California Election 2018: Updates and Analysis
Bill Essayli says his candidacy “destroys the Democrat Party’s narrative.”
That’s not because of his policy positions, though his campaign against Riverside Democratic Assemblywoman Sabrina Cervantes is built around his opposition to the recent increase in California’s gas tax.
It’s also not because he’s 32, though the state’s Grand Old Party, which has assembled in San Diego this weekend for its spring convention, might benefit from some young blood.
It’s because he’s a Muslim American. Or as he likes to put it, an American Muslim. As the only candidate running against Cervantes, a fellow millennial, he’s guaranteed to face her in the November general election. If he wins then, he will be, he says, the first Muslim Assembly member in California history. And a Republican, no less.
“I’m not running as a Muslim candidate,” he told an early-bird crowd gathered Saturday to hear from the “New Voices of the Republican Party” over breakfast. “My religion drives my moral compass, but it’s not everything that I am. I’m an American that happens to be Muslim.”
Instead, Essayli, who represents one of the California Republican Party’s most likely pick-up opportunities in this year’s legislative races, is running largely as an opponent of the gas tax. He’s not alone. As California’s opposition party prepares for what many analysts predict will be punishing national midterm elections—with Democrats expected to turn out in force against an unpopular president—the state GOP is doing its best to keep things local.
The media “likes to talk about Trump,” says Essayli, who declined to say whether he voted for the president but supports most of his policies. “But I’m not running for president. I’m running for [Assembly of] California, and I do think these issues affect us more than anything Trump says or tweets about.”
Namely, he’s focused on repealing the increase in car and gasoline taxes that state lawmakers passed last year to provide an additional $5.2 billion for road repairs and transportation infrastructure. Essayli, a former federal prosecutor, also wants to roll back some of the state’s recent changes in criminal-justice as well its “sanctuary” policy, which limits local and state law-enforcement agencies’ cooperation with federal immigration authorities.
Those two lines of attack have been consistent at the weekend’s convention. After the breakfast, party members convened at two policy meetings, one focused on the politics of repealing the gas tax and the other on legal issues related to sanctuary laws.
“The Democrats have served us two wonderful issues,” said San Diego Republican Party Chairman Tony Krvaric, who is playing host this weekend. “I’m telling every candidate: When you run for office, you should come out—and you’ll be on the right side of the majority of voters—with ‘repeal the gas tax’ and ‘oppose the sanctuary state.’ ”
That appears to be the party’s strategy to defend vulnerable congressional seats, keep the Democrats from reclaiming a supermajority in the state Legislature and make even a halfway plausible play for governor. But Essayli says focusing on local and state issues that affect voters’ pocketbooks is the secret to the party’s longterm appeal.
“Millennials, more than anyone, don’t have brand loyalty,” he said. “I don’t think they are going to be beholden to any party if there is a compelling alternative.”
An attack ad is called “breathtakingly gross.” A political scheme is declared “over the line.” And one award-winning journalist is called a “hack” while the cameras roll. Here’s a quick recap of what happened this week across California’s 53 congressional districts.
1. Blue wave or not, Dems are making it rain
How to sum up the latest congressional fundraising numbers published by the Federal Elections Commission?
One Republican consultant did it for a reporter with five words: “We’re getting our asses kicked.”
As Politico reports, Democratic challengers outraised Republican incumbent members of Congress in 92 districts across the country, a financing mismatch with “no historical precedent.” Of those 92 Democrats, three in California raised more than $3 million: Josh Harder, Katie Hill and Harley Rouda.
The day after the lopsided finance figures went live, the national GOP responded. In the north Central Valley district represented by Republican Jeff Denham, the National Republican Congressional Committee dropped an $800,000 attack ad against Democrat Josh Harder.
Expect more to come.
But it’s not just the size of the haul that counts. CALmatters’ Dan Morain crunched the numbers and found that the Democrats running in the seven Republican districts that voted for Hillary Clinton in 2016 are vastly outraising their GOP counterparts among donors who give less than $200. That has value beyond the dollars and cents, writes Morain. Popularity among small-dollar donors can often indicate where the grassroots enthusiasm lies.
2. Speaking of getting hosed…
If Proposition 6 doesn’t pass, Republican congressional candidate Diane Harkey is going to need a new pair of shoes.
At a rally in support of the state ballot measure, which would roll back a recent gas tax increase, she warned that higher prices at the pump will incentivize more Californians to use other forms of transportation.
Though she had a different way of putting it.
