House control could hinge on California. Why Dems don’t have it locked down.

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LOS ANGELES — It appears, at first glance, that Democrats couldn’t have scripted it any better — their pathway to reclaiming the House runs straight through deep blue California, which is poised to back President Joe Biden by double digits.

Their Hollywood ending is far from certain.

The six fiercely competitive California districts key to flipping the chamber are a microcosm of the most pressing questions facing the party across the country — including whether their increasingly-wobbly coalition of Latino, Asian American, Black and young voters show up for them in November.

“It has been the rule of thumb that those constituencies help Democratic candidates more than Republican candidates,” said David Binder, a Democratic pollster. He expects that will still be the case in the fall — but the extent of that help is unclear.

“To what degree do we rely on that history,” he asked, “or are we in a different situation?”

On paper, the fundamentals of the most competitive districts favor Democrats. The party has a registration advantage in all six seats. Their populations are diverse, with white voters making up a majority in just one district. In 2020, Biden triumphed over former President Donald Trump in five of the districts.

But Biden’s success in the state four years ago belied deeper warning signs for his party. Democrats lost three House seats that cycle, all in districts where voters also backed Biden. Turnout that year hit a 48-year high — but the benefit to the party did not trickle down-ballot.

Even after Roe v. Wade was overturned in 2022, upending the electoral landscape, Democrats in California — where abortion rights remain sacrosanct — did not reap the same benefits as their counterparts across the country.

And like any blockbuster, California’s marquee races come with a hefty price tag, putting Democrats on the hook for costly outlays in a state that will have little bearing on the presidential race. The main super PAC backing Democrats has already reserved nearly $20 million in fall airtime in Los Angeles, making the high-cost media market their number one investment in the country.

Together, these factors add up to a reality check for the state’s dominant party, said Mike Madrid, a Sacramento-based Republican-turned-anti-Trump political strategist: “Democrats don’t have as strong a hand as they think they do,” he said.

‘Democratic Orthodoxy’ on Latino voters

For years, California Democrats have assumed that Latino voters would side with them — so long as they got them to the polls. The group makes up 36 percent of the state’s adult population but just a quarter of its likely voters, according to the Public Policy Institute of California.

“Conventional Democratic orthodoxy is: Presidential year, higher turnout, more Latinos,” said Madrid, author of the forthcoming book “The Latino Century: How America’s Largest Minority is Transforming Democracy.”

Statistics show why Democrats are so bullish to flip the seats in California’s rural Central Valley, where they are trying to pick off Republican Reps. John Duarte and David Valadao.

Valadao’s district has the highest proportion of Latino voters of any district in the state — roughly 60 percent — and Democrats hold a 15-point registration advantage there.

The party has a 13-point registration edge in Duarte’s district, where Latinos make up half of eligible voters. Biden beat Trump there in 2020 by 11 points.

“Objectively, the numbers make the case for me,” Adam Gray, a former Democratic state lawmaker heading to a rematch with Duarte, said in an interview, pointing to the party registration gap and more favorable turnout expected in November than his 2022 midterm, when he lost by just 564 votes.

But while strategists from both parties agree the electorate in November will skew younger and more Latino, a boost in that turnout may not end up benefiting Democrats as much as they hope.

Latino voters are increasingly behaving like other groups, Madrid said, aligning more along class and gender lines than voting as an ethnic bloc. Working-class Latinos, especially men, have been shifting to the right.

The reverberations of this trend can be felt throughout the country — not just in California, but also in the fight for Biden’s reelection and, in states such as Nevada and Arizona, hotly-contested Senate contests.

Few observers expect Republicans to win the Latino vote. Democrats keep an edge with the group overall, aided by especially strong support among Latinas, who are increasingly diverging from Latino men.

“Two things can be true — over the last two cycles, Democrats have lost vote share with Latino voters … and they are still winning them by sizable margins nationally,” said Molly Murphy, a Democratic pollster.

Still, in seats that will be decided by only a few points, the shrinking size of their advantage could throw off Democrats’ calculus on what it will take to win.

Duane Dichiara, a campaign strategist for Duarte, said the Republican won nearly half the Latino vote in his 2022 victory and predicted he would perform similarly well this time around.

The GOP’s improving performance among Latinos has put a new spin on the Democrats’ mantra that a diversifying electorate would be their advantage, that demography is destiny, Dichiara said.

“It’s not what they thought,” he said. “The Republican party is now competitive with ethnic minorities.”

A ‘political anomaly’

The Orange County district currently represented by Democratic Rep. Katie Porter would, by the numbers, be among the hardest for California Democrats to win. The party has less than a one-point registration edge. It is the whitest of all the targeted seats. It’s also the only place Democrats are playing defense — and without Porter on the ballot, since she opted to run (unsuccessfully) for Senate instead.

But the district has a high concentration of college-educated residents, particularly suburban white women and Asian American voters. Nonpartisan election forecasters predict Democrats have a slight edge to retain the seat.

Their candidate, state Sen. Dave Min, a former UC Irvine law professor who is Korean American, represents his party’s redoubled efforts to court Asian American voters, especially those with college degrees.

Min will face Scott Baugh, a Republican who came within three points of Porter last cycle.

Asian Americans with college degrees are part of a crucial voting bloc that UC Irvine researchers call “moderately partisan Republicans.” Researchers say the group is a “political anomaly” — the voters tend to be wealthier and hold views more similar to Democrats, even if they have not changed their party registration. This is apparent even among groups that have historically aligned with the GOP, such as Vietnamese voters — now, those with a college degree are starting to tilt more Democratic.

