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Oh, California: Ruminations on the midterms

The 2018 midterms provided no lack of interesting and relevant observations. In California, however, one observation in particular dominated the narrative — the entrenchment of the Golden State as the farthest left state in the union when taking into account local, state and federal representatives.

Congressional elections even in traditionally Republican, suburban, upper-middle class districts like Orange County reveal that the GOP is losing ground.

Orange County was once seen as the stronghold of the Republican Party in California, with wealthy GOP donors helping propel candidates both state and nationwide through fundraising efforts. This is no longer true. Democrats flipped three of the four Congressional seats that touch Orange County.

The only (apparent) Republican hold was the 39th Congressional district where Young Kim, a Korean woman, is holding off candidate Gil Cisneros, a Mexican man, from flipping the seat of her former GOP boss Ed Royce. She is ahead by an astoundingly close 711 votes as of Tuesday, Nov. 14. A seat that elected Hillary by nine points in 2016, both candidates were weary of appearing too extreme for their constituents. However, Cisneros took to the attack on the issue of Obamacare with an attack website named “https://youngkimforcongress.org,” discussing how Kim would repeal Obamacare if there was a suitable alternative. Kim effectively sidestepped the issue.

Most crucially, however, Cisneros was dogged by a sexual harassment claim made by a fellow Democratic woman, Melissa Fazli, running for State Assembly in the same area of Orange County. According to Fazli, Cisneros had been making overtures about donating to her campaign (from his war chest acquired by winning the California lottery) in exchange for sex. Such a close election, especially after these allegations became a rallying cry for Republican PACs spending millions on the race, highlight the toxicity of Donald Trump in an increasingly trending blue county.

It is also worth noting that Republicans themselves did not always have the best candidates running to hold these seats, as evidenced by Congressman Dana Rohrbacher’s defense of the 48th Congressional district. Rohrbacher lost by five points to Harley Rouda in the reddest part of the county, where he had won reelection in 2016 by 17 points. This election is much the same story as the 39th district, where Trump-toxicity dominated the narrative, however in this case the dogged candidate role was reversed. Rohrbacher had become a laughing stock in the past couple years for his outward and proud affection for Vladimir Putin and Russia, and Rouda ran a campaign that steered clear of overtly partisan Leftist positions and focused on the ineffectiveness of Rohrbacher.

The most stunning of defeats for the GOP was in the 45th Congressional district. Mimi Walters was unable to hold onto her seat in the face of the most overtly Leftist candidate run in Orange County. Democrat Katie Porter, a law professor at UCI, kicked off her Democratic primary campaign with a video touting her endorsements by Senators Kamala Harris of California and Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts (Porter had worked for Warren).

Having dispatched the other Democrats in no small part due to her funding and endorsements by prominent Democrats, Porter transitioned to a general election strategy that focused on the Federal tax bill that eliminated state tax deductions on income as well as attacking Walters as a Trump puppet. The removal of the deduction loophole strongly hurt states with high income taxes like California and Orange County in particular due to its relatively high per capita income. This loophole elimination was extremely unpopular in Orange County, and Porter was able to pull off the dupe of advocating for lower taxes (as evidenced by supporting the deduction loophole from before) while advocating for a suite of progressive policies that are only viable through massive tax increases. Additionally, she hid from her campaign website by the time of the general election any mention that she is the protege of Elizabeth Warren, a senator who is certainly no centrist Democrat. Even with all of these signs that she does not accurately represent the positions of her district, Porter was able to win by a scant 261 votes.

Donald Trump is truly nuclear-waste-level toxic in California these days. But what happens in the post-Trump era of the GOP? In California at least, it is less and less certain that people will flock back to the party in areas like Orange County unless a serious and concerted effort is made at the grassroots level to boost the popular appeal of the party beyond disaffected white rural voters.

 

Contact Max Minshull at mminshul ‘at’ stanford.edu.

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