Democrats won big in CA but face big challenges nationally

By Ellen O. Tauscher, Special to CALmatters

I learned important lessons in 1996 when I was the Democratic candidate who flipped a Contra Costa-Alameda County congressional seat long held by Republicans.

My team and I sought to put those lessons into practice when I created the Fight Back California Super PAC and launched The California 7 Project.

We believed the seven Republican districts that voted for Hillary Clinton over Donald Trump in 2016 were ripe for flipping in 2018, and we were right.

It wasn’t easy. It took the hard work of dedicated activists too numerous to name, but whose contributions have helped shape history.

We believed that the only way we could be successful was if we started running campaigns early and talked to voters face-to-face about the issues that mattered most to them.

We also knew we needed to educate voters about the records of Republican incumbents. That’s exactly what Democrats did and how we ended up flipping every single one of the seven Clinton-GOP districts in 2018.

The untold story of this election is the role that grassroots organizations and independent Super PACs played in winning each of these seats. Fight Back California was the first one out of the gate.

We began by focusing on deep research, starting in Republican Congressman Jeff Denham’s Turlock-area district to understand what voters cared most about.

By late summer of 2017, activists in district-based organizations such as Flip the 49th and Indivisible began registering voters, were knocking on doors and calling people to educate them about the terrible records of these GOP incumbents.

As House Republicans took bad vote after bad vote on healthcare, consumer protection and taxes in the summer and fall of 2017, Fight Back California ran ads calling out each of “The California 7” for failing their constituents.

Soon after, a joint field effort organized by Tom Steyer’s NextGen America and the California Labor Federation took root in all seven districts. During the course of the campaign, they talked to hundreds of thousands of voters.

In early 2018, when it looked as if the huge cast of Democratic candidates in the open primary could result in two Republicans advancing to the general election, Fight Back California released polling that helped thin the fields so that we would advance Democrats to the general election in every one of the seven districts.

In Republican Congressman Dana Rohrabacher’s Orange County district, where the threat of a Democratic shut-out was greatest, we worked with House Majority PAC and ran ads against former Republican Assemblyman Scott Baugh. That helped Democrat Harley Rouda get into the general election that he ultimately won.

When the general election began in earnest, more California-based groups emerged to continue the grassroots outreach.

Courage Campaign partnered with Flip the 14 to text and call voters in Republican Congressman’s Steve Knight’s district in Los Angeles and Ventura counties and in four Republican-held Orange County districts.

In Republican Congressman David Valadao’s district in Kings, Kern, Tulare and Fresno counties, activists from Communities for a New California and Valley Forward contacted over 40,000 voters. They deserve much credit for Democrat T.J. Cox’s narrow victory over Valadao.

In each of the seven districts, California Democrats worked for over 18 months. We used discipline, communications, and funding from small and large donors to help our seven Democratic candidates get over the finish line in 2018.

Rest assured, we will do the same to help our seven new Democratic members of Congress defend their seats.

We had hoped to do better this year, and we came close.

Republican Congressman Devin Nunes of Tulare County won by 44 percentage points in the last midterm election, in 2014. This year, we gave him reason to sweat.

Fight Back California and grassroots groups communicated with over 75,000 voters in Nunes’ district. The Democrats’ candidate, Fresno County Deputy District Attorney Andrew Janz, came within 6 points of victory.

Nunes is on notice. We’ll be back. More accurately, we’re not leaving.

Ellen Tauscher represented Contra Costa and Alameda counties in Congress from 1997-2009, and is chair of Fight Back CA SuperPAC, [email protected]. She wrote this commentary for CALmatters.

Latest in Commentary

California State House


California’s big educational dilemma


California legislators should take a breath on housing ‘crisis.’ Looking at you, Scott Wiener

California State House


Voters face hundreds of local tax measures

Workers paint a wall on a Factory OS construction project in West Oakland. Photo by Anne Wernikoff for CalMatters


California must get serious about housing supply in 2020

California State House


State budget depends on the rich

Bernie Sanders, left, and Donald Trump


Voters beware of our populist threat. It comes from the right and left