Democrats Have to Win Big in California to Recoup D.C. Power

Targets Include 23 Seats That Republicans Won in Districts Where Trump Lost to Clinton

A teammate of Sandy Koufax once claimed that Major League hitters who faced the Dodgers’ pitching immortal would tell themselves, “A foul ball was a moral victory.”

This notion of win-by-losing moral victories keeps cropping up in political chat fests these days, as Democrats try to spin their 0-for-4 streak against Republicans in 2017 congressional special elections, most recently after the party and allies torched $30 million to buy a second-place finish for 30-year-old greenhorn Jon Ossoff in Newt Gingrich’s old Georgia district.

Sometimes a foul ball is just a foul ball.

Typically, losing has generated Dem infighting, finger pointing, and flagging morale ​ ​— ​ ​despite data showing that every candidate exceeded historic partisan performance numbers, by an average of 8 percent, while running in cherry-red districts in ruby Republican states.

“Despite the loss, we have a lot to be proud of,” New Mexico Rep. Ben Ray Luján, chair of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, wrote in a postmortem of the four-point Georgia loss.

“The margin was close in this deep red district,” he said. “We will carry those key lessons forward in order to compete in districts as Republican-leaning as Georgia, and in the dozens and dozens of districts on our battlefield that are much more competitive.”

Excuse Luján for channeling Churchill; he desperately needs anti-Trump forces unified, engaged, and hopeful about the races he oversees, for a long-shot bid to seize control of the House in the midterms ​— ​traditionally low-Democratic-turnout affairs.

By the Numbers

Republicans hold a partisan edge of 238-193 in the 435-seat House, with four vacancies. Snapping the GOP’s Beltway hegemony requires Dems to hold their own seats (shout-out to Salud!) and topple at least 24 Republicans for a majority.

Their top priority targets are as follows: a) 23 seats that Republicans won in districts where Trump lost to Hillary Clinton; b) 10 GOP districts that Clinton lost by four points or less; and c) vacancies arising from retirement, quietus, or scandal.

It’s a precarious political calculus, and it won’t work without California: Democrats need one-third of their wins here.

“California is the big focus,” said Drew Godinich, spokesperson for the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee’s (DCCC) western regional office. “The races here will be pivotal.”

So more than a year and a half before the elections, about 10 hyper-caffeinated operatives already are working out of a DCCC office (that’s “pod” in Dem-speak) in Irvine, eyeing these seats:

Orange County

Small comfort, but Trump was the first Republican nominee to lose the iconic conservative bastion since Alf Landon in 1936. That gives Dems hope of upsetting four incumbents reelected in districts that Clinton won ​ ​— ​ ​Representatives Dana Rohrabacher, Ed Royce, Mimi Walters, and Darrell Issa. Big caveat: All but Issa, who barely hung on, won comfortably in 2016.

Central Valley

Similarly, voters reelected three GOP incumbents here ​ ​— ​ ​Representatives Jeff Denham, Steve Knight, and David Valadao ​ ​— ​ ​in pro-Clinton districts, by margins between 5 and 13 points.


Two other entrenched Republicans are enmeshed in Beltway messes: The feds are investigating San Diego Congressmember Duncan Hunter’s campaign finances, and Fresno-area Rep. Devin Nunes is mired in the Trump-Russia affair.

Bottom Line

Although Democratic scenarios are tinged with blue sky, disinterested political professionals view their red-to-blue strategy as viable ​ ​— ​ ​despite GOP gerrymanders in dozens of states outside California.

In an analysis, the influential, independent Cook Political Report said the party’s unexpectedly strong special election showings are crucial, given Trump’s widespread unpopularity.

“Although it’s true Democrats have agonizingly yet to capture a red district, they have outperformed their ‘generic’ share of the vote significantly in every contest,” wrote Cook analyst David Wasserman.

“Last night’s results [in Georgia] were far from a disaster for Democrats, and Republicans shouldn’t be tempted to believe their House majority is safe. In fact, their majority is still very much at risk.”

Sounds like a moral victory.

Update: National Republican Congressional Committee regional flack Jack Pandol checked in to offer his take, only slightly shorter than the original column: “Democrats spent $30 million in Georgia and fell short in a well-educated, suburban district similar to ones they claim they’ll compete for in California. But this time, they’re running against well-known, popular Republican incumbents who have delivered for their districts – unfortunately for them, moral victories don’t get a vote in Congress.”


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