The Battle for California
Andrew Janz delivers a stump speech like a closing argument. Blame his day job. The trim, pokerfaced 34-year-old is deputy district attorney in Fresno, California. And at a meet-and-greet, in the living room of a retired schoolteacher on the north end of this sprawling city, he sounds less like he’s trying to win votes than to convict his political opponent.
Republican Devin Nunes, Janz insists, should be using his clout as chair of the House Intelligence Committee to deliver for his district. “But what does he spend that political capital on?” Janz asks. “He spends it on protecting Donald Trump.” Nunes served on the president’s transition team and acts like he never left it — making a mockery of his oversight role by working to torpedo the Russia investigation. He was caught on tape warning donors that his ability to run interference for the White House hinges on November’s election: “If we do not keep the majority,” Nunes said, “all of this goes away.”
That’s Janz’s argument too. “Devin Nunes doesn’t represent American values,” he says. “It’s time for him to go.”
Janz, the son of Thai and Canadian immigrants, has electrified donors in his district and nationwide — transforming a long-shot race into a serious contest. Battling for a district in the heart of California, he also embodies the potential of 2018: Golden State voters can power a wave election — and even trigger a blue tsunami that cleanses Congress of many of its most noxious GOP incumbents.
California is home to 10 or more swing seats — nearly half of the 23 that Democrats need to recapture the House in November. The state’s endangered GOP delegation includes not only Nunes but Dana Rohrabacher — whom colleagues joke is on Putin’s payroll; Duncan Hunter, indicted for enriching himself with $250,000 in campaign funds; and Tom McClintock, a climate-change denier whose constituents battled global-warming-fueled wildfires this summer. (Darrell Issa — who spearheaded the Benghazi investigation and called Obama “one of the most corrupt presidents in modern times” — opted to retire rather than face re-election.)
If House Republicans are in danger nationally, California presents an acute threat. The tide of Trumpism never breached California, which rejected his presidency by more than 4 million votes. And Trump has governed with malice toward the state that denied him a popular-vote victory. He has attacked California’s sanctuary cities, launched a trade war that’s punishing Central Valley farmers and deployed ICE to raid their fields. Trump’s tax bill raised taxes on millions of California homeowners — and blocked deductions for property lost to wildfire. Eviscerating environmental protections, the White House is attempting to revoke California’s nation-leading fuel-economy standards.
“Trump and the administration are engaged in a policy war against the state of California,” says Mike Levin, an environmental lawyer campaigning to replace Issa. Far from bucking Trump, California’s GOP representatives have voted in lockstep — even backing an Obamacare repeal that would have ended Medicaid expansion, threatening coverage for one of every three state residents. Democratic candidates carry a potent promise: They can topple Trump toadies and put Congress back to work for California.
Levin likes to challenge Republicans with a simple question: “Are you with Trump? Or are you with California? Because there’s very little middle ground.”
Rolling Stone embarked on an 800-mile road trip across California this summer to meet top Democratic challengers and visit the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee’s first-ever West Coast headquarters — part of a systematic change to decentralize decision-making away from Washington, D.C.
California has been a top priority for the DCCC this election cycle. Democrats narrowly lost seven House seats in districts where Hillary Clinton bested Trump. “We moved the entire western region out here because there’s so many seats that Hillary won,” says Rep. Ted Lieu, the Santa Monica congressman and DCCC vice chair who commands this effort.
DCCC West is perched in a hipster-chic WeWork office tower, rising above palm trees, in urban Orange County. A portrait of a raccoon in a sweater vest greets visitors from a gilded frame near the elevator. Kombucha is free on tap at the bar. From these plush digs, the party directs polling, logistics and voter mobilization for favored candidates, making strategic choices for California from California.
Local command paid off in the June primaries, when the greatest risk was too many candidates clamoring to confront Trump. In California, the two leading vote-getters advance, regardless of party, meaning a divided field of Democrats can propel two Republicans to the general election. “It’s a stupid system,” says Democratic Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi.
