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.
This program was an offshoot of the state party. It was responsible for more than 4 million voter contacts statewide and spent $2.4 million on mail as part of its get-out-the-vote effort, according to a source directly involved. Half of its funding came from organizations such as the National Republican Congressional Committee and Republican National Committee, and McCarthy had to raise money to fund the other half.
“We will certainly continue to be on offense in California during the 2014 midterms,” McCarthy spokesman Mike Long said. He added that McCarthy has always said the effort to put infrastructure and resources on the ground would take two cycles to fully implement.
The top targets for Republicans start with Reps.-elect Scott Peters, Ami Bera and Raul Ruiz, who all knocked off GOP incumbents. Former GOP Rep. Doug Ose, among others, is already being talked about as a potential challenger to Bera.
Other top GOP targets include Democratic Reps. John Garamendi and Jim Costa, who Republicans believed showed signs of weakness in 2012 and were greatly assisted by the presidential turnout. There is also still hope in Ventura against Rep.-elect Julia Brownley.
“The time to get them back is the first time these guys are up for re-election,” Gilliard said. “If they get entrenched, it’s going to be difficult, so I hope Republicans do make an effort to win some of these seats back in two years.”
By all indications, they will.
McCarthy is expected to take what worked with the Victory operation in 2012 and enhance it this cycle. Republican Rep. Devin Nunes, who was also heavily involved, said in an interview that it’s a necessity to keep up with well-funded and Democrat-supporting labor unions.
“We have to build an operation that competes with the public employee unions,” Nunes said. “We did it in my area, but we have to replicate it across the state.”
Republican Rep. Jeff Denham, who survived a strong Democratic challenge, said the Victory operation succeeded in helping the party speak with tens of thousands of voters across 12 targeted districts. But the party still was not as successful as it had hoped, and Denham believes individual campaigns need to improve their message delivery to the different voting blocs.
“One of the things that was different about my campaign is we were actually on Spanish radio and on TV and in the Spanish newspapers,” Denham said. “And we need to do that statewide.”
For their part, Democrats believe the 2012 gains came in districts that turned out to be more Democratic than initially believed, and they view 2014 as a chance to pick up some of the seats they left on the field this year. A Democratic source said the party’s GOP targets begin with Rep.-elect David Valadao, who won the Central Valley-based 21st District against an underfunded opponent, and Rep. Gary G. Miller, who moved into a Democratic-leaning district.
Thanks to the new primary dynamic, Miller faced a fellow Republican in the general. It’s unlikely he’ll be so lucky this cycle, and Miller will go into 2014 as the one of the most vulnerable incumbents in the country.
Meanwhile, Republican optimism is tempered by the financial failures of the state party and the lack of a legitimate bench of candidates capable of competing statewide.
“We have a governor’s race in less than two years, and there’s no one even being talked about as a candidate,” Gilliard said. “In the biggest state in the union where there is plenty of money to go around there is nobody even doing anything yet to make moves about running for governor.”
California was bombarded with outside spending from both parties in 2012. That’s likely to continue in 2014, but strategists said success relies on a richer overall effort.
“It will require a sustained effort, it will require excellent candidate recruitment, it will require building grass-roots organizations in these districts over time and not just relying on last-minute television,” Nehring said.
Nehring was particularly frustrated by national Republicans’ lack of outreach to Hispanics and said that’s had a grave effect on the party in the Southwest and California.
Mark DiCamillo, director of the San Francisco-based Field Poll, wrote in a memo last week that minority influence on California statewide elections will only grow, and the GOP’s inability to connect with minority voters “bodes poorly for the long-term electoral fortunes of the Republican Party in the state.”
Matt Rexroad, a GOP consultant optimistic about House race opportunities in 2014, agreed that the GOP’s statewide troubles may not erode in the near future even with Obama’s absence from the ballot.
“Is this a once in a lifetime tidal wave, or is the flooding for Republicans here to stay?” Rexroad said. “It appears that it might be water that’s here to stay.”