Despite a dismal overall performance in California this year, top Republican strategists in the state say they believe the ailing party’s congressional race prospects should improve two years from now.
However, the extent of a potential comeback could hinge in part on whether a strong challenger to Democratic Gov. Jerry Brown emerges, which is far from a given for an underfunded, dysfunctional state GOP struggling to compete statewide.
The strategists’ optimism stems from the likely scenario the party faces in 2014: lower turnout, freshman Democrats in marginal districts, President Barack Obama no longer at the top of the ticket and the political trend that the party in power traditionally underperforms in a president’s second midterm.
“There are just too many seats here that could be won in a good midterm that it just can’t be neglected,” GOP consultant Rob Stutzman said.
In the first year under independent- commission-drawn congressional district lines and the jungle primary system, Democrats defeated three Republican incumbents and added four seats. That came as Democrats also won a super majority in both houses of the California Legislature and with the party already holding every statewide office.
In all, 14 new members from California, constituting a quarter of the delegation, will grace the House floor on Capitol Hill come January. Running in wholly new districts and with no concrete data for what the turnout would look like, Republicans did not benefit from the change as they had hoped.
“We’re down to 15 out of 53 House members in California. That’s rather extraordinary,” former California Republican Party Chairman Ron Nehring said. “But are there opportunities in 2014? Sure, and the first targets should be the four seats that we just lost.”
Republican Reps. Brian P. Bilbray, Dan Lungren and Mary Bono Mack were defeated by just more than 23,000 votes combined. Democrats also won a new Riverside-based district, where no incumbent lived, by more than 27,000 votes, and they won a Ventura-based district, which Republican Rep. Elton Gallegly retired from, by more than 11,000 votes.
Republicans picked up a new district in the Central Valley, which kept their losses to a net of four.
Driving much of the GOP’s poor performance was the high turnout among minorities, who voted overwhelmingly Democratic. According to exit polls in California, Latinos accounted for 22 percent of the electorate and voted 72 percent for Obama; Asians made up 11 percent and voted 79 percent for Obama; and African-Americans were 8 percent of the electorate and voted 96 percent for Obama.
“It was a terrible year for turnout in California, and some of these guys only lost by between 3 and 5 points,” GOP consultant Dave Gilliard said. “So that can make a big difference in a different type of year.”
California was an orphan state — no statewide competition — as Obama and Democratic Sen. Dianne Feinstein each won it by at least 22 points.
To compensate, House Majority Whip Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., led an effort in 2012 to fund a ground operation called the Golden State Congressional Victory Fund to compensate for the lack of presidential or Senate campaign infrastructure that could otherwise orchestrate it.