The DCCC spent nearly $7 million on a complex strategy that kept every key seat in play — and the party accomplished the most important goal for any wave election: getting quality surfers in the water. As one Democratic consultant who has been on the losing side of two GOP waves describes the dynamics, “All a candidate has to do in a wave is get their name ID up — and not fuck up too badly.”
With a slate of 10 well-funded candidates — as diverse and eclectic as the state they hope to represent — California is poised to be a tipping point in November. To seize Congress, says Dave Wasserman, who handicaps House races for the Cook Political Report, “Democrats probably need five seats out of California.” With its unique mix of rich donors, passionate activists and voter-friendly election laws, the state could help Democrats run up the score. But a tsunami won’t come easy: GOP representatives control just 14 of California’s 53 seats, but these die-hard districts have long track records of sending Republicans to Washington.
Trump’s rise has wounded the Republican Party in Orange County. The wealthy coastal sprawl south of Los Angeles is a cradle of conservatism — the birthplace of Richard Nixon and the springboard for Ronald Reagan’s political career. But Trump’s alienation of educated suburban women, combined with surging minority populations, propelled Clinton to carry the OC — a first for a Democrat in 80 years. “The Orange Curtain has fallen,” says Gil Cisneros, the Democratic nominee for District 39, north of Disneyland, one of four flippable seats in the county.
Cisneros has an implausible bio: The steady, jug-eared Navy vet, who credits the military’s educational incentives for his advanced degrees, won a $266 million lottery jackpot, using the windfall to create two education nonprofits. He’s locked in a toss-up race against a retiring GOP congressman’s Korean-American deputy, Young Kim, who has positioned herself far to the right, opposing gay marriage. “She’s going to be nothing more than a rubber stamp for the Republican agenda,” says Cisneros.
Issa’s district — stretching from South Orange County to the dorms of U.C. San Diego — rates as the most likely Democratic pickup in California. A polished candidate who once ran the Democratic Party of Orange County, the 39-year-old Levin is a good fit for the evolving demographics of his party: half Jewish and half Mexican-American. “My grandparents were the Dreamers of their day,” he says. He also benefits from facing a tarnished opponent: Diane Harkey was an officer in her husband’s financial firm — “a Ponzi scheme,” according to a court judgment, that “committed financial elder abuse,” earning its victims a $12.5 million jury award.
Just up the coast, where Ferraris cruise the highway to Laguna Beach, Rohrabacher is California’s most endangered incumbent. Warned by the FBI in 2012 that he was being cultivated by the Kremlin, Rohrabacher was recently unmasked for having visited alleged Russian agent Maria Butina in Moscow; he also feted her handler, NRA enthusiast Alexander Torshin, in Washington, calling him “conservatives’ favorite Russian.”
Rohrabacher’s opponent is Harley Rouda, a 56-year-old real estate and tech entrepreneur who greets me wearing a monogrammed dress shirt. Rohrabacher’s Russian connections, Rouda says, have become a key issue in the race. “If you use the spy-trade vernacular, you’re either a spy, you’re an asset, or you’re a useful idiot,” he says. “Where Rohrabacher falls on that spectrum, time will tell, and the Mueller investigation will help us understand.”
The final Orange County race is a bellwether in the “year of the woman” — pitting law professor Katie Porter against incumbent Mimi Walters. An academic protégée of Elizabeth Warren, Porter worked under Kamala Harris when she was California’s attorney general to pay out a $25 billion settlement to homeowners ripped off in the housing crisis. Walters is an always-Trumper who’s voted repeatedly to limit abortion rights, called gay marriage “a travesty of family values,” and touted her A rating from the NRA. “White suburban women are powering the Democratic wave,” says Wasserman, but he cautions that Porter’s progressive pedigree is a liability in Orange County. Porter says Walters is the real misfit in a district that backed Clinton by five points: “Day after day, Mimi is tying herself to Trump’s agenda. That’s her choice.”
