California Love: Why You and Trump Will Be Up Late on Election Night

Democratic congressional candidate Katie Porter (CA-45) waves at a 2018 mid-term elections rally on Oct. 4, 2018, in Fullerton, California. The event, at California State University, Fullerton, was led by former U.S. Vice President Joe Biden and was held for five California Democratic congressional candidates.
SourceMario Tama/Getty

California Love: Why You and Trump Will Be Up Late on Election Night

By Nick Fouriezos


Because the Los Angeles area has five crucial seats up for grabs.

By Nick Fouriezos

From the 19th-century gold rush to modern Hollywood, California has long been cast as America’s land of opportunity. This election night, the Golden State will represent the hopes and dreams of voters and political obsessives from coast to coast.

That’s because five Los Angeles–area congressional districts may dictate control of the House of Representatives for the next two years, a pivot point for President Donald Trump and his agenda. The races remain competitive in the final days, with four districts surrounding LA — the 25th, based in northern Los Angeles County, and the 39th, 45th and 48th slicing through Orange County — listed as “toss-ups” in our exclusive OZY election forecasting model in partnership with Republican data firm 0ptimus. And although we calculate Democrats that have an 80 percent chance to pick up the 49th, Republican Darrell Issa narrowly won this coastal territory cruising down toward San Diego just two years ago.

With Democrats needing to flip at least 23 seats to retake the House, those five up for grabs could be instrumental. “Winning them all would mean the Democrats had a great night,” says Scott Tranter, an 0ptimus co-founder who hails from the 48th. If Republicans sweep the quintet, he says, it “likely means they barely hold on to the House, or only a few-seat minority.” That would be a momentous pull for the GOP, considering the OZY/0ptimus model gives Republicans just a 2.5 percent chance of keeping the lower chamber, down a percentage point from last week. Still, anxious East Coast voters likely won’t know the results as they head to bed. “California and specifically Orange, Riverside and San Diego counties are known for having drawn-out vote counting processes,” Tranter says, adding it could take “days or weeks” to figure out who controls the House if it comes down to these California races. 

More than two-thirds of Californians disapprove of Trump. The dislike is mutual.

A fascinating cast of characters dominates this handful of races. In the 45th, Republican incumbent investment banker Mimi Walters faces Katie Porter, a law professor who co-authored a book with Elizabeth Warren. In the neighboring 39th, Gil Cisneros, a laid-off factory worker turned lottery winner and Democratic philanthropist, faces Young Kim, the first Korean-American Republican to serve in the California Statehouse. Military and police veteran Republican Rep. Steve Knight is challenged by homeless advocate Katie Hill in the 25th. And in the 48th, Ronald Reagan speechwriter and frequent Vladimir Putin apologist Dana Rohrabacher — his own Republican Majority Leader and fellow Californian Kevin McCarthy once joked that he believed Rohrbacher is on Putin’s payroll — is opposed by Harley Rouda, a Republican businessman turned Democrat who tells supporters that Trump’s election “has changed everything.” 


Indeed, the president looms large here. “This election truly is a referendum on Donald Trump,” says Sherry Bebitch Jeffe, a University of Southern California political scientist who has studied politics in the Los Angeles area for decades. While conservatives elsewhere might tie Democrats to spooky lefties like George Soros and California’s Nancy Pelosi, liberals in California are brandishing Republicans as rubber stamps for the president. More than two-thirds of Californians disapprove of Trump. The dislike is mutual, as Trump often rails against California in his speeches.

Instead of making this about Trump, Republicans want to make the races about taxes — but not necessarily the new federal tax cut law. Also on the ballot this year in California is a measure that would repeal a state gas tax hike enacted last year to fund road, bridge and transit repairs, while also making it harder to raise taxes on Californians in the future. Republican operatives are hoping anti-tax fervor will drive conservatives to the polls and perhaps tip some close House races.

Meanwhile, Democratic challengers are raising heaps of money, a surprise considering these districts “are often gold mines” for incumbents, Tranter says. Look at Rohrabacher, who typically has a financial advantage but has been outraised by more than $5 million since the beginning of the general election in June. The growth of Los Angeles satellite cities such as Irving, Santa Ana, Huntington Beach and Anaheim has brought an influx of multiethnic, middle-class voters “that has really diversified this historically Caucasian GOP stronghold,” Tranter says. The area has a robust Republican lineage — even Richard Nixon’s beachside retreat in San Clemente, known during his presidency as the Western White House, is in the 49th.

But Hillary Clinton won each of these swing districts in 2016. Trends here mirror those across the country, as suburban voters become more Democratic and rural voters become more Republican. Still, California carries a particular symbolic resonance for Trump, as the leftward-shifting state resists the president’s policies on immigration and the environment. And the state’s 4 million vote margin for Clinton in 2016 more than accounted for Trump’s popular vote deficit. “He perceives California as denying him at least partially his legitimacy as a president,” Jeffe says.

Come Tuesday, it could deny him a Republican Congress too.