Pennsylvania special election loss should worry vulnerable California GOP

Santa Clara County Registrar

"If we’re losing here, you can bet there is a Democratic wave coming,” said one Republican campaign strategist.

Conor Lamb ran for Congress deep in the heart of Trump country — and will now be a Democratic congressman from Pennsylvania. Lamb, a Marine veteran, pulled out a victory in a heavily Republican district, one which Trump won by 20 points in 2016.

Lamb’s victory continues a trend of Democratic enthusiasm around the country, and his victory shows why vulnerable California Republicans should be terrified about election night in November.

Several Southern California Republicans currently occupy congressional seats in districts Hillary Clinton won in 2016. Those include four Orange County Republicans: Reps. Darrell Issa (Vista), Dana Rohrabacher (Costa Mesa), Ed Royce (Fullerton), and Mimi Walters (Irvine); as well as Rep. Steve Knight of northern Los Angeles County. Issa and Royce announced their retirement, leaving Knight, Rohrabacher, and Walters as three of the most vulnerable Republicans in the country.

The forces behind Lamb’s victory underscore issues faced by these lawmakers.

Lamb did especially well in the suburban parts of his district. This, according to the Washington Post’s James Hohmann, “reflects a motivated liberal base, as well as moderate women who are grossed out by Trump, his crudeness and alleged philandering.”

The vulnerable California lawmakers all live in primarily suburban districts. Given the level of protests, rallies, and political activity coming from progressives, these lawmakers face an uphill struggle. And recent polling shows several of the lawmakers are losing ground with women voters and ignoring issues women are most concerned about.

Trump, while not on the ballot, was certainly a factor in Pennsylvania, where he campaigned twice. “The unpopularity of the president can’t be dismissed,” says Real Clear Politics’ Sean Trende. “Elections are largely referenda on the party in power, and in this election, many voters who supported Republicans in 2016 gave Trump the thumb’s-down,” Trende added.

In California, Trump is considerably toxic. His approval rating is a dismal 27 percent among likely voters. “Trump is driving the Republican Party rank-and-file off the proverbial political cliff,” writes National Journal’s Josh Kraushaar.

Yet despite his low approval, vulnerable Republicans remain loyal to him and his agenda. From a bill that raises taxes $2.8 billion on average Californians, to decimating the Affordable Care Act, to siding with the NRA, to support for offshore oil drilling, California Republicans regularly side with Trump and against the wishes of constituents.

California has one of the most diverse populations of anywhere in the United States. But on issues such as immigration and legal protections for Dreamers, California Republicans refuse to stand up to the offensive rhetoric Trump often employs.

“Trump’s brand of xenophobia is toxic to what little is left of the Republican Party in California,” says Kurt Bardella, Issa’s former spokesperson. “Instead of evolving with the changing demographics, Republicans in California have continued to embrace the fringe policies and rhetoric of the most extreme edges of the GOP.”

The only advantage Republicans had in Pennsylvania was money. Republicans outspent Democrats by a 5-to-1 margin, with Republican groups spending more than $10 million to bolster their candidate, while Democrats spent only $2 million. And they still lost. In the end, Lamb was victorious.

Embattled lawmakers in California may not even have this advantage. Knight, Rohrabacher, and Walters were all outraised by Democratic opponents at the end of 2017. In fact, outside groups had to make significant contributions to both Knight and Rohrabacher so their totals weren’t even more embarrassing.

“We should be able to elect a box of hammers in this district,” veteran Republican consultant Mike Murphy said of the Pennsylvania special election.

“If we’re losing here, you can bet there is a Democratic wave coming,” he concluded.