A Stinging Setback in California Is a Warning for Democrats in 2022

Christy Smith, a Democratic House candidate, hosts a socially distant campaign event on November 2, 2020 in Santa Clarita, California. (Gabriella Angotti-Jones / The New York Times)
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LOS ANGELES - Two years ago the California Democrats celebrated seven Republican-held Congressional seats as evidence of the party's growing ability to compete in swing districts here and across the country.
But this year Republicans snatched four of those seats back when Joe Biden flooded President Donald Trump in California. The losses stunned the Democrats and added to the razor-thin margin the party will hold in the House of Representatives in January.
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The turnaround is evidence of how competitive the seats are, particularly in Orange County, once a bastion of conservative republicanism that has steadily developed democratically over the past 20 years.
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In any event, the results have been a setback for Democrats in this state and nationally, indicating the steep roadblocks they will face in 2022 as they compete in the predominantly suburban swing districts taking their home fired in 2018.
The Democrats' losses were due to a number of reasons, including the armed forces in California and the complications of campaigning during a pandemic. Most importantly, they reflected the strength of the Republican attacks, some of which were false or exaggerated, that Democrats were the party of socialism, defused the police and scrapped private health insurance.
The attacks - not least led by Trump as a central part of his re-election strategy - came at a time when parts of California were caught up in street protests against police abuse, some of which have turned into glass-breaking bouts of looting and confrontation with law enforcement agencies heavily represented on local television were.
"The Republicans were hanging around the Democrats' necks that we were all socialist or communist and that the police wanted to disappoint everyone," said Harley Rouda, an Orange County Democrat who was defeated by Michelle Steel, a Republican Orange County board member has been . “In my opinion, as a party, we have not adequately refuted this narrative. We won in 2018 and took the house back because people like me - moderates - switched radical Republican seats. "
Republicans said the Democrats' attempts to portray themselves as moderates were undermined by a shift of the party to the left and by the demonstrations.
"It was incredibly easy for us to draw contrast," said Jessica Millan Patterson, leader of the Republican Party of California. She said the protests “were everywhere. It looked like a war zone. "
Nonetheless, the election results are the result of many factors - and this was particularly the case in an election campaign that was fought against a deadly pandemic and whose polarizing figure like Trump dominated the political debate.
Democrats said they were also violated by a national policy set by the party to avoid door-to-door advertising during the pandemic. Presumably that won't be a factor in 2022.
"The main problem with our campaign is that we didn't advertise," said Rep. T.J. Cox, a Democrat who represents the San Joaquin Valley and lost to David Valadao, the Republican he deposed in 2018. "We didn't work door to door."
He said it was like playing for a soccer team that was told "they can't pass".
Christy Smith, a Democrat from northern Los Angeles County who failed to win a district her party's conquered in 2018, said she had stuck to public health guidelines to her detriment. (The 2018-winning Democrat Katie Hill resigned after being accused of having an inappropriate relationship with an employee.)
"We couldn't attend a forum or a town hall," said Smith. "This is my favorite campaign."
California's often staggering efforts to fight COVID-19 have been detrimental in Republican-style districts that publicly disregard the public protection of masked mandates and the contempt for the state's Democratic governor, Gavin Newsom.
"Everyone is concerned about COVID," said Sam Oh, a Republican adviser to two of the Republican winners, Young Kim and Steel. “But we're trying to find a way to give small business owners the opportunity to keep making a living. This is incredibly important and the Democrats are deaf to it. "
And Republicans, analysts said, recruited strong candidates, which is always the most critical task in an election. These included Steel and Kim, who will be among the earliest Korean-American members of Congress, and Mike Garcia, a former military pilot who won a special election to replace Hill in May and defeated Smith in November.
The Democrats set their goals for seven Republican-held seats in 2018 and won all of them, halving the size of the Republican Congress delegation in California. That investigation suggested that Democrats were invading once Republican areas of the state and putting forward a roadmap for how the party could compete in swing districts across the country.
This time around, however, Republicans managed to tackle issues that have long resonated with moderate voters, especially in places like Orange County: high taxes, intrusive government, and law and order. Democrats said the debates on the national stage had hurt them, especially among Latin American and Asian-American voters.
"I think we have undervalued the strength of the attack," said Dan Sena, who was the first Hispanic executive director of the Democratic Campaigns Committee. "The news of Nazism combined with the news of crime was a death by a thousand cuts in a place like California."
Smith said she was frustrated trying to fight in an environment "where Republicans are so persistent in false stories" and that Democrats have not figured out how to go about it.
"We never got our hands on it," she said.
For California Republicans, the victories were a rare glimmer of good news for a party in decline in the state.
"We now have a blueprint that shows that with a presidential turnout, these really dynamic candidates can win in a polarized environment," Oh said. "We are in an incredibly good position and we look forward to the future."
In one possible sign of postponement, Newsom faces a recall campaign, not least because of his handling of the pandemic, and while he is unlikely to be ousted and replaced by a Republican, it certainly isn't impossible. In 2003, Republican Arnold Schwarzenegger became governor.
"California is at a turning point," Patterson said. “People are waking up to what the Democrats are doing here. This was a referendum on what the California Democrats did and what the governor did to this state. "
Republicans argued that the results here - and across the country - were strong evidence that many voters were opposed to policies advocated by the Democrats on the left.
"Democrats said they would have 10 to 15 seats in the House," said Torunn Sinclair, press secretary for the Republican National Congress Committee. “Obviously they are missing something. It has to go back to those radical left policies that people just didn't want. "Medicare for All" disappointed the police. "
Profit margins in California's pivot districts were tight for the Democratic winners in 2018 - and for the Republican winners in 2020.
"These counties - including mine - have been very difficult to turn around," said Rep. Katie Porter, an Orange County Democrat who won in 2018 and was re-elected in 2020. "These are Republic boroughs. The races have always been very competitive."
Darry Sragow, a Democratic strategist, said the Republican Party of the state did not lose ground in 2020.
"But it's very hard to say they're doing better," he said. "These congressional districts were always Republicans until 2018 when the Democrats picked them up."
The four defeated Democrats talk about finding back-fighting in 2022, although the district lines are set to be redrawn as part of the ten-year restructuring process that will take place before the next elections. And both sides said the races would be close again.
"It was a hiatus," said Cox, the San Joaquin Valley Democrat. “But remember, we lost less than 1% without running a field campaign. So it is not surprising that we fell a little short with these factors. "
This article originally appeared in the New York Times.
© 2020 The New York Times Company
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