“It’s forcing you to take bikes, get on trains, hose off at the depot and try to get to work,” she said, in a video captured by a KPBS reporter. “That does not work. That does not work with my hair and heels. I cannot do that and I will not do that.”
The event, which also included state Senate Minority Leader Patricia Bates, a Republican from Laguna Niguel, will kick off a statewide “Yes on 6” tour. They’ll make their way across California by bus.
3. Rouda and Rohrabacher’s debate squared
Republican Rep. Dana Rohrabacher and Democratic businessman Harley Rouda locked horns in two consecutive debates this week. One was the formal discussion focused on policy issues of national importance, the other was a pre-event fight about cribsheets.
According to a summary by Voice of OC, the proper debate, hosted by InsideOC’s Rick Reiff, touched on Russian interference in the 2016 election, whether “Dreamers” (undocumented immigrants brought to the country as minors) should be granted permanent legal status, and whether undocumented immigrants should be given access to Medicare.
Though Rohrabacher won his last election by nearly 17 percentage points in a district where registered Republicans far outnumber Democrats, recent polls show the two candidates in a dead heat.
Rouda, not surprisingly, used his final statement to ask certain voters to put their partisan allegiances aside.
‘More than anything, forget if…there’s a D or an R next to either of our names,” he said. “Vote for the person who has the character that you deserve in Congress.”
While the head-to-head won’t be aired on PBS SoCal until Sunday at 5 p.m., a pre-debate debate caught on tape is drawing attention.
Apparently it all came down to a disagreement over whether the candidates were allowed to bring prepared notes. Rouda’s staff claimed that Rohrabacher was in violation of an agreement that his campaign had arrived at with the InsideOC staff beforehand. Reiff, the show’s host, said he did not recall making such a rule.
“He doesn’t remember it and you do—that sounds familiar, doesn’t it?” said Rohrabacher, in an apparent reference to the sexual assault allegations against Justice Brett Kavanaugh.
Rohrabacher was ultimately allowed to keep his notes and though Rouda did not follow through with a threat to pull out of the event altogether, feelings were still raw among some of his campaign staffers. Communications Director Jack d’Annibale ended the exchange by calling Reiff, who shared a 1987 Pulitzer Prize at the Akron Beacon Journal, “a hack.”
4. Too close for comfort
Last fall, a public affairs firm working against the repeal of a recent increase in the state gas tax discussed the possibility of “targeting” vulnerable Republican congressional candidates with the state’s transportation agency.
In emails uncovered by the Associated Press, a partner with the Sacramento-based Bicker, Castillo & Fairbanks notified the state agency’s deputy communications secretary that the firm was planning to publish a series of newspaper opinion pieces going after Jeff Denham, Steve Knight, Mimi Walters and Darrell Issa. Issa has since announced that he will not be seeking re-election.
The agency spokesperson responded by suggesting the agency help find an author in Issa’s district. The agency did not follow through with the suggestion. Still, that level of coordination between an advocacy organization and a state agency is “way over the line,” Jessica Levinson, a professor at Loyola Law School, told the A.P.
“I don’t want to say it’s a smoking gun, but that is so much more explicit than I ever would have predicted they would be,” she said.
5. “Remarkably, breathtakingly gross”
And it wouldn’t be a roundup of California congressional news without the latest unseemliness out of California’s 50th.
This week, Rep. Duncan Hunter Jr., the San Diego County Republican under federal indictment for dipping into campaign cash for extravagant personal use, quadrupled down on his unfounded claim that his Democratic opponent represents a threat to national security.
In downtown San Diego, Hunter Sr., the embattled congressman’s father and a former member of Congress himself, held a press conference in front of the USS Midway Museum suggesting that Ammar Campa-Najjar would “pass along military information” to his Palestinian family members.
I’m here with former congressman Duncan Hunter Sr, father of the incumbent congressman on California’s 50th district, in front of the USS Mission in San Diego as Mr. Hunter repeats his son’s attacks on Democratic opponent Ammar Campa-Najjar.
Separately, three retired Marine Corps generals wrote a letter warning that Campa-Najjar “represents a national security risk.” The letter was distributed to voters by the Hunter campaign.
Campa-Najjar, who obtained a federal security clearance as a former Department of Labor employee, is of mixed Mexican and Palestinian descent. Though his grandfather was a high-ranking member of the terrorist organization responsible for the Munich Olympic games massacre, Campa-Najjar has said that he never met his grandfather and has repeatedly denounced him.
It remains to be seen whether Hunter’s strategy—questioning his political opponent’s religious faith (Campa-Najjar is a Christian, for what it’s worth) and dredging up his dark family history—will convince the Republican-leaning members of his district to overlook his own legal woes and alleged ethical missteps. But outside San Diego County, Hunter’s tactics have been described as “breathtaking”—and not in a good way.
