The California districts that could determine control of the House

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In this tumultuous midterm cycle, California...

Posted: Nov 6, 2018 6:37 AM

In this tumultuous midterm cycle, California has billed itself as ground zero of the resistance -- the place where activists hoped their protests against President Donald Trump's agenda and nativist rhetoric would ripple into a blue wave that would flip the House.

With congressional races tightening around the country, that premise will be tested on Tuesday, when Golden State voters cast the final ballots in seven congressional districts held by Republicans that Hillary Clinton won in 2016, which are key to Democrats' path to retaking the House.

Some are closer than others. But all of them will show whether the collective frustration of college-educated voters -- particularly women -- as well as the anger of young and minority voters will serve as a check on Trump and the Republican lock on power in Washington.

One central question is whether Trump's attempts to whip up his base by vilifying immigrants and refugees in the final weeks will harm vulnerable House incumbents by alienating college-educated whites and energizing Latino voters, who make up 21% of the electorate in California. In the Golden State, Trump's strategy could have mixed results.

It might be helpful to the GOP, for example, in California-25, the suburban-rural district in northern Los Angeles County where 31-year-old Katie Hill is attempting to unseat Rep. Steve Knight, a veteran and former police officer. But farther south, the President's rhetoric might hurt GOP incumbents like Rep. Dana Rohrabacher and Mimi Walters, who both represent more affluent, college-educated areas of Orange County.

"Trump's final, very divisive, very shrill message on immigration and race is more broadly meant to help Republicans with blue-collar whites, but is clearly reinforcing their problems with white-collar whites," said CNN Senior Political Analyst Ron Brownstein.

"The way that plays out in California is that it might help Knight in a district where only about a third of white voters have a college degree, but it's much more challenging for Dana Rohrabacher and Mimi Walters because in their districts about half of all the whites have a college degree."

In the state's June primary, Trump clearly had an impact. There was a substantial increase in turnout in heavily Latino precincts in two of the closest races in Orange County -- CA-39 and CA-48 -- according to an analysis by the UCLA Latino Policy & Politics Initiative.

During the final sprint this past weekend, Gavin Newsom -- who is vying to be the President's antagonist in chief, as well as the state's next governor -- mocked the President's strategy of stoking fear about the migrant caravan and issued a challenge to progressive voters as he barnstormed the state.

Standing alongside US Sen. Kamala Harris, who might challenge Trump for the White House in 2020, Newsom invoked her signature line in the Trump resistance that America is "better than this."

"Send a message to Donald Trump, and those who support Trumpism, that we reject it," Newsom told voters at a rally for Democrat Katie Porter, who is attempting to unseat Walters in the onetime Republican bastion of Orange County. "That we're Californians. That we, in the spirit of Kamala Harris, are better than this. It's our state. It's our country. It's our moment."

David Axelrod, the former senior adviser to President Barack Obama and a CNN political commentator, noted that having Newsom and US Sen. Dianne Feinstein at the top of the ticket could also boost Democratic hopes.

"There's an updraft that's going to help Democratic candidates," Axelrod said. "You add to that the antipathy toward Trump in California and it is a very unforgiving environment for Republican candidates."

Here are some of the key races to watch Tuesday night:

California-10: Rep. Jeff Denham (R) vs. Josh Harder (D)

Denham has survived tough races in this Central Valley district, but now he is confronting the headwinds of Trump's immigration policy and unpopular tariffs that have caught farmers in the midst of a trade war with China. This year he is also facing a remarkably well-funded opponent in Harder, a former Silicon Valley venture capitalist. Harder raised an eye-popping $3.5 million in the third quarter as part of what the Congressional Leadership Fund (the Paul Ryan-backed super PAC) has dubbed this year's "green wave" for Democrats.

