IRVINE, Calif. — Democrats boasted as recently as a few months ago that GOP Rep. Mimi Walters was as good as gone.
Hillary Clinton carried her educated Orange County district comfortably in 2016. Then Walters backed some of the most polarizing planks of President Donald Trump’s agenda: repealing Obamacare and a tax cut bill that scrapped popular deductions used by her constituents.
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Yet six months before Election Day, the 55-year-old former investment banker and other members of California’s endangered GOP congressional delegation are upbeat about surviving the much-predicted Democratic wave. A voter referendum on the November ballot to repeal a state gasoline tax — which Walters helped raise millions of dollars for — has invigorated the conservative base, they say.
And Democrats have their own issues, namely a crush of candidates in several primary races that threatens to split progressive votes. At worst, that could keep a Democrat off the ballot under the state’s “jungle” primary system, in which the top two candidates from either party advance to the general election. At best, it’s likely to produce a more liberal general election candidate for Democrats in the center-right districts.
“The only reason I’m a target is because Hillary Clinton won my district,” said Walters, who defeated her Democratic opponent by 17 points last cycle. “I got 37,000 more votes than President Trump did. That means that the people in the 45thdistrict identify with the policies that I support and support me because I’m in line with what they believe in.”
Walters’ confidence illustrates California Republicans’ renewed hope that they’ll hold the line this fall in districts Democrats must flip if they want to seize the majority. Republican leaders have made the state a top priority, with the National Republican Congressional Committee and GOP-aligned Congressional Leadership Fund opening offices statewide and already deep into field work.
Democrats counter that the gas tax initiative is no savior for Walters or the six other GOP districts that went for Clinton in 2016. They say the tax cut bill and Obamacare repeal effort, combined with President Donald Trump’s unpopularity in California, will be the GOP incumbents’ undoing.
“Orange County families are very concerned about what Donald Trump is doing,” said Katie Porter, a University of California, Irvine professor running against Walters, and “Mimi Walters is voting with Trump over and over and over again.”
But Republicans appear genuinely more hopeful. Speaker Paul Ryan came here the first week of May to raise money for Walters and Reps. Jeff Denham and David Valadao, two other vulnerable Republicans from Central Valley districts that Clinton won. And the delegation as a whole — whose GOP members out-ran Trump last election cycle — has made it a point to raise and spend money early to define themselves before Democrats do.
For Walters, who is considering a bid to head the House Republicans’ campaign arm next cycle, that means going up on air six months before the election with ads touting her work protecting battered women — a move could help her win favor with female voters suspicious of Trump. Walters’ congressional office also sends out franked mail leaflets touting her achievements on local issues, like legislation to aid in California’s wildfire recovery.
GOP leaders have encouraged other vulnerable members from the state to embrace the hyper-local messaging. Valadao, for example, frequently touts his work on water issues in his rural agriculture community. Clinton carried his district by 15 points.
“I think this is going to be a perfectly good year for congressional Republicans in this state because I think the local issues favor Republicans, not Democrats,” said California Rep. Darrell Issa, who announced his retirement early this year from his San Diego-are seat in the face of a tough reelection fight.
Yet California Republicans know they need more than a standard campaign to stay afloat. That’s one of the reason why Walters has seized on the gas tax repeal measure, taking time away from her Capitol Hill duties to raise more than $2 million to qualify the initiative for the ballot.
Early this month, Walters and Young Kim, a Republican running for GOP Rep. Ed Royce’s seat, wheeled a half-dozen boxes stuffed with 82,410 gas tax signatures into the Orange County Registrar’s office. Those were just a fraction of the 1 million signatures Republicans gathered statewide, though only 365,880 were needed to qualify for the ballot.
Walters said the repeal drive — and an effort underway to recall a Democratic state lawmaker just north of her district over his vote for the gas tax — show how motivated Southern Californians are over the issue.
“This is a big day for us,” said Walters, railing against a tax she said would reach $2 per gallon by 2021. “I talk to constituents in my district and every time they go to the pump it’s more and more money, and it’s becoming outrageous.”
Walters has made sure constituents know about her work on the issue. Last weekend, as “Mimi for Congress” volunteers dialed up constituents then fanned out across the district looking for votes ahead of the June 5 primary, the tax repeal led their talking points.
“We need to make sure we turn out our supporters,” Walters said in an interview at her campaign headquarters. “If we [do], game over.”
Democrats like Porter remind voters often that the GOP tax plan slashed a state and local deduction as well as a property tax break used by millions of California residents. She points out to voters that the university where she works specifically warned her that her own taxes will likely to spike next year.
Republicans counter that the tax cut law is growing on voters. Only a quarter of Orange County voters surveyed in April that they think the legislation will increase their taxes, according to polling done by CLF’s sister organization, American Action Network, which has been running pro-tax reform ads in the district. That‘s down from 45 percent who said so in December, according to the group.
Walters is clearly hoping the trend will continue.
“People are very happy with tax reform in the district,” said Walters, citing a group of executives she met the day before who told her they’d increased employee retirement contributions because of the tax package. “The other side is not going to say, ‘It’s a success,’ because they want people to think it’s not a success.”
Infighting among Democratic candidates in primaries is also giving Republicans a lift in the competitive races. Republicans once considered Rep. Dana Rohrabacher, a Donald Trump ally, among the more vulnerable members of the House. But there are so many Democrats running to challenge him that two Republicans could emerge from the primary under the state’s top-two system.
The DCCC has stepped into several of these primary fights, cajoling some candidates to drop out and giving others a boost in order to narrow the field.
“In most of the districts we hold, Democrats are not running centrist candidates,” California Republican Party Chairman Jim Brulte said. “They’re running candidates who are to the left of Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders. And that’s not where competitive seats are in California.”
Democrats say, in the end, Trump will help them take seats in California. The DCCC has argued that the president is toxic here, and members like Walters have done nothing to separate themselves from him.
Indeed, Walters’ embrace of the president was on full display during a speech at the California Republican Convention speech last week in which she praised Trump for being effective — and asked Republicans to vote her back in so she can protect his agenda. And while Democrats argue shifting demographics in the district play in their favor, Walters is betting that the traditionally Republican Orange County she grew up in has not fundamentally changed, and will turn out to back her.
“They’re coming for all of us, but we know something they don’t,” Walters said during her speech. “This isn’t going to go the way they think it is…. I promise you I will be ready.”