As one Daily Beast reporter put it on Twitter, “Even in this insane political time, a congressman who grifted veterans to buy golf supplies accusing his Arab Christian opponent of being a terrorist is remarkably, breathtakingly gross.”
Which must be a pretty high bar.
In less than two weeks, Californians decide who will lead public education in the state. Tony Thurmond and Marshall Tuck, both Democrats, are vying to be the next Superintendent of Public Instruction, in a race that has drawn tens of millions of dollars in campaign money and evolved into a proxy battle between organized labor and education reformers.
Thurmond, a current member of the Assembly and former social worker, is backed by the state’s teachers unions. And Tuck, a former executive at a nonprofit public school partnership and a charter school network, has the support of nonprofit charter school advocates.
CALmatters’ reporters interviewed both candidates for our in-depth voter guide. Here’s a video comparing their positions on charter schools, teacher tenure, why they’re qualified for the job, and the issues facing California’s public schools.
All of this in less than 10 minutes.
Candidates Tony Thurmond and Marshall Tuck discuss the future of California schools and why they are best qualified to be the next Superintendent of Public Instruction.
Learn more about the candidates and watch their full interviews on our in-depth elections guide.
In any campaign, big money players get the most attention. But Democrats running in California’s seven most competitive congressional districts are vastly outraising Republicans in small-dollar donations, according to a review of campaign money compiled by the Center for Responsive Politics.
It’s a display of voter enthusiasm that can pay long-term dividends for beneficiaries.
Overall, Democratic candidates running in the seven GOP-held seats where Hillary Clinton beat Donald Trump in 2016 have raised $40 million to the Republicans’ $18.7 million. That’s a stunning turn of fortune from 2016 when Republicans running in those seats raised $17.7 million to the Democrats’ $5.7 million.
Democrats running in those seven districts raised $6.4 million in donations of less than $200, almost 10 times the $671,000 raised by Republicans through the first three quarters of 2018, campaign finance reports show.
“There has never been anything like this,” said Democratic strategist Bill Burton, who is involved in several congressional races in California. “Regular grassroots Americans are saying they want change in dozens of races across the country.”
- Altogether, Republican Congressman Jeff Denham of Turlock raised $4.1 million to Democratic challenger Josh Harder’s $6 million.
- Only 1.6 percent of Denham’s money is in small-dollar donations, while nearly 18 percent of Harder’s came in small amounts.
- Republican Congressman Steve Knight of Palmdale raised $2.1 million, but less than 2 percent has come in small increments.
- Knight’s Democratic challenger Katie Hill raised $6.26 million, including 21 percent in increments of less than $200.
Republicans have used outside spending funded by wealthy donors as an equalizer, although Democratic groups and funders including the League of Conservation Voters and New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg are spending heavily to flip seats.
Donors who give less than $200 aren’t identified by name in federal disclosures, and may not live in the candidates’ district. But candidates know who they are, collect their email addresses and regularly send them solicitations.
Not all donors can afford to give the maximum $2,700 under federal law. But candidates can return to small-dollar donors multiple times to help fuel their campaign efforts, ranging from television ads to get-out-the-vote drives. They also know that people who give money vote and volunteer, if not for them then for candidates in their home districts.
The phenomenon extends to districts where no Democratic expert thinks Democratic challengers have any prayer of winning.
Democrat Audrey Denney has outraised Republican Congressman Doug LaMalfa of Richvale in a deep red district in far Northern California, $888,000 to LaMalfa’s $810,000. Almost 40 percent of Denney’s money, $350,000, has come in small increments, compared with 2.8 percent of LaMalfa’s money.
There are Republican exceptions, much of it Trump-related:
- Little known Republican Omar Navarro raised $546,000 in small sums in his long-shot challenge against Democratic Congresswoman Maxine Waters of Los Angeles. She and Trump regularly tangle.
- Tulare County Congressman Devin Nunes has used his close alliance with Trump to raise his profile nationally, and to raise money—$10.5 million for this election, almost half of it in small-dollar donations. Challenger Andrew Janz has raised 54 percent of his $7.2 million from small donors in the first half of the year.
- Republican Congressman Tom McClintock of Elk Grove raised 24 percent of his $1.5 million from small donors. McClintock, whose tenure in office dates to 1982, has cultivated his list of GOP regulars for decades.
Overall, however, challenger Jessica Morse has outraised McClintock, pulling in $2.8 million.