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California Democrats giving GOP House members a run for their money


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.

UNITED STATES – MAY 20: Harley Rouda, Democrat running for California’s 48th Congressional district seat in Congress, speaks during his campaign rally in Laguna Beach, Calif., on Sunday, May 20, 2018. California is holding its primary election on June 5, 2018. (Photo By Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)Bill Clark / CQ-Roll Call,Inc.

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.

“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.

Republican Rep. Tom McClintock is interviewed in his office February 19, 2013 in Granite Bay, California.
Republican Rep. Tom McClintock is interviewed in his office February 19, 2013 in Granite Bay, California.Max Whittaker/Prime/Special to The Chronicle

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.

“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.”

Rep. Devin Nunes (R-Calif.), chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, gets a pat on the back from Rep. John Carter (R-Texas) following a House Republican conference meeting on Capitol Hill in Washington, March 28, 2017. Top House Democrats called on Nunes to recuse himself from the panel�s investigation into Russian meddling in the 2016 presidential election, thrusting the entire inquiry into jeopardy amid what they described as mounting evidence he was too close to President Trump to be impartial. (Doug Mills/The New York Times)
Rep. Devin Nunes (R-Calif.), chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, gets a pat on the back from Rep. John Carter (R-Texas) following a House Republican conference meeting on Capitol Hill in Washington, March 28, 2017. Top House Democrats called on Nunes to recuse himself from the panel�s investigation into Russian meddling in the 2016 presidential election, thrusting the entire inquiry into jeopardy amid what they described as mounting evidence he was too close to President Trump to be impartial. (Doug Mills/The New York Times)Doug Mills / New York Times 2017

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.





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