Were Republicans lousy at expressing their ideas?
Or, on the other hand, has the GOP brand become toxic in an increasingly diverse county? And, perhaps most importantly, will local Republicans need to change their politics in order to win in the future?
It all means that as Republicans devise a strategy to retake the four Orange County congressional seats they lost this cycle – and as Democrats prepare to defend them – any description of the political messaging of 2020 is, at best, a guess.
Money or Trump?
Scores of national political pundits have framed Democrats stunning victories in Orange County as a referendum on Trump and the current national brand of Republicanism. But state GOP officials and strategists, so far, have been hesitant or unwilling to diagnosis it as such.
What they will say is that Democrats in Orange County executed a clever campaign, with great ground game execution and smart use of volunteers and money.
In that telling, the prescription for 2020 goes something like this: Raise more money, bolster Republican registration, and improve get-out-the-vote efforts.
“It wasn’t a blue wave, it was just a green wave – and I mean cash,” California Republican Party Chairman Jim Brulte said of the $122 million spent in Orange County’s four competitive house races.
“In 2020, our candidates cannot be outspent 3-to-1 like they were this time. No matter how good your message is, when the other side outspends you so heavily, your message gets drowned.”
Brulte and California Republican National Committeeman Shawn Steel both credited youth voter outreach efforts funded by billionaire Democrat Tom Steyer as a key to Democratic wins. Some Orange County precincts targeted by Steyer, who is a possible 2020 presidential contender, saw a tenfold jump (from very low numbers in 2016) in voting this cycle. Neither Republican leader prescribed how the GOP might match Steyer’s efforts.
Meanwhile, Republican Party of Orange County Chairman Fred Whitaker, and other prominent GOP officials, say ballot harvesting was a key factor. The practice, adopted in a recent California law, makes it legal to gather absentee ballots from willing voters and deliver those ballots to the correct polling place – something Democrats appear to have done much more effectively than Republicans.
“We have to develop a response to this new law that allows us to remain competitive while recognizing the realities of Republican voter attitudes towards handing over their ballot,” Whitaker wrote in a November letter to party members.
Whitaker and other Republicans believe Democratic money will be spread thinner in 2020 as the left tries to retake the presidency and flip several Senate seats. If that plays out, Whitaker believes Southern California Republicans will have “a window to fight back.”
But others suggest the GOP faces bigger hurdles in 2020, and that fundamental change is in order.
In their opinion, the party stands little chance of retaking local House seats unless it remedies how Trump and the GOP’s stances have made the party less appealing to California voters. They typically mention the party’s positions on immigration, health care, and climate change — all of which poll low in a state that increasingly is diverse, poor and young.
Mike Madrid, a Sacramento-based GOP political consultant, said Republicans won’t win next cycle unless they stop parroting what he sees as nationalist and xenophobic messages coming from the national party.
“We have sacrificed our ideals at the altar of Donald Trump,” Madrid said. “As a party, we need to move beyond the race-baiting.”
The GOP’s path forward isn’t as simple as redoubling fundraising efforts, he added. Instead, he sees some of Democrats’ 2018 advantages as evidence of their successful messaging and not something the GOP can automatically duplicate without self-reflection and change.
“I believe conservative ideas can solve a lot of the problems that ail California,” Madrid said. “But as long as nationalism is the banner, conservative ideas won’t be listened to, and they shouldn’t be.”
Matt Shupe, a Bay Area GOP consultant and former communications director for John Cox, said Republicans don’t need to shed their entire platform in 2020. Instead, he advised they re-focus their campaigns on California-centric issues, such as the state’s expensive housing market and “pragmatic approaches to addressing green energy.”
“The one thing I thought we lacked as a party was a narrative,” Shupe said. “I think we need to readjust and focus on employees and the working people.”
Ultimately, how — or if — Republicans adapt their platforms in 2020 will depend on who’s running and which version of conservatism can get that candidate out of the primary and into the general election.
Democrat incumbents, new Republicans
The honeymoon buzz that comes with winning a seat in the House of Representatives doesn’t last long. Even as Southern California’s new, Democratic House members learn the ins and outs of Washington D.C., their campaign teams are already working on how they’ll hold those seats in 2020.
The only given is that they’ll have the strong advantage of incumbency.
“On Day One, going into re-election mode, they’ve already built up name identification, established a relationship with the electorate, and cultivated a donor base from their previous campaign,” said Dave Jacobson, a Democratic political strategist who worked for on two House campaigns this cycle, describing the likely context for local Democrats in 2020.
“They’re going to have the upper hand.”
But those new House members, none of whom had previously held public office, also will enter 2020 with something else they’ve never had before — a political track record. That’ll give them something to run on, and something for Republican opponents to attack.
Generally, the newcomers from Southern California all favor some kind of universal health care system, rolling back the GOP’s latest tax cuts and stronger restrictions on gun commerce. Congresswoman-elect Katie Porter, D-Irvine, also is helping craft a bill to reduce the influence of money in politics and protect voting rights, something the House might put forward early in 2019.
Though it’s highly unlikely that core Democrat legislative aims will survive GOP Senate and Trump’s veto power to become law, Jacobson said Democratic proposals likely will constitute the backbone of the party’s 2020 re-election bids.
“I think they can campaign on all of it,” Jacobson said. “The President; the investigation into Russian collusion, and what they’ve done in Congress.”
Orin Evans, a media consultant for Democrat congressman-elect Gil Cisneros, added: “It’ll be interesting to see who (from the GOP) will be able to step up in these seats and take positions against strengthening and expanding the Affordable Care Act.”
In districts where GOP incumbents were saddled with their voting record this cycle, the 2020 elections also present Republicans a chance for a fresh start, running candidates with no congressional track records.
Democrats spent millions of dollars this year to vilify Republican Reps. Dana Rohrabacher and Mimi Walters for their votes to repeal and replace Obamacare, a change that would have weakened protections for pre-existing conditions and resulted in tens of millions of people losing their health care. Walters also was attacked for her support of the GOP tax bill, which Democrats alleged would raise taxes on some middle-class homeowners in her district. And Rohrabacher faced criticism for his close ties to Moscow amid the U.S. intelligence agencies’ probe into Russian interference in the 2016 U.S. elections. Both Republican incumbents lost.
Matthew Cunningham, a GOP strategist who ran Republican Scott Baugh’s unsuccessful primary challenge to Rohrabacher earlier this year, said voters in coastal Orange County soured on Rohrabacher but don’t oppose the GOP as a whole. Cunningham predicted Republicans would retake the seat in 2020.
“Republicans still have a (nearly) 9 percent voter registration advantage in that district, so I think the loss had more to do with Dana and his particular vulnerability than a trend,” Cunningham said.
An Orange County Register analysis of ballots cast in the 48th Congressional District revealed the seat had the highest proportion of split tickets in which voters chose a Republican for governor (John Cox) and a Democrat for Congress — a trend that contributed to Democrat congressman-elect Harley Rouda’s victory.
Despite Republicans’ long history of controlling Orange County’s House districts, some political analysts say that the GOP will face an uphill fight to retake those seats in 2020, even with a new set of candidates. They note that Democrats tend to vote in higher numbers in presidential elections than in mid-term contests — a trend that could be enhanced in 2020 if Trump is on the ballot seeking re-election.
“Take this election and mood that we just had and add to that 12 percent of voters; and that 12 percent is young people and Latinos,” said Paul Mitchell, vice president of Political Data Inc.
“That’s not a good electorate for Republicans,” he said.
Source: Orange County Register
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