The trend is playing out among all racial and ethnic groups: Working class voters are veering right, while college-educated people are casting leftward. Orange County, the historical heart of Reagan Republicanism, offers a real-time look at that stratification.

Nearby, the seat held by GOP Rep. Michelle Steel is four points more Democratic than Porter’s. It’s also more diverse — equal parts Asian American and white, with a substantial Latino population. But campaign prognosticators say Steel has the slight edge to keep her seat over Democrat Derek Tran, a first-time candidate.

The Asian American population in Steel’s district is more working class, and Steel, who is Korean American, has invested for several cycles now in courting that community, navigating the distinctions among the different Asian subgroups living in the region.

Steel first won her seat in 2020, even as her district backed Biden by six points. Two years later, she beat Democrat Jay Chen, the son of Taiwanese immigrants, by tying him to Communist China — a tactic that critics decried as “red-baiting,” but that proved effective in turning off working-class Vietnamese voters who still hold a visceral aversion to communism.

This year, Democrats will have Tran, a Vietnamese American attorney, whom they think will better appeal in a district that is home to Little Saigon.

A ‘fork in the road’ election

In California and nationally, the party has seen a clear drop-off among younger, nonwhite and more politically independent voters. The reasons for the souring are myriad — a lack of enthusiasm for Biden, disapproval of his handling of the war in Gaza, dissatisfaction with the economy or a disillusionment with politics (and both parties) overall.

It may be too soon for Democrats to panic. For most voters, the November general election feels a world away, and strategists believe that some of these liberal-inclined voters will come home as the fall approaches. The reality of Trump, who is deeply unpopular with these key groups, as the GOP standard-bearer has yet to sink in for many.

But if the malaise persists, it will be felt especially hard in California’s battleground districts. Every swing seat has a sizable Latino population. The districts with large Latino populations are also the ones with the largest share of young voters. (With a median age of 28, Latinos are the youngest racial or ethnic group in the country, making Democratic worries about Latinos and youth votersinextricably entwined.)

One targeted race, the northern Los Angeles County district represented by GOP Rep. Mike Garcia, is also 10 percent Black, making it a rare California swing seat with a substantial African American population.

Black voters have been another source of concern for Democrats nationally, though not for fear they’ll defect en masse to the GOP. Democratic pollsters worry a lack of excitement may dampen their desire to vote at all.

Elsewhere in the country, the rallying cry of protecting access to reproductive health has been a lifeline for Democratic candidates. But it has been harder to convince Californians, who voted two years ago to enshrine abortion rights in the state constitution, that their rights are as at risk as people living in purple or red states.

Trump tried to neutralize the issue by pronouncing that abortion policy is determined on a state level, after previously signaling he’d be open to a 15-week national ban. Democrats say that won’t stop them from emphasizing the threat of national abortion restrictions as a central message in their California campaigns.

“It raises the imperative of showing voters all of his past statements on abortion, punishing women, and that he’s repeatedly expressed support for a national ban,” said Murphy, who polls for Democrats in California and nationally. “Voters know Trump is a liar, so it will not be hard to discredit his recent comments.”

House candidates have also drilled down more on economic issues, moving away from racially-based messaging such as focusing on immigration with Latino voters.

Binder, the Democratic pollster, also said his party needs to make clear the stakes of this election, portraying it as a “fork in the road” that could lead to a starkly more conservative direction on abortion, climate change and LGBTQ+ rights.

“It’s a question about which direction American society is going to go,” Binder said, pointing to the chance that Republicans win the presidency and control of Congress. “If we make that clear to those base constituency groups, I do think they'll end up turning out.”

On air in LA

Four of California’s six swing seats overlap with the expensive Los Angeles media market, which the party avoided entirely last cycle, leading to post-mortem recriminations that Democrats lost opportunities for winnable races.

Orange County is part of that media market, as are two other hotly-contested seats: California’s 41st in the Inland Empire, held by GOP Rep. Ken Calvert, and Garcia’s seat in northern Los Angeles County.

“Democrats are going to have to expend a ton of treasure to win these seats,” said George Nassar, a GOP pollster. “They have to make a decision about whether it's really worth the fight.”

So far, the Democrats are telegraphing a willingness to pony up. House Majority PAC launched a “Battleground California Fund” for the state, with plans to spend $35 million to offer outside help to the party’s candidates.

While both parties will have to pay high prices, in most races, the burden will be on Democrats to topple incumbents.

This year, Democrats may feel less strapped for cash with former Virgin Galactic CEO George Whitesides as their candidate against Garcia. Whitesides has already plowed more than $1 million of his own money into the race, but also has proven adept at raising dough from donors as well.

Democrat Will Rollins, who is reupping his challenge to Calvert after coming within five points of the Republican incumbent in 2022, has also flexed considerable fundraising muscle.

Ultimately, money may be the biggest determining factor on whether California will deliver the House to the Democrats. The scrambled political landscape means it will be harder than the state’s unabashedly liberal tilt would suggest — but the opportunities are there, strategists say, if the party puts in the work.

“There are a lot of people that ideally would be great dates for the prom, but if you don't ask them to the prom, they're not going with you,” said Bill Wong, a Democratic strategist in the state. “So the potential is there — the question is will national Democrats ask people to the prom or not?”