California Democrats seek congressional gains, but turnout is key

California’s Democratic Party leaders can be confident that their candidates will once again sweep statewide elections next year and retain strong majorities in the Legislature.

They can also hope for more — that a blue state backlash against President Donald Trump’s so-far-erratic performance and a Republican-controlled Congress, keyed to hot-button issues such as immigration and health care, will shrink the California GOP’s already thin congressional ranks — just 14 of 53 seats.

Nationwide, Democrat Hillary Clinton won in 23 Republican-held congressional districts and seven of those were in California, which puts their incumbents in the cross-hairs next year.

Darrell Issa, the combative and controversial Republican congressman from San Diego and Orange counties, is widely regarded as the nation’s most embattled GOP incumbent, and he knows it. Once a Trump backer, he is now scrambling to put distance between himself and the president.

As Clinton was winning in Issa’s 49th Congressional District by 7.5 percentage points, Issa barely scraped by Democratic challenger Doug Applegate by 621 votes.

Applegate, a retired Marine Corps attorney, is running again, but he’s got potential baggage.

Local news media have pointed out that Applegate reported having $434,105 in cash as of Nov. 28, but the next report he filed showed $57,697 in cash as of Nov. 29. So far, Applegate has been unable to publicly explain the $376,408 discrepancy.

Three other Orange County Republicans saw their districts opt for Clinton: Ed Royce, Mimi Walters and Dana Rohrabacher. So did suburban Los Angeles Congressman Steve Knight and two members in the San Joaquin Valley, Jeff Denham and David Valadao.

Clinton’s margin in Valadao’s 21st Congressional District was a whopping 15.2 percentage points, and that, coupled with the district’s lopsided Democratic voter registration margin, puts a target on his back — not for the first time.

Nevertheless, the seven did survive last year, albeit by sometimes slender margins and despite voter turnout that was relatively high due to its being a high-profile presidential election.

Turnout is expected to be much lower next year because it’s a non-presidential cycle, although probably not as low as the record-low mark set in 2014, when there was virtually nothing on the ballot to draw out voters.

Paul Mitchell, the state’s top voter data guru, calculates that with lower turnout next year, “Several contests that looked extremely competitive in the 2016 primary and general would be less so in projected likely voter universes for the coming cycle.”

On average, he says, in the potentially vulnerable GOP districts, the incumbents can expect nine percentage points higher Republican voting in the primary and three points in the general election.

“If registration gains in the coming 18 months don’t eat into these numbers, they should be safer than they were in 2016,” Mitchell concludes.

In other words, Democratic congressional gains in California are by no means a sure thing although Trump, of course, is the wild card.

Dan Walters is a political columnist for The Sacramento Bee.

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