Is California Key to Democrats’ Hope to Take the House?

October 22, 2018 Updated: October 24, 2018

There was a time when people said, “So goes California, so goes the nation.” In the 2018 midterm elections, as many as 10 California House seats are drawing the attention of—and large donations from—Democrats in their quest to regain control of the House.

How those California races conclude may well decide which party controls the U.S. House of Representatives.

Although there are 435 House seats, realistically, fewer than 60 are in play in most midterm elections. Some believe that many seats are in play in the 2018 midterm elections. To gain control of the House, the Democrats need to flip 23 of those seats—a number that represents the average loss for the president’s party in that president’s first midterm election.

National politics is a major determinative of the outcomes of congressional races. Indeed, only once in the television era—i.e., since President Dwight D. Eisenhower’s election in 1952—has the president’s party not lost seats in the first midterm elections. That was in 2002, when President George W. Bush’s Republican Party picked up eight seats in the wake of 9/11 and its unifying effect on the electorate.

The unique nature of that 2002 unity likely, hopefully, won’t be repeatable for any party. Indeed, America has been in what I have termed “the Divided Era” since the mid-1990s, with partisanship steadily on the rise.

In 2010, President Barack Obama’s Democratic Party went on to lose 63 seats in his midterm election. At the time, his approval rating, in the month before the election, was at 47 percent, according to Rasmussen Reports.

During the two years prior to the 2010 midterms, bitterly at times, the Congress split along party lines in significant part because of the legislative agenda of the Democrats, which included the big spending stimulus package and Obamacare. Obama did not court Republican voters, and the weak economy—weak in part because of his policies of Obama—also hurt the Democrats midterm efforts.

Rasmussen Reports has President Donald Trump’s approval ratings touching 51 percent several times during October. Trump, it could be argued, also hasn’t directly courted voters from the other party.

However, the booming economy is helping Republicans where it hurt the Obama Democrats in 2010. Indeed, as Steve Liesman pointed out in his CNBC article, “Don’t expect a big Democratic wave this fall, a new CNBC poll says,” a recent CNBC All-America Economic Survey found that “48 percent of the public is optimistic about the current economy and optimistic it will get better, the highest level in the poll’s 11-year history and more than double the 20 percent registered in the December 2016 survey.”

“The poll, conducted Oct. 4th through the 7th, shows 83 percent of Republicans are optimistic but also 22 percent of Democrats and 40 percent of Independent voters,” Liesman writes.

That indicator makes it likely that this November, the Trump Republicans will do significantly better than the Obama Democrats did in November 2010.

All of which bring us to California.

Of those House seats in play this year, the year started out with as many as ten of them in play in California—or more than one-third of the seats the Democrats need to flip the House. Keep in mind that California has 53 House seats—just under 1 in 8 of all House seats. Although the number of California seats in play appears to be winding down to much fewer than 10, as of the date of this article, the outcome for those seats is still in doubt.

Top of the Ticket

So, will Democrat control of the House be won in California?

To answer that question, we need to keep in mind that California has been moving steadily left since the early 1990s, if not before. The last time California voted for a Republican President was in 1988. Since then, changing immigration policies, along with many right-of-center voters leaving California for red states, has resulted in Democrats dominating statewide elections—including every U.S. Senate election since 1992 and currently every statewide office.

Consistent with this history, as of the June 2018 primary, Republican registration has slipped to 25.1 percent in the state—trailing not only the Democrats (at 43.4 percent) but also voters with no party affiliation (at 25.5 percent).

All of that sounds daunting for Republicans. However, the House seats in play are not in districts with 25 percent Republican voter registration numbers. Moreover, the recent Democrat success statewide could lead to Democrat voter complacency.

At the top of the ticket, under California’s top-two format (where the top two primary finishers regardless of party face off in the fall), there are two Democrats running for the 2018 U.S. Senate seat. The experts believe that incumbent Diane Feinstein is expected to win that seat easily. The voters think so, too.

With respect to the governor’s race, the Republican John Cox is polling closer than the last Republican candidate and far less than the 19 percent Democrat registration advantage. That could be an indication that Democrat voters in the state also seem complacent in their belief that Gavin Newsom is a shoe-in. The complacency among Democrat voters for those top-of-the-ticket races could result in lower vote totals statewide and therefore diminished Democrat votes in the House races in play.

Beyond that, Republican voters are motivated to vote for Prop 6 this year. That proposition seeks to repeal a recent gas tax increase voted by the legislature. A recent Survey USA poll showed that proposition winning handily. That increased motivation could help Republicans in the House races in play—especially in Southern California, where long commutes place a premium on gas-price politics.


As for the particular races, what isn’t in doubt is that the Democrat candidates have out-fundraised their Republican counterparts in the 10 most competitive California House races. That performance follows a nationwide trend in which Democrat House candidates outraised Republicans House candidates—by over $300 million.

However, candidate fundraising does not tell the whole story. The Republican National Committee has raised far more than the Democrat National and outside groups are playing a major role.

For instance, in the all-important race for the 10th Congressional District—a district Hillary Clinton won against Trump by 3 percent—nearly $5 million will be spent by Republican-affiliated groups to retain the seat held by Republican incumbent Jeff Denham. That stands in contrast to opponent Josh Harder, a junior college teacher, outraising Denham $3.5 million to $630,000 in the last quarter. Voter registration favors Democrats in the district, 37.6 percent to 34.4 percent, and a September poll showed Harder up over Denham, although Republican polling shows otherwise.

On the other hand, the race to replace Republican Congressman Darrell Issa for the 49th Congressional District, presents a different scenario. Voter registration favors Republicans, 35.7 percent to 31 percent, but in 2016, the incumbent Issa squeaked out a less than 1 percent victory. Although the Republican Diane Harkey has a solid record on which to run, her political novice of an opponent Mike Levin is benefiting from outside donations from the likes of Michael Bloomberg.

Bloomberg is said to have given over $2 million to defeat the likes of Harkey in his personal attempt to undermine President Trump and have the Democrats take the House. Bloomberg wants to run for President in 2020 as a Democrat and must believe a Democrat House, and spending money on Democrats, will help him in that quest. The polls in the Harkey–Levin race are favoring Levin as of the date of this article.

Tight Races

Of the remaining seats, the 4th and 22nd districts, seats held by Republican incumbents McClintock and Nunes, they are listed by most pollsters as likely GOP victories. The race for the 21st district, featuring Republican incumbent David Valadao, is also a likely Republican victory because he is a well-regarded local farmer in the district. Also, there has been a lack of outside funding by Democrats, in the race, even though the Democrats hold a 43.8 percent to 27.5 percent registration advantage. Embattled Republican Incumbent Duncan Hunter likely will win as well in the 50th district with a Republican registration advantage of 41 percent to 27.9 percent.

That leaves four Republicans—incumbent Steve Knight (25th district), Young Kim (39th district), incumbent Mimi Walters (45th district), and incumbent Dana Rohrabacher (48th district)—all of whom are in tight races. Republican insiders believe all will win despite trailing in fundraising. That belief is based in part on the hard-left leanings of their opponents and the tightening national generic congressional ballot.

All in all, as the November midterms approach, there is little doubt all eyes will be on California in the determination of who wins control of the House. Certain national trends favor Republicans, others do not. As a result, like many other races in the country, several California races remain too close to call.

Thomas Del Beccaro is the author of “The Divided Era” and former chairman of the California Republican Party.

Correction: A previous version of this article misspelled the name of Mike Levin, who is running for California’s 49th Congressional District. The Epoch Times regrets the mistake.