Southern California’s races are a proving ground for a new turnout model pioneered by Swing Left, a group that organizes grassroots political power in safe congressional districts and projects it into neighboring swing races. The model is tailor-made for bright-blue Los Angeles, where millions of Democrats live a short drive from California’s hottest races. Swing Left activists are giving a powerful boost to Katie Hill, running for office in another onetime bastion of Republicanism, California’s 25th District, home to the Reagan Library.
Hill is hoarse from nonstop campaigning when I meet her at 8 p.m., exiting a Round Table Pizza where she’d just met with labor leaders to seek an endorsement. The daughter of a cop, Hill grew up in the district, which is north of the L.A. basin and home to many of the region’s law-enforcement officers. She is hard to pigeonhole. Hill ran the state’s largest homeless-services agency. She’s married. She identifies as bisexual. She owns a gun. She raises goats. Vice News covered her primary race as the “most millennial campaign ever.”
Democrats have struggled to connect with young voters, but Hill’s campaign says it rallied student activists and knocked on 94,000 doors to win the primary. Her advice to older Dems about connecting to millennials is simple: “Be honest. That means showing your flaws. That’s one of the reasons I started talking early about things that I knew could be controversial. Just own them. What are people going to say?”
Hill’s opponent is Steve Knight, who has shown his flaws, too — voting with Trump 99 percent of the time in a district that favored Clinton by seven points. The son of the politician who put California’s first gay-marriage ban on the ballot, Knight has displayed a thin skin and toxic masculinity. In an infamous 2015 encounter, Knight got locked in a power handshake by a critic who thought he wasn’t tough enough on immigration. When the constituent turned to leave, Knight leaned into him and snarled, “If you touch me again, I’ll drop your ass!” As of press time, the district is a toss-up.
One California Republican who looked like he would stand up to Trump is Jeff Denham, whose district is anchored by Modesto, a city of 212,000 surrounded by almond groves in the north end of the Central Valley.
A world apart from the techie glitz of Silicon Valley, the region is California’s agricultural engine and a stronghold for Republicans, including House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy. But immigrants are the lifeblood of the labor force here, and Denham led a gang of GOP moderates to sign a “discharge petition” that could have forced a vote on bipartisan immigration reform. But with the petition just a handful of signatures short, Denham abandoned it, leaving Trump’s abusive immigration policies unchecked.
Josh Harder has forced Denham into the fight of his political life. A 30-year-old raised in dusty Turlock, Harder earned an Ivy League education, becoming a venture capitalist and backing the meal-delivery service Blue Apron. Harder says he’s running to block the GOP assault on Obamacare, which protects people with pre-existing conditions, like his brother, who was born 10 weeks premature. “He’s an amazingly hard worker,” says Lieu. “Josh can present a very strong contrast in that district.”
The best pickup opportunity in the Central Valley ought to be California’s 21st, stretching from Fresno to Bakersfield. Clinton trounced Trump here by more than 15 points. “By the numbers, you’d say, ‘How in the world does a Republican win the seat?’ ” says Wasserman. The answer is that incumbent David Valadao, a dairy farmer, has built a strong personal brand — and faced hapless Democratic opponents. The district is 71 percent Hispanic, but a drag on Democrats nationwide is that Latino voters often skip midterm elections. Despite Trump’s assaults on the community, Wasserman says, “I’m not seeing many signs that Latino engagement is much higher than it was in 2014.”
Challenging Valadao is TJ Cox, an Asian-American engineer and philanthropist who leveraged public seed money to build a new health clinic in the district. Cox paints Valadao as a phony who poses as a moderate but is one of Trump’s most reliable votes in Congress. “Life is tough enough, especially here in the Central Valley,” Cox says, “without your congressman’s foot on your neck.”
I meet Cox at a roadside taqueria, near lush fields of grapes in Fowler. Cox does not speak Spanish; he washes down al pastor tacos with the “Mexican Coke” he orders in English. But he’s been picking up colorful phrases from Valley constituents on the campaign trail, including from an elderly man who once voted for the incumbent but now says Valadao “chupa la teta de Trump.” (Literally: sucks Trump’s tit.)
