House Departures Give Democrats Hope of Winning GOP Strongholds

(Bloomberg) -- After a quarter century of easily winning re-election, California Republican Ed Royce was facing an unusually competitive contest this year in a U.S. House district that has swung from solidly conservative to increasingly Democratic.

Royce, 66, decided last month to retire from Congress to focus this year on his role as chairman of the Foreign Affairs Committee, giving new hope to nine Democrats vying for the seat -- a dynamic seen in a growing number of Republican-held districts nationally. The Democrats are campaigning against President Donald Trump and GOP policies, including the tax cuts Congress passed in December and Trump’s policies on immigration.

House Departures Give Democrats Hope of Winning GOP Strongholds

“Whether it’s the middle class, whether it’s the immigrants, whether it’s the women and children, these are all people who are still being attacked -- whether it’s Ed Royce or the Republican Party,” said Democratic candidate Mai Khanh Tran, a pediatrician who is running for the first time.

Winning competitive open Republican districts, like Royce’s outside Los Angeles, is a crucial component of the Democratic strategy for taking control of the House in November, when all 435 seats will be up for election. A surge of GOP departures -- 33 House Republicans have announced they won’t run for re-election -- is helping increase the odds for Democrats, who need to win a net total of 24 seats to gain the majority in the House.

Targeted Seats

Democrats see some of their strongest opportunities to pick up seats in six districts where Hillary Clinton prevailed in 2016 and a Republican member of Congress is stepping down. That includes seats held by Royce, Ileana Ros-Lehtinen of Florida, Republican Darrell Issa of California, Patrick Meehan of Pennsylvania, David Reichert of Washington and Martha McSally of Arizona.

The contests are drawing multiple Democratic candidates who have proven adept at raising money. A Bloomberg analysis of Federal Election Commission data found that Democrats have raised $23.3 million in 12 competitive open seats, more than three times as much as their Republican opponents.

In the Senate, where the GOP holds a 51 to 49 majority, Democrats’ chance of wresting control may be more difficult, as 26 Democratic-held seats are on the ballot compared with eight Republican seats.

Losing control of either chamber would make it nearly impossible for Trump to push his agenda through Congress and increase the likelihood of new investigations into his administration.

Based on historical trends, Democrats can expect to do particularly well in open House seats.

“In similar situations in the past 25 years, when incumbents from the president’s party have retired in midterms from districts that were not carried by that president, the incumbent party has batted zero for 20 trying to defend those seats,” said David Wasserman, an analyst at the nonpartisan Cook Political Report. “That’s a really bad omen for Republicans trying to defend districts like Pat Meehan’s or Ileana Ros-Lehtinen’s or Darrell Issa’s of Ed Royce’s."

‘More Attractive’

When there’s a retirement in a Democratic-leaning district “it makes it all the more attractive,” said John Lapp, a strategist who served as executive director of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, the campaign arm for Democrats in the House, when the party won control of the chamber in 2006. He said he suspects there are “many retirements” yet to be announced.

Incumbents benefit from name recognition, more media coverage, deeper ties to the community and significant fundraising advantages.

Republicans counter that most of the retirements are in solid red districts. Representative Steve Stivers, an Ohio Republican and chairman of the National Republican Congressional Committee, told reporters Thursday that GOP candidates will gain favor with voters by touting the party’s December tax overhaul.

“We’re ready for 2018, although history shows it will be a battle,” he said.

Demographic Shift

In Royce’s southern California district, which after being redrawn twice includes parts of Orange, San Bernardino and Los Angeles counties, his constituents have gone from majority white to 34 percent Hispanic and 28 percent Asian over his 25 years in office, a shift that favors Democrats.

Democrats have also closed the gap on registration -- Republicans went from a 7 percentage point registration advantage before the 2012 presidential election to a 2 point advantage in 2016.

The Cook Political Report, which had classified Royce’s seat as leaning Republican, said after the retirement announcement that it’s now tilting toward Democrats.

Royce won in 2016 even as Clinton soundly defeated Trump there. Royce has remained popular by appealing to a diverse group of voters, being accessible and attending cultural events in the district, said Fred Whitaker, chairman of the Orange County Republican Party.

“He is really the model congressman because he reaches out to all communities within the district, not just folks who would be his natural constituency or base,” Whitaker said.

Five Republicans are running for the seat. Whitaker said several are strong fundraisers, including Young Kim, a former state assemblywoman who has Royce’s endorsement.

Whitaker pointed to another potential hurdle for Democrats in California: the state’s primary system in which candidates from both parties appear on the same ballot and the top two vote winners advance to the general election, regardless of party. If Democrats fail to narrow the field between now and the June 5 primary in Royce district, they could split the vote, creating an opening for Republicans, he said.

“It’s very, very possible we end up having two Republicans go to November,” he said.

Competing Democrats

The Democratic race is competitive. Five candidates have raised more than $280,000 each: Tran; health insurance executive Andy Thorburn; Navy veteran and philanthropist Gil Cisneros; chemistry professor Phil Janowicz; and former Obama administration official Sam Jammal.

Thorburn leads overall fundraising with $2.5 million, while Tran has been endorsed by Emily’s List, which seeks to elect female candidates, and Cisneros has been backed by several members of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus.

Lapp said the number of Democrats on the ballot is a good thing and will help the party.

"There’s always the worry that a divisive, bloody primary could weaken a nominee,” Lapp said. “I take a different view, that primaries are great battlegrounds for the strongest Democratic candidate.”

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