RIVERBANK, Calif. — No state is more critical to the battle for the House in 2018 than California, and Democrats here rushed last week to tear into vulnerable Republicans over their support for the health care repeal and replace bill.
Yet in a sign of how difficult it will be for Democrats to win back a House majority — even when armed with high-caliber ammunition — doubts about the lasting political potency of the Affordable Health Care Act already are emerging.
Within days of the bill’s passage, focus in Washington spun to the ouster of FBI Director James Comey – and then to Trump’s disclosure of allegedly classified information to Russian officials and the appointment of a special prosecutor — while Senate amendments to the health care bill appeared likely to recast the debate long before voters turn their attention to the 2018 campaign.
And the seven congressional districts targeted by the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee hardly qualify as low-hanging fruit. While Hillary Clinton won all of them, voters in these California districts have remained largely conservative in their overall voting behavior, according to an analysis prepared exclusively for POLITICO by Darry Sragow and Rob Pyers of the California Target Book, which handicaps races in the state.
“You have to remember something,” said Mike Madrid, a Republican consultant in California. “The Democrats were absolutely convinced that running against Trump down-ticket was going to create the biggest Democratic blue wave of all time, and it did not work at all … What we’re really seeing in America right now is incredibly intense, wired up Democratic base that’s lighting its hair on fire and driving the media narrative, but it’s not driving polling data, and you’re not seeing it in increased turnout in elections.”
In the week after the House vote, liberal activists confronted Republican lawmakers in Orange County and the Central Valley during the House recess. Democrats aired radio ads in Southern California targeting Republican lawmakers who supported the health care bill, while Democrat Harley Rouda made headlines with an online ad attacking Rep. Dana Rohrabacher.
But even in a state that embraced Obamacare more fully than any other, reason for skepticism hangs heavy. Despite the Democratic Party’s statewide dominance and Hillary Clinton’s lopsided victory over Trump in California, Democrats made no House gains here in 2016.
“Democrats are guilty of excessive optimism if they think they’re going to wipe the floor in next year’s elections with the California House Republicans who voted to repeal and replace Obamacare,” Willie Brown, the former San Francisco mayor and Democratic state Assembly speaker, wrote in the San Francisco Chronicle.
While predicting Republicans “will catch grief in their districts over the next few days,” Brown wrote soon after the vote, Senate amendments will likely render the House vote “a very distant memory” in 2018.
For Democrats, California gains are essential to any hopes of capturing the House. Of the 59 Republican-held districts House Democrats plan to target in 2018, seven are in California.
Returning home to the Central Valley to face a battering at a community meeting in this small city last week, Rep. Jeff Denham cast the health care bill as a work in progress and drew jeers when he said it was the product of a “bipartisan” process, despite the fact no Democrats supported it. On the sidelines, activists plotted their next meetings and promised to make health care a salient issue in 2018.
But Denham and his Republican peers may not be as vulnerable as the presidential numbers suggest. In five of the seven districts, voters opposed a school construction bond measure that passed statewide, and voters in every district went against a bid to repeal the death penalty. A prescription drug pricing initiative that Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders championed last year failed by a wide margin in each of the districts, according to the California Target Book analysis.
One California Republican, Rep. Darrell Issa, was nearly toppled in 2016, and Denham won by less than 5 percentage points. But GOP Rep. Steve Knight carried his district by a more comfortable margin and four other targeted Republicans won by more than 10 percentage points, performances that signaled they were capable of running well ahead of the national ticket.
Of the Republican lawmakers’ votes on health care, Sragow said, “Presumably they know their own districts.”
For many Democrats who recall their own party’s losses amid health care controversies in the 1990s and again in 2010, the prospect of Republicans escaping unscathed next year remains implausible. These Democrats are buoyed, too, by Trump’s unpopularity and the historic success in midterm elections of the party not occupying the White House.
