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Four Lessons From The Southern California House Seats Republicans Reclaimed In 2020

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Young Kim, Republican candidate for the 39th congressional district, meets locals at a Panera Bread in Brea. (Josie Huang/LAist)
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The Republican Party can sometimes feel like an afterthought in California, where Democrats hold every statewide office and super-majorities in both the state Senate and Assembly.

When the 2018 Blue Wave swept seven GOP members of Congress out of office, pundits wondered if the left had wrested permanent control of even the areas of the Golden State that launched the careers of Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan.

2020 told a different story. Republicans are celebrating victories in four of the seats they lost two years ago -- and across the country, the GOP pulled off surprise gains in a year when Democrats were predicted to expand their House majority.

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Now, Republican Party officials are working to glean lessons for holding onto purple districts in the 2022 midterms.

FUNDRAISING

In Southern California, successful Republican challengers outraised Democratic incumbents during the 2020 cycle. Young Kim had a $1.5 million fundraising edge over Democratic incumbent Gil Cisneros in the 39th District, for example -- a huge change from 2018, when Cisneros was able to outspend Kim nearly 6-to-1. (That district spans parts of three counties, primarily Orange.)

"In California, our media markets are very expensive. And in 2018, we were vastly outspent," said Fred Whitaker, chair of the Orange County Republican Party. "We needed to make sure that our candidates were competitive and could be on the airwaves."

In Orange County's 48th District, Michelle Steel raised a couple hundred thousand dollars more than incumbent Democrat Harley Rouda. But in 2018, the Democrat's more than $5 million advantage blew controversial Republican Congressman Dana Rohrabacher out of the water.

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"This year, a lot of the Democratic money went to the Midwest, for their efforts to fight the president," Whitaker noted.

Outside money still favored Democrats in both of the Orange County House races that the GOP flipped, particularly in the 48th, where Steel faced a lopsided pile of independent expenditures, including major ad buys from the Nancy Pelosi-aligned House Majority PAC.

In the 25th District in northern L.A. County and eastern Ventura County, Democrats couldn't reap the benefits of independent expenditures like they did when an avalanche of cash flowed into the race in 2018.

State Assemblymember Christy Smith narrowly failed to knock off Republican incumbent Mike Garcia, who won by a margin of 333 votes. He had served just a few months in office after a special election win in May.

Independent expenditures this cycle advantaged Garcia by more than a million dollars. That's significant, but in 2018, then-candidate Democrat Katie Hill enjoyed at least a $4.5 million leg-up in spending by outside groups, including $5 million from the Michael Bloomberg Super PAC, Independence USA.

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In 2018, Hill's campaign fundraising nearly quadrupled that of her opponent, incumbent Steve Knight, while this year Smith raised $3 million less than Garcia.

The Bloomberg cash disappeared from the 25th District race this year. (The bulk of the billionaire's political investments during the presidential election appears to have gone to an ill-fated attempt to win Florida, Ohio and Texas for Joe Biden.)

TURNOUT

Of course, money always plays a role in politics and helps campaigns get persuasive messaging out to voters. It also helps drive turnout. In 2020, L.A. and Orange Counties paralleled the national voter participation surge -- and more people voting is typically considered a positive sign for Democratic candidates.

That wasn't the case in the three Southern California House districts Republicans picked up this year. (The fourth seat picked up by Republicans is in the Central Valley, where Republican David Valadao won back the seat he lost to Democrat TJ Cox in 2018.)

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Each race saw 90-100,000 more total ballots cast than in the 2018 midterms. In the 39th District, for example, Republican Young Kim got 55,000 more votes than she did two years ago.

Context matters: in 2018, California Democrats were fired up to send a message to Donald Trump; and Jerry Brown was termed out of office, placing a gubernatorial race on the ballot.

