This Californian Has Democrats Dreamin’ of Blue Wave

(Bloomberg Opinion) -- Candidates like Katie Hill are making Democrats more and more confident that they will take control of the House of Representatives in the midterm election on Tuesday.

Hill is a young, dynamic woman, with deep roots in her California district north of Los Angeles, who beat a more established Democrat in a primary. Now a surge of enthusiasm and money is giving her a chance to knock off a Republican incumbent who once looked fairly safe.

She’s the 31-year-old daughter of a cop and a nurse, and was the head of one of California’s largest providers of services for the homeless. Like many other Democratic challengers, she got into politics because of antipathy to Donald Trump. Also like others, she argues that her energy and background are suited to the times. “We bring something to the table,” she said in an interview last weekend in her Stevenson Ranch office.

Hill and her generation have raised Democratic hopes of winning more House seats than in any midterm election in over 40 years. Democrats need 23 new seats to control the House; their best recent midterm pickup was a 30-seat gain in 2006.

She’s also a reminder that for the first time in decades, the late-night returns from California will matter. There are as many as eight Republican-held seats in play in the state, seven of which were carried by Hillary Clinton in 2016. The other is represented by Duncan Hunter, who is under indictment on charges of wire fraud and using campaign funds for personal items. He’s a slight favorite in a heavily Republican San Diego district.

Democrats, who already hold 39 of 53 House seats in the most populous state, believe that two, possibly three, pickups are in the bag. Republicans hope to hold their losses there, but face tough contests in once-friendly Orange County where there are lots of disaffected moderate women and growing minority populations.

Hill faces different challenges in a district that stretches from Ventura to Simi Valley, home of the Ronald Reagan Library, to Santa Clarita. It’s less affluent and has fewer college-educated voters than most of the competitive California seats.

Clinton carried the district, but its Republican leanings gave it to Mitt Romney in 2012. The two-term Republican House incumbent, Steve Knight, overcame the Trump drag in 2016 and won by six percentage points.

He also triumphed in one of California’s nonpartisan primaries in June, winning more than 50 percent of the vote. Hill won the right to oppose him in November with 20 percent, enough for a surprise second-place finish.

For Knight, who’s stronger than most imperiled incumbents despite pro-Trump votes for the top-heavy Republican tax cut and repealing the Affordable Care Act, the primary may have been the high-water mark. Bill Carrick, a veteran California Democratic strategist, raves about Hill’s campaign. In the third quarter, she raised an astonishing $3.8 million, eight times more than the incumbent.

She has more than 4,000 volunteers who’ve knocked on 350,000 doors. There were 1,300 of them fanning out over the district last weekend and the campaign expects more this weekend. I ran into a Dreamworks studio producer at the Los Angeles airport who said she’d driven up to volunteer for a candidate she doesn’t know.

“We’re going to win it on the ground,” Hill said.

The air game isn’t suffering, either. Hill ran one of the year’s most striking commercials, shot as she climbed a vertiginous rock face in Texas Canyon while declaring, “It’s not as hard as running for Congress.” In one of the country’s most expensive House races, outside groups are pouring in millions for both sides, including $4.5 million for Hill from Michael R. Bloomberg, the owner of Bloomberg LP and a major supporter of Democratic candidates this year.

She’s a mainstream progressive on the economy and favors gun control, though she takes care to note that she was born into a gun-owning family and possesses one herself. Health care is the biggest issue, she said, advocating improvements in Obamacare rather than replacing it with a government-run, single-payer system as many on her party’s left flank prefer.

She also knows how to play defense. The district is laden with military bases and aerospace contractors who’ve had an important champion in Knight, a member of the House Armed Services Committee. Hill has promised to seek a seat on that same committee if she’s elected.

There are a sizable number of non-college-educated white voters in the district, not a natural Democratic constituency. Hill says she’s wooing them with her advocacy of affordable health care.

The district is about 37 percent Latino and almost 8 percent African-American. But Hispanics cast only 23 percent of the votes in the last presidential contest and midterm turnout is a chronic problem for Democrats. Hill contends that her enthusiastic grassroots campaign will overcome those perils.

“We feel like there will be a bigger turnout next week than in 2016,” she said.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Albert R. Hunt is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering politics and policy. He was the executive editor of Bloomberg News, before which he was a reporter, bureau chief and executive Washington editor at the Wall Street Journal.

©2018 Bloomberg L.P.