If you want to know what Republican congressional candidates think about President Donald Trump, you might be out of luck.
Mid-term House elections are often considered a referendum on a first-term president, a dynamic that’s especially true this year. But political veterans say it’s a no-win situation for GOP hopefuls in Southern California to stake out a clear position in support of or opposition to Trump — and many candidates seem to be taking that sentiment to heart.
Of the 11 GOP candidates running for the seats being vacated by retiring Reps. Ed Royce, R-Yorba Linda, and Darrell Issa, R-Vista, only four agreed to rank Trump’s performance on a scale of 1-5. Four others did not respond to any of six Trump-related questions about Trump emailed several times by the Southern California Newspaper Group.
“They aren’t going to come out and denounce him because they don’t want to alienate his supporters. And they don’t want to wholly embrace him because they want to win in November,” said Claremont McKenna University political scientist Jack Pitney, a former GOP congressional aide. “Trump is toxic in the suburbs and he’s probably less popular now than two years ago.”
Royce and Issa won reelection in 2016 and Republicans have the edge in voter registration in those districts. But Trump lost to Hillary Clinton by more than 7-percentage points in both places. While Trump outperformed expectations in some blue-collar areas that often vote Democratic, Pitney and political consultant Mike Madrid both noted that the districts of Royce and Issa feature more college-educated, white-collar voters.
“These are quality-of-life Republicans who have concerns with environmental issues; women’s issues,” said Madrid, who works mostly with Republican candidates. “Additionally, Trump is not a traditional Republican. If you buy into him today, you have no idea what position he’s going to take tomorrow.
“It’s a precarious position for Republican candidates to put themselves in.”
The best-known and most-accomplished GOP candidates in the Royce and Issa districts all declined an invitation to rank Trump’s performance to date. Former state Senate GOP Leader Bob Huff of Diamond Bar, Assemblyman Rocky Chavez, R-Oceanside, and San Diego County Supervisor Kristin Gaspar did not respond inquiries. Orange County Supervisor Shawn Nelson of Fullerton, former Assemblywoman Young Kim of Fullerton and Board of Equalization Member Diane Harkey of Dana Point answered other questions about Trump, but declined to give him a score.
Political consultant Dave Gilliard is working with Kim and Harkey.
“Neither felt comfortable giving a score like that so early in his term,” Gilliard said. Kim, Harkey and Nelson all praised regulatory reforms of the president, with Kim and Nelson also applauding the tax-reform package. When prompted, all three also expressed reservations with some aspects of the presidency.
The four candidates who did offer a score were all strongly supportive of the president.
Two of those running for Royce’s seat, Brea Councilman Steven Vargas and accountant John Cullum, were the only respondents who said they supported Trump from the outset of the 2016 presidential campaigns. Cullum gave Trump the highest score of “5” and Vargas offered a “4,” saying, “There is always room for improvement.”
La Mirada Councilman Andrew Sarega, who initially supported Ted Cruz, and San Juan Capistrano Councilman Brian Maryott, who initially backed Marco Rubio, also gave Trump a “4.” Joshua Schoonover, an attorney who’s never held elected office and is running for Issa’s seat, declined to participate.
Democrats are targeting all four Orange County seats held by Republican Congress members, making the region ground-zero for the effort to flip the 24 GOP seats necessary to take control of the House.
The non-partisan Cook Political Report has handicapped the Royce and Issa districts as “leaning Democrat” in this year’s races. Royce’s district reaches from Orange County into Los Angeles and San Bernardino counties’ while Issa’s straddles the Orange-San Diego county line.
The reelection bid of Rep. Dana Rohrabacher, R-Costa Mesa, is rated a “toss up” by Cook and that of Rep. Mimi Walters, R-Laguna Beach, is “leaning Republican.”
With more than three dozen Democrats mounting bids in the four races, an early approach to sizing up the field was to look at who each supported in the 2016 presidential primary. Ten of the 11 Democrats in the Royce and Issa districts agreed to answer the query by the Southern California News Group. They were evenly divided between Clinton and Bernie Sanders.
But the 2016 primary has largely been left behind in voters’ minds, while Democratic candidates continue to focus attacks on Trump.
In the Royce and Issa districts, Democrats had been tying the incumbents to the president by pointing to votes in support of Trump measures — until those incumbents’ January announcements that they would not seek reelection. Faced with no incumbents in those races, and a subsequent surge of new GOP candidates, the Democratic challengers have continued to attack the president directly but have also increasingly sought to define their own candidacies.
According to Madrid, the large primary field of Republicans will come down to the same sort of candidate identity, not the degree to which they support Trump.
“If there were only two Republicans in a race, with one tied closely to Trump, it could make a difference,” said Madrid. “But in a large field, it’s not going to make any difference what they think. It’s going to come down to their experience in the district, where they stand on local issues and their personal connections. I would recommend candidates campaign on local issues.”
Republican Nelson, hoping win Royce’s post, seems to be embracing that approach.
“It’s intellectually lazy to label a person simply by whether you equate them to another person,” said the second-term county supervisor. “Every one of these races and every one of these districts is unique. I can only be me.
“How about you give me the issue and I’ll tell you where I stand?”
Trump vs. Pelosi
November’s general election presents a broad range of scenarios depending on what happens in June. The top-two style of open primary means voters can cast a ballot for any candidate, regardless of party affiliation, and that the two top finishers advance to November even if they’re from the same party.
Both parties have large primary fields right now — at least six Republican and seven Democrats are running for Royce’s seat, with five from each party vying for Issa’s post. The filing deadline is March 9, meaning two weeks remain for the candidate field to shrink or grow.
If both sides have similar-sized fields, it increases the likelihood of a Republican and Democrat advancing. If one party has just two strong candidates and the other has a large field with support spread somewhat equally, it increases the possibility of a general election with two candidates from the same party.
Currently, the most likely scenario for November is a Republican and a Democrat in both races. GOP consultant Madrid doesn’t see Republicans or GOP-leaning independents voting against the Republican candidate, regardless of their support for Trump. By backing a Democrat, they’d be voting to help Democrats and Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi take control of the House — and possibly launch impeachment proceedings.
“If this is a referendum on Donald Trump, it’s a referendum on whether your prefer Donald Trump to Nancy Pelosi,” Madrid said.
Madrid himself left the presidential ballot blank in 2016 and is supporting Democrat Antonio Villaraigosa for governor. “As a Latino, I can’t support anybody who supports Donald Trump,” he said of his aversion to the GOP governor candidates. But he doesn’t see many other Republicans taking that posture.
A key factor come November will be which party sends the most voters to the polls.
With the current fields for statewide offices, Democrats could wind up with two candidates on the state’s general election ballot for both governor and U.S. Senate, similar to 2016 when two Democrats faced off for U.S. Senate. That would dilute Republican motivation to vote while Democrats could be particularly motivated by those races and a broad dislike of Trump, Pitney said.
“It’s very likely Republican turnout will crater in November,” he said. “Democrats have reason to be optimistic.”
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