By Mark Jacob
Tomorrow night, as the midterm campaign winds down, Californians will go to the polls to decide one of the most competitive and jostling races in the country: Republican Rep. Darrell Issa’s 12th Congressional District in San Diego and Imperial counties. The contest is not as interesting as what happened to Sen. Dianne Feinstein last week in her battle for re-election, or the rumble going on in California Senate race, but it’s seen as a bellwether for Democrats nationwide.
In the past, Democrats needed to win a rather small number of seats just to hold their control of the House. But since the tea party and Republican “movement” has taken over Congress, the math has gotten much better for the Democratic Party. In 2014, Republicans won just 10 seats in California, losing the House by fewer than three seats, making the “blue wave” a bullseye for Democratic candidates.
In 2016, Democrats picked up 34 seats in California, bringing their net gain since 2010 to 15. That was enough to give them the House majority. After last year’s referendum on immigration moved further to the right, some polls now indicate that Republicans could lose a couple of seats in California this year. The New York Times polls show Issa and two Republican state senators, Tony Strickland and Jeff Stone, both of whom are trying to replace GOP House member Jeff Denham, both trailing Democrat Josh Harder. Issa has also gotten caught up in this year’s escalating war between the Trump administration and the California sanctuary state.
A big part of the concern that Democrats will over-reach is based on how past losses have affected the party’s ability to mount a successful 2020 effort. Many Democrats suffered serious wounds in the 2006 midterm elections, including major losses in House races, and concluded it was time to go high-level and try to steal control of the House in 2008. They didn’t succeed, and so some have expressed concerns about trying to burn bridges that might make it difficult to recover in 2020.
Issa is facing this same challenge. In the most recent McClatchy/Marist poll, he was losing 47-40 to hard-right Republican challenger Young Kim. Even worse, 45 percent of voters said their view of Issa had become worse over the past six months. These weren’t monster numbers, but with so many more voters saying their opinions of Issa had worsened than those who said they’d become better, he needs a Hail Mary pass if he’s going to hold on. In another hypothetical head-to-head contest, Democratic TV ads targeting Issa have hit a nerve, with 49 percent of voters saying he’s mainly responsible for the value of their house declining over the past four years.
While tomorrow’s election is not the most important in the state, it’s interesting because it’s a big statewide race. The general election will be in November of 2020.
It would be surprising if Democrats capture a majority of the seats in California, but they could conceivably inch closer to the magic 25 seats needed to get a filibuster-proof majority. That would be just good news for Democrats, but it wouldn’t improve the odds of them taking control of the House in four years, nor would it doom Republicans to another kind of loss, either. The point is that the odds that Democrats could retake control of the House in 2020 are probably in the low to mid-90s, after a huge wave of bloodied incumbents. It’s not a slam dunk, but it’s not impossible, either.