“Can you look back over history and deny that health care is a very explosive and toxic issue?” asked Garry South, a Democratic consultant in California. “Because it certainly was in 1994 and it certainly was in 2010.”
South described vulnerable California Republicans voting for the health care bill as “one of the most stark examples I’ve ever seen of politicians walking the plank,” adding, “Any Republican in California who is not concerned about 2018, you know, has their head up where the sun doesn’t shine.”
Within minutes of the health care measure’s passage, Democratic challengers went on the offensive. Katie Porter, who is challenging Orange County-based Rep. Mimi Walters, sent a fundraising appeal with a photograph of Walters and Trump standing together after the vote, calling it a “picture worth a thousand words.”
Josh Harder, who is challenging Denham, recounted the large proportion of district residents on Medicaid, saying “every single person in my district knows someone who’s going to get hurt.” And Eddie Kurtz, president and executive director of the liberal advocacy group Courage Campaign, said it is “my job to make sure [the health care vote] isn’t a flash in the pan, that it is hung around these folks’ necks every way possible.”
“If it doesn’t have consequences for all of them,” Kurtz said, “our side has just proven to be completely inept.”
Still, Kurtz said he cautioned his staff, many of them young progressives not steeped in the history of California GOP districts, that “it’s not like these [Republican] folks have gone unchallenged.” Many Republicans gained their seats promising to repeal Obamacare, which remains unpopular in many conservative districts.
Dave Gilliard, a strategist for four of California’s seven targeted Republicans — Denham, Walters, Issa and Rep. Ed Royce — said “all four of them had campaigns for re-election saying they were going to repeal Obamacare in favor of something better … They all came to the conclusion that this was better than Obamacare, and that was what they campaigned for re-election on.”
Gilliard called concerns about damage to Republicans from the health care vote “overblown,” saying political fallout would have been worse had Republicans withheld their votes.
“When you take over both houses of Congress and the White House, Republican voters expect some action, they expect movement on their issues,” he said.
Republican and Democratic strategists alike expect the long-term effect of the House vote to be softened by anticipated amendments to the bill in the Senate. The Congressional Budget Office estimated an earlier version of the bill could have resulted in 24 million more people going without insurance within a decade; Republicans contest criticism that the bill would undermine health care access for people with preexisting conditions.
In California, which dramatically expanded its Medicaid rolls under Obamacare, the effect could be especially severe. According to the Legislative Analyst’s Office, 4.6 million Californians had obtained Affordable Care Act-funded coverage as of fall 2016, with large populations of enrollees in California’s conservative, inland reaches.
In Riverbank last week, Denham suggested House Republicans from California had considered the potential fallout in their home state, discussing with one another the likelihood that California would not opt out of requiring health insurance companies to cover people with pre-existing conditions.
“Do you think California’s ever going to opt out?” Denham asked an activist questioning him on Tuesday. “Do you have concerns that [Democratic Gov.] Jerry Brown would try to opt out? … I look at every vote from a state perspective and a Valley perspective.”
Following the health care vote, Cook Political Report downgraded Republicans’ prospects in 20 districts — including four in California. Gilliard acknowledged Democrats “are doing a very good job of recruiting candidates based on all this energy on their side,” while left-leaning groups have reported raising millions of dollars in the days following the vote.
The organizational and fundraising lift that the health care vote has given Democrats could have a lasting effect in 2018, but Paul Mitchell of Political Data Inc., the voter data firm used by both Republicans and Democrats in California, said “it’s kind of a fool’s errand to say what’s going to be the topic du jour in 16 months.”
Despite majority support for Obamacare in California, health care as an issue ranked below jobs and the economy, education and immigration, according to a January poll by the Public Policy Institute of California.
Before Senate amendments are taken up and the bill is signed into law, said longtime California pollster Mark DiCamillo, director of the Berkeley IGS Poll, “it’s way too early” to assess the electoral impact.
Unlike the economy, he said, “Issues like health care kind of go up and down with the news cycles. It depends on what happens next.”