Vista, California –
Every Tuesday morning Ellen Montanari gears up her bullhorn, a crowd-funded microphone and a set of rented loud speakers to lead a protest outside Rep. Darrell Issa’s office.
When she started the rallies in January, she imagined it would be a short-term endeavor to convince Issa to vote against the repeal of Obamacare. But to her surprise, here in Orange County — once a stronghold of the John Birch Society and the modern conservative movement — the protests became a hub for California Democratic activists determined to flip control of the House of Representatives in 2018.
In normal election cycles, California voters are far from the action — catching glimpses of federal candidates when they breeze through to raise money. For the first time in recent memory, the Golden State is central to the Democrats’ crusade to win 24 seats that would grant them the House majority.
The party’s chief targets in 2018 are the 23 Republican members who represent districts won by Hillary Clinton last year. Seven of those seats — including Issa’s in the 49th Congressional District — are in California. That unusual political geography is giving first-time activists like Montanari a sense of purpose. The chance to put a Democratic check on the Trump administration is literally in their backyards.
The protesters who gather on the sidewalk here each week loathe Issa, a polarizing flame-thrower who won re-election by 1,600 votes. But they are horrified by President Donald Trump’s baiting of foreign leaders; his cavalier talk about war with North Korea; and the serpentine connections between some members of his administration and Russia.
Democrats face plenty of hurdles in their bid to retake the House and haven’t won any of the special elections they sank money into this year. But there’s a certain energy in these districts that is unusual from previous years.
That seething contempt for Trump, coupled with the sense that Issa does not represent the increasingly diverse composition of his district, has drawn as many as 400 people to the Tuesday rallies.
Rally attendees in Issa’s district, as well as Democratic groups across Orange and San Diego counties, are already organizing and walking precincts, hoping to change the makeup of the midterm electorate (which is typically older, whiter, and more conservative than in presidential years).
When Montanari announced one Tuesday that she planned to end the rallies at outside Issa’s office at Trump’s 100-day mark, the crowd shouted her down: “Nooooooooo!”
“People were grabbing me saying: ‘Please don’t stop. You are keeping us sane,’” Montanari told me on a recent Tuesday. An email from one of the protesters convinced her to keep going.
“So many of us sit and yell at our TV sets, but on Tuesdays we come here and we are filled with hope and joy, and that gets us through the week”
“So many of us sit and yell at our TV sets, but on Tuesdays we come here and we are filled with hope and joy, and that gets us through the week,” she said, recounting the email message. “I will never, ever forget that. That’s when I said, ‘I’m going to do it.’”
It’s easy to forget today that California was once a Republican state that sent Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan to the White House. Their legacy remains in parts of Orange County, the Inland Empire and even pockets of suburban Los Angeles County that still send Republicans to Congress.
But that hold is fading fast. Republicans within California’s congressional delegation, which includes House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy, hold the last vestige of GOP power in the state.
The party’s share of California’s electorate has declined precipitously since the mid-1990s, when the GOP backed the anti-immigration measure known as Proposition 187, which denied basic public services to immigrants. Prop 187 was ultimately blocked by the courts, but it altered the image of the GOP – making it harder for them to appeal not only to minorities, but to wealthy, white voters in places like the Bay area.
The rapid growth of the Latino and Asian populations in California, as well as middle-class migration out of the state, has accelerated the drop-off in of the Republican party registration here. GOP voters now comprise a quarter of the state’s registered voters, compared to 34% a decade ago.
Rob Stutzman, a California-based Republican strategist who was an advisor to former Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, noted that several of the targeted Republicans, like Ed Royce, ran far ahead of Trump in their districts in 2016.
While he acknowledged that anti-Trump fervor could turn the tide in Democrats' favor, he said strong economic growth, a 4% unemployment rate and a gas tax repeal on the ballot could drive strong turnout of those older, more fiscally conservative Republicans next year.
“Last year, voters clearly saw the difference between the Trump brand and the Republican brand, and there is evidence that’s still the case.”
“We don’t know yet whether Trump is really a drag on these members or not,” Stutzman told me. “Last year, voters clearly saw the difference between the Trump brand and the Republican brand, and there is evidence that’s still the case.”
The seven vulnerable members of the California delegation are already drawing fire from Democratic groups for supporting the House legislation to repeal and replace Obamacare in May. In addition to Issa and Royce, the group includes Dana Rohrabacher of Costa Mesa, Mimi Walters of Irvine, Jeff Denham of Turlock, David Valadao of Hanford and Steve Knight of Palmdale.
They districts are not alike. Knight, an Army veteran and former policeman who comes from a well-known political family in the Antelope Valley, is the last Republican representing the suburban communities around Los Angeles. Issa and Rohrabacher represent districts that run along along the coast and are increasingly liberal and diverse. Walters, who casts herself as a “practical conservative,” faces at least a half-dozen challengers in the white-collar communities of central and south Orange County.
Royce represents a diverse constituency, but he bested Trump by double-digits in 2016 because he has been so attentive to the diverse needs of his district.
In the Central Valley, Denham and Valadao represent perennially competitive districts and are used to tough re-election fights.
Their races could very well turn on whether Congress can find a legislative solution to the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, known as DACA, which protects nearly 800,000 young immigrants brought to the United States as children. Attorney General Jeff Sessions recently announced the Trump administration will end the program after a six-month grace period.
David Wasserman, a political analyst for the non-partisan Cook Political Report who specializes in House races, said one of the greatest challenges for California Democrats in midterm years is turning out Latino voters. That could be different in 2018 depending on how and whether Congress addresses immigration.