California-25: Rep. Steve Knight (R) vs. Katie Hill (D)

This complex district north of Los Angeles -- with its blend of suburban and rural areas and a rapidly diversifying population that is nearly 40% Latino -- is one of the night's wild cards. Knight, an Army veteran who worked as a police officer in the district for 18 years, comes from a well-known political family. But his challenger, 31-year-old Hill, is one of the Democratic Party's new stars this cycle: the blunt-talking daughter of a police officer, who made it known that she's owned guns her whole life and filmed one of her campaign commercials while free-climbing a 100-foot rock wall. Supported by EMILY's List and the LGBTQ Victory Fund, Hill was one of the fundraising standouts this cycle. It remains to be seen whether her party can turn out enough Latinos to get her across the finish line.

California-39: Young Kim (R) vs. Gil Cisneros (D)

This district will test the Republican Party's ability to prevail in racially diverse Orange and Los Angeles counties. With her deep ties to the district, Kim is a charismatic potential successor to her onetime boss, retiring Rep. Ed Royce. Born in South Korea, she has highlighted her immigrant journey in a district that is now more than a third Latino and 29% Asian. But elevated turnout among Latinos could help Cisneros, a former Navy officer. In the primary, the number of ballots cast in some majority-Latino precincts in CA-39 were up by as much as 245% over 2014 levels, according to UCLA's analysis.

California-45: Rep. Mimi Walters (R) vs. Katie Porter (D)

It initially seemed unlikely that UC Irvine law professor Porter, who Republicans thought they could label as an ultra-liberal protégée of Sen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts, could dispatch the well-liked Walters in Orange County. But in a district with high numbers of college-educated voters, Porter has drilled Walters for supporting Trump's agenda much of the time and has played up the California-specific downsides of the Republican tax bill, which Walters supported. As a single mom of three children, Porter has kept her focus squarely on health care and her promise to advocate for the middle class.

California-48: Rep. Dana Rohrabacher (R) vs. Harley Rouda (D)

For many months, veteran Congressman Rohrabacher barely mounted a campaign in his coastal Orange County district, counting on his long-standing ties to voters here and his quirky reputation as "Surfin' Dana" to carry the day. In the third quarter, he raised $421,000 to Rouda's $3.2 million. Rouda, a progressive former Realtor and businessman, has sought to capitalize on disdain for Trump among the district's many college-educated voters. But this race remains a toss-up to the end, with Trump tweeting praise Monday for how Rohrabacher has delivered for his district, and the congressman urging supporters to #VoteRedToSaveAmerica.

California-49: Diane Harkey (R) vs. Mike Levin (D)

This race for retiring Rep. GOP Darrell Issa's seat was once thought to be among the most contested in California, but this coastal district in what was once Nixon country in Orange and northern San Diego counties now appears to be tilting blue. Former Board of Equalization candidate Harkey, endorsed by Issa, has been weighed down by family financial scandal and distaste for Trump among the district's many wealthy, college-educated voters. Environmental attorney Levin has run an energetic shoe-leather campaign, with an eye toward activating younger voters. He has cast Harkey as a "rubber stamp" for Trump, and opened a double-digit advantage over her in the New York Times/Siena College poll late last month.

California-50: Rep. Duncan Hunter (R) vs. Ammar Campa-Najjar (D)

This race in northeastern San Diego County should never have been in doubt for Republicans, given that Trump won the district by 15 points. But it became one to watch when Hunter was indicted on charges of campaign corruption related to a quarter-million dollars' worth of charges on his campaign credit card. The 47-page indictment was a stunning read, and though Hunter claimed he was framed by a "corrupt" Department of Justice, he lost the sympathy of many voters when he seemed to blame his wife for the charges. He went on to suggest that his Mexican-Palestinian-American opponent -- a 29-year-old former Obama administration aide who is Christian -- is a Muslim with ties to terrorism who would threaten the security of US soldiers. Given Hunter's xenophobic attacks and his legal jeopardy, this could be the ultimate test for Trump loyalists in one of California's most conservative districts.

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