The seven GOP districts where Clinton topped Trump have made up the core of the Democratic battleground in California, earning their candidates a spot on Red to Blue — the DCCC’s roster of most-favored 2018 races. The designation opens access to party resources and loosens the purse strings of top donors.
In August, the party added an eighth Red to Blue candidate, Jessica Morse, who is campaigning for California’s massive 4th District, a sweep of the Sierra Nevada mountains including Lake Tahoe and Yosemite. Voters here backed Trump by 15 points in 2016, but Morse is a gifted communicator who worked for USAID in Iraq and later at the State Department. The 36-year-old is also a fifth-generation Californian whose pistol-packing great-grandmother worked the telegraph booth at Donner Pass.
Incumbent McClintock doesn’t live in the district and was a member of the reactionary Freedom Caucus, backing austerity measures that have left the Forest Service short of personnel to control fire risk. “He’s playing partisan games with our lives,” says Morse, adding that the district is “on the front line of climate change” that’s driving catastrophic fires, including one that forced Yosemite’s evacuation this summer. McClintock denies climate change — and even praised Trump’s decision to leave the Paris Agreement as a refusal to “sacrifice our economy on the altar of the green left.”
At the edges of the California battlefield, two candidates are making their own luck. Nunes is officially on DCCC target lists, but that hasn’t translated into dollars from the party. For Janz, that’s a point of pride. “I haven’t taken a dime from them,” he says. “I’ve been critical of both parties, and I think that’s in line with where a lot of Americans are today.” Janz understands he’s in a “David-versus-Goliath race.” But he argues he’s a long shot worth backing: “There is no other race that is more important. Nunes is a national-security danger. He’s undermining our national intelligence agencies. He’s undermining our criminal justice system.”
The Democrats’ final, and perhaps most intriguing, California contender is 28-year-old Ammar Campa-Najjar. Endorsed by Obama, Campa-Najjar is battling to unseat Hunter, who was indicted with his wife in August for using $250,000 in campaign cash as a personal slush fund — paying for vacations, tequila-fueled bachelor parties — and in one case covering up the grift by lying about donating to the Wounded Warrior Project. Hunter pleaded not guilty, blaming his wife and the “deep state.” He’s also been accused of carousing in D.C. and slurring his words in a committee hearing. Last year, he called for pre-emptive war with North Korea.
Campa-Najjar is half Latino and half Arab, with striking good looks. When he worked at the Hispanic Chamber of Commerce, he sat down with Trump, who, he says, joked Campa-Najjar was a “supermodel.” Growing up in poverty, Campa-Najjar worked as a janitor at age 15 to help support his single mom. A veteran of the 2012 Obama campaign, he worked in the White House, helping to select the 10 constituent letters a day that Obama famously read.
The 50th District, stretching inland from San Diego, is surprisingly diverse, with huge Latino and Christian Iraqi populations. “The district is half me, ethnically,” Campa-Najjar says. He also spent part of his life in a war zone in Gaza, and says the experience gives him a point of connection to the district’s veterans, whom Hunter, a two-tour Iraq vet, relies on as his base.
Campa-Najjar’s campaign strategy is to show up in lion’s dens — rowdy NASCAR bars, rodeos and prayer meetings. “Republicans come up to me and say, ‘I’m not going to vote for you.’ I say, ‘Well, I’m going to be voting for you when I’m in Congress, so just start talking.’ ”
He’s not jockeying to be the next Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. Campa-Najjar balks at the label “progressive,” let alone socialist. He rails against California’s new gas-tax hike and insists healthcare reform should be “revenue-neutral.” And he seeks to empathize with Trump voters. “My observation is that Trump voters aren’t ignorant — they’re ignored,” he says. “By their party. By my party. By the country.
“Liberals talk about how love is love. But pain is pain too,” he insists, “and these people are going through something serious.” Arguing that the bell of Trumpism can’t be unrung by a single election, or even by forcing Trump out of office, Campa-Najjar adds, “We need to start healing the country. The day after Trump’s gone, if we’ve done nothing but divide, it will be the undoing of this country. I really believe that. I’m trying to start to repair the breach now. Because I think it will be too late after he’s gone.”