“Trump may have just handed Democrats a way to turn out voters who would not otherwise turn out in a midterm election,” he told me.
Several of the California Seven have been eager to show their independence from the President, particularly on immigration. In 2016, Hispanics made up 39% of California’s population, and 28% of the state’s eligible voter population, according to data from the Pew Research Center. A quarter of the nation’s DACA recipients live in California.
For months, Denham and Valadao have urged Trump to extend DACA, and they are now likely to be at the forefront of any deal brokered in Congress to protect those young immigrants. Denham recently used his Facebook page to highlight the contributions that DACA recipients have made to American society.
“Children brought to the United States at a young age did not have a choice in the matter,” Denham and Valadao wrote in their August letter to Trump (which was signed by four other members). “They did not willingly seek to violate American statutes when they traveled with their families across our borders, as the alternative was often life without primary caregivers.”
They have both vowed to shepherd a legislative solution through Congress. On the day of Sessions’ announcement, Denham told me he was optimistic about the prospect.
“We’ve already teed these bills up. There’s bipartisan support for the Senate version as well as the House version,” Denham said. “We’ve got to be able to move things forward.”
Denham acknowledged that the Republican strategy for getting a bill through is still being worked out.
“We are either going to have to put a Dreamers bill on a must-pass piece of legislation or combine it with other immigration reform issues. I would be supportive of passing it as a standalone bill. My fear is that I don’t want to see the House hold up the Senate’s bill or the Senate hold up the House’s bill.”
Given the inability of this Congress to advances significant legislation this year, many Californians are doubtful lawmakers can get a DACA solution passed within the six-month time frame.
Among the doubters is Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom, a Democrat who is running for governor. He argued that the Trump administration’s announcement on DACA -- which he said lacked humanity -- should galvanize not just Latinos, but also Asians and other diverse communities, as well as their “friends, families, neighbors.”
“This is an attack on all of us; it’s an attack on diversity; it’s an attack on American values,” Newsom told me. “If dreamers can’t pass the test, how can any of us pass the test?”
Issa, the wealthiest member of Congress, is such a lightning rod among Democrats that his district is likely to get extra attention. He used his megaphone as chairman of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee to become one of the chief antagonists of President Barack Obama, launching tough investigations into the 2012 attack on the US diplomatic compound in Benghazi, Libya and the IRS targeting of conservative groups.
His polarizing rhetoric and frequent television appearances tested the patience even of members of his own party. He was replaced as chairman in 2015 by Utah Rep. Jason Chaffetz, who has since left Congress.
Calvin Moore, Issa’s spokesman, said Issa should be judged by his effectiveness in getting legislation through Congress and his push for “transparent, honest and accountable government.” He noted Issa’s work with Rep. Elijah Cummings of Maryland, the top Democrat on the Oversight panel, on the first reform of the Freedom of Information Act in more than 50 years.
Republicans who have spoken to Issa privately in recent months say he is not happy about the prospect of having to spend more of his millions to win re-election. One source said he angled for a post within the Trump administration, but was bluntly told that no other Republican could win his seat in the 49th.
Democrats argue that Issa is attempting to moderate his image by, for example, highlighting his work on homelessness in San Diego. Issa vigorously disputes that.
Issa has not been shy about being seen with Trump. He was prominently featured on cable news this summer standing just over the President’s left shoulder at a televised bill signing (footage that is certain to appear in an attack ad).
But in February, he called for a special prosecutor to examine Russian interference in the election.
Unlike other vulnerable congressional Republicans, Issa did not publicly chide Trump’s slow response to the white supremacist violence in Charlottesville, Virginia. In fact, Issa was trolled on Twitter by one of his Democratic opponents, attorney Mike Levin, who accused him of putting out a statement condemning the violence late one Monday in August, then backdating the press release on his website to the Saturday when the violence occurred. Issa’s spokesman said that claim is false.
Levin, who posted a strong first fundraising haul, happened to be speaking to a gathering of the Canyon Democrats that night in Mission Viejo.
“He enables Trump,” Levin said of Issa. “He enables the sowing of bigotry, and hatred among us.”
Issa, who made his fortune on car alarm systems, has represented the 49th District of California since 2000, easily winning re-election until last year. The demographics of his district, which encompasses wealthy enclaves of southern Orange County as well as much of Northern San Diego County, have shifted while he has been in office.
More than a quarter of the district is Hispanic or Latino, according to the Census Bureau’s 2015 American Community Survey. Veterans – many of them young veterans who served in Iraq and Afghanistan – comprise nearly 9% of the civilian population in the district, according to 2015 census data.
Doug Applegate, who challenged Issa in 2016 and is running again, said reaching the 45,000 veteran households in the district would be a core part of his campaign. He said he lost in 2016 because he didn’t have enough time to reach individual voters, and outline his support for a single payer healthcare system, his plans to extract the US from Iraq and Afghanistan, and his background as a retired Marine colonel.
“Democrats will do a lot better if they stop just ceding national security and the Pentagon to Republicans.”
“I think the Democrats will do a lot better if they stop just ceding national security and the Pentagon to Republicans,” Applegate told me when I ran into him at the Tuesday rally outside Issa’s office. “Military officers don’t necessarily buy everything that’s in the Republican kit anymore, especially young veterans.”
I asked Applegate what would be different in 2018, compared to last year. “The energy,” he said. “The emotion.”
Illustration by Will Mullery