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Republican Mike Garcia (left) talks to a voter after a debate at the Republican Value Center in Simi Valley on Feb. 8, 2020. (Libby Denkmann/LAist)

The GOP didn't have as much to animate its base, with Trump's reelection bid years away and the Republican candidate for Governor, John Cox, not seen as much of a contender for the statewide office.

"In 2018, the Democrats were able to nationalize the race around an issue that worked to their advantage, and that was health care," said Louis DeSipio, professor of political science at UC Irvine. "2020 was more muddled, with the presidential race absorbing a lot of the popular attention."

One theory is that the 2018 Blue Wave may have been strengthened by a lackluster California Republican electorate, which re-emerged for the 2020 presidential contest, proving these districts are still very competitive.

SPLIT-TICKET VOTING

There's some evidence that an increasingly rare phenomenon played a role in the GOP winning back House seats this election: "ticket splitting," or voting for one party for a major office like the presidency and another party further down the ballot.

Ben Christopher with CalMatters found that in the 48th District in coastal O.C., 1 in 10 precincts opted for the GOP congressional candidate, Michelle Steel, but also picked Joe Biden for President.

A growing number of independents in Orange County, who outnumber registered Republicans, may be open to voting for a check-and-balance between the executive and legislative branch, DeSipio said.

"An anti-Trump position didn't necessarily translate to an anti-Republican position at the congressional level," he added.

Torunn Sinclair with the National Republican Congressional Committee argues Trump's impact on competitive House races was a net positive. After all, he received 1.5 million more votes statewide than he did in 2016.

"I do think President Trump was helpful. When he's on the ballot, you get turnout," Sinclair said. "These voters liked the message that [Republican candidates] were spreading, which is one of low taxes and getting the economy back up and running. And the Democrats had to run on their records."

DIVERSE CANDIDATES

There's greater gender, racial and ethnic diversity among newly-elected Republican members of the House. The GOP candidates who flipped Southern California House seats are a key part of that shift: Young Kim and Michelle Steel are both Korean American, and Mike Garcia is Mexican American.

Party strategists say it's a no-brainer in California to recruit candidates who reflect the diversity of their districts. Kim and Steel are also experienced elected officials, having served as state legislators and county supervisor. They came into the race with name I.D. and a base of support.

Big picture: nationwide, there will be 19 Republican freshmen women serving in the House next term, along with a record number of female GOP members overall in the House and Senate. The gains could be partly due to a years-long effort to create a pipeline for Republican women -- to recruit and train them as candidates, and provide money early to help them get a foothold in primaries.

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O.C. Supervisor Michelle Steele defeated Congressman Harley Rouda, D-Newport Beach, in the 48th District. (California National Guard, Senior Airman Crystal Housman)

But there's still nothing on the conservative side of the aisle on par with EMILY's List or other powerful liberal organizations that support Democratic women running for office. The Republican Party in Congress is still overwhelmingly white, and there are three times as many Democratic women in the House and Senate as Republican women.

WHAT'S NEXT?

Down-ballot, results in the California legislature were a mixed bag: Republicans picked up a seat in the state Assembly, but lost two hotly contested state Senate races, both in Orange County. In the 37th District, Democrat David Min defeated incumbent State Senator John Moorlach; in the 29th District, former state Senator Josh Newman took his old job back, besting incumbent Republican Ling Ling Chang, who joined the legislature after Newman was ousted in a recall.

In local races overlapping with contested House districts, Orange County Democrats flipped the Irvine City Council, but Republicans defended their 4-1 majority on the O.C. Board of Supervisors.

The GOP is hoping to learn from this year's wins to make further gains in the 2022 midterms. Meanwhile, the party is gearing up to try and keep control of the Orange County Board of Supervisors seat left empty by Michelle Steel, and party leaders have an eye on the possible outcomes of redistricting, which is expected to eliminate one or more House seats in the California delegation.

"A president's first midterm is usually not good for their party," Whitaker noted. "There's going to be an intense Republican effort to take the House -- we're only 12 seats away."