GOP House Midterm Hopes on the Rise in Blue California

As reported by Politico

IRVINE, Calif. — Democrats boasted as recently as a few months ago that GOP Rep. Mimi Walters was as good as gone.

Hillary Clinton carried her educated Orange County district comfortably in 2016. Then Walters backed some of the most polarizing planks of President Donald Trump’s agenda: repealing Obamacare and a tax cut bill that scrapped popular deductions used by her constituents.

Yet six months before Election Day, the 55-year-old former investment banker and other members of California’s endangered GOP congressional delegation are upbeat about surviving the much-predicted Democratic wave. A voter referendum on the November ballot to repeal a state gasoline tax — which Walters helped raise millions of dollars for — has invigorated the conservative base, they say.

And Democrats have their own issues, namely a crush of candidates in several primary races that threatens to split progressive votes. At worst, that could keep a Democrat off the ballot under the state’s “jungle” primary system, in which the top two candidates from either party advance to the general election. At best, it’s likely to produce a more liberal general election candidate for Democrats in the center-right districts.

“The only reason I’m a target is because Hillary Clinton won my district,” said Walters, who defeated her Democratic opponent by 17 points last cycle. “I got 37,000 more votes than President Trump did. That means that the people in the 45th district identify with the policies that I support and support me because I’m in line with what they believe in.”

Walters’ confidence illustrates California Republicans’ renewed hope that they’ll hold the line this fall in districts Democrats must flip if they want to seize the majority. Republican leaders have made the state a top priority, with the National Republican Congressional Committee and GOP-aligned Congressional Leadership Fund opening offices statewide and already deep into field work.

Democrats counter that the gas tax initiative is no savior for Walters or the six other GOP districts that went for Clinton in 2016. They say the tax cut bill and Obamacare repeal effort, combined with President Donald Trump’s unpopularity in California, will be the GOP incumbents’ undoing.

“Orange County families are very concerned about what Donald Trump is doing,” said Katie Porter, a University of California, Irvine professor running against Walters, and “Mimi Walters is voting with Trump over and over and over again.”

But Republicans appear genuinely more hopeful. Speaker Paul Ryan came here the first week of May to raise money for Walters and Reps. Jeff Denham and David Valadao, two other vulnerable Republicans from Central Valley districts that Clinton won. And the delegation as a whole — whose GOP members out-ran Trump last election cycle — has made it a point to raise and spend money early to define themselves before Democrats do.

For Walters, who is considering a bid to head the House Republicans’ campaign arm next cycle, that means going up on air six months before the election with ads touting her work protecting battered women — a move could help her win favor with female voters suspicious of Trump. Walters’ congressional office also sends out franked mail leaflets touting her achievements on local issues, like legislation to aid in California’s wildfire recovery.

GOP leaders have encouraged other vulnerable members from the state to embrace the hyper-local messaging. Valadao, for example, frequently touts his work on water issues in his rural agriculture community. Clinton carried his district by 15 points.

“I think this is going to be a perfectly good year for congressional Republicans in this state because I think the local issues favor Republicans, not Democrats,” said California Rep. Darrell Issa, who announced his retirement early this year from his San Diego-are seat in the face of a tough reelection fight.