Fourteen Republican U.S. House of Representative incumbents in California will be campaigning for reelection next year as Democrats push to capture the seats as part of a national effort to retake the House.
Republicans are warning Democrats should expect a battle.
"The Democrats have made it very clear that they're staking their flag in California and they believe that the road to the majority runs through the Golden State," said Jack Pandol, a press secretary for the National Republican Congressional Committee. "If that's the hill they want to die on, we feel like we're in a good place."
The GOP committee is working to help defend the Republican majority in the House, one that could be upended if the Democrats net at least 24 seats nationally in next year's elections. California holds its primary on June 5 and that election will set the stage for runoff battles on Nov. 6 of next year.
At the epicenter of the House fight are four historically conservative congressional districts running through Orange County. They are represented by Ed Royce, Mimi Walters, Dana Rohrabacher and Darrell Issa.
The incumbents face a delicate balancing act in running in Orange County, the one-time Republican stronghold that is growing more diverse and more liberal. OC voters chose Hillary Clinton over Donald Trump in last year's presidential election. The last time the county went for a Democrat was over 80 years ago when voters backed Franklin Delano Roosevelt for his second term in 1936.
The nonpartisan newsletter The Cook Political Report rated Rohrabacher and Issa's seats, once solidly in the Republican column, as toss-ups, meaning neither party has an advantage at this stage. Royce and Walters' seats have been rated as leaning Republican.
Republican Steve Knight's seat (25th District-Palmdale) also is ranked by the Cook report as a toss-up as he faces stiff opposition again from Democrats.
DIVISION IN GOP RANKS
The challenge to the GOP incumbents comes as a split within the GOP ranks opens wider. That rift was on full display at the California Republican Party's fall convention held last month in Anaheim.
Steve Bannon, former presidential advisor and conservative provocateur, headlined the opening day and encouraged California Republicans to stick together. But he also sharply criticized establishment party darlings like Arizona Sen. John McCain and former President George W. Bush. When he mentioned both men, the crowd booed them.
“The permanent political class that runs this country is one of the great dangers we face," Bannon said to the largely receptive audience.
Bannon's comments and the reaction from the crowd illustrate the divide between those who back President Trump and those who do not, those who are critical of the GOP establishment and those who back it.
But even some who support the president's anti-establishment rallying cry don't agree that GOP incumbents in California should be booted out.
Convention attendee Daniel Flores, a supporter of Trump and Bannon, said while he's upset at the Republicans outside of California who don't support Trump, he wants California Republicans to work together to bring the state back to the red column.
Flores, who lives in the district covering Imperial County and parts of San Diego County, thinks the liberal policies of California Democrats are helping state Republicans. He cites California's immigrant-friendly laws as one example.
"These liberals, these Democrats, their main focus is non-American citizens and that's, that's a travesty. The fact that we’re now a sanctuary state is pathetic, it's insane," he said.
Trumpism, however, has its limits among conservative voters.
Take Escondido resident Sharron Saidi, a lifelong registered Republican who switched her party affiliation to Democrat after Trump won the election. Now she wants to see her Republican congressman, Darrell Issa, voted out.
"My beef to begin with was just with Donald Trump ... I now have a problem with the entire Republican Party," she said.
GOP OUT-FUNDRAISING DEMOCRATS
The pro- and anti-Trump split among Republicans is a division that GOP strategists working on the re-election campaigns want to play down. They hope to keep the focus instead on what they see as the failings of the dominant state Democrats, and highlight social concerns like immigration and pocketbook issues like the new gas tax increase.
"These issues are are going to motivate our guys to turn out and we think that it's going to work well for us," said Pandol, the Republican congressional committee spokesman.
Pandol said staffers from the committee make regular trips to California and consult with the incumbent campaigns frequently. The committee is also surpassing previous national off-year, fundraising efforts: it has raised $72.6 million in 2017 so far.
The GOP also has a substantial lead in cash-on-hand for the 3rd quarter with about $38 million, compared to the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee's roughly $30 million.
Pandol also believes the flood of Democrats challenging Republicans in the state’s U.S. House races is likely to push party positions further to the left than voters can tolerate — a view disputed by many Democrats.
In the districts that run through Orange County, there are over a dozen well-funded Democratic challengers and several of the local House races are likely to be close. Issa, for example, won re-election in 2016 by only about 1,500 votes; his general election opponent, retired Marine Col. Doug Applegate, is running again.
TURNOUT MAY SPELL THE DIFFERENCE
While mid-term elections are often rocky for the party in power, GOP political consultant Rob Stutzman said he doesn’t think Republicans in California will suffer major losses.
One reason is that turnout for midterm elections typically drops. He says Democrats would need a strong showing from voters — on par with turnout typically seen during presidential runoffs — to make significant gains.
"The bigger challenge to Republican incumbents really may be the Republican Congress is becoming so unpopular," Stutzman said. He said this is true even among GOP voters. A recent Reuters poll found disapproval rates among Republicans have hit 67 percent.
But the mid-terms are still several months away and the winds buffeting the GOP incumbents could change. Much hangs on whether the GOP-controlled Congress can deliver on an agenda that pleases local voters.