Democratic Party hopes that an anti-Trump backlash in California would knock out vulnerable Republican congressional incumbents fizzled on election night as Reps. Darrell Issa, Jeff Denham and Steve Knight headed to victory in closely watched races.
Incoming president Donald Trump was clobbered in the California vote but that didn’t translate to a successful revolt against members of Congress who’d endorsed him. Issa, of Vista, had the closest re-election race of his career but nevertheless won with 51.1 percent of the vote.
Denham, of Turlock, who endorsed Trump in a Central Valley district that is more than 40 percent Latino, beat Democrat Michael Eggman with 52 percent of the vote.
Knight, of Lancaster, received a comfortable 54 percent of the vote in a north Los Angeles County congressional race against Democrat Bryan Caforio. Both Denham and Knight were headed to victory in their re-election races despite registered Democrats outnumbering Republicans in their districts.
The combative Issa was the highest profile target for the Democrats, with President Barack Obama appearing at a fundraiser in the district and declaring that Issa’s “primary contribution to the United States has been to obstruct and to waste taxpayer dollars on trumped-up investigations that have led nowhere.”
Issa’s Democratic opponent, retired Marine Col. Doug Applegate, was leading as early returns came in from north San Diego County. But that changed when returns came in from the southern Orange County portion of the district, where Issa dominated with more than 60 percent of the vote.
“Cheers to Team Issa and thank you!” Issa tweeted.
Issa won even as voters in the conservative stronghold of Orange County favored Hillary Clinton over Trump – the first time that Orange County has voted for a Democratic presidential candidate in 80 years. Issa relentlessly attacked Obama and launched investigations during his four years as chairman of the House Oversight Committee but as the race tightened Issa downplayed his support for Trump and even featured Obama in a campaign mailer.
Obama called the mailer the “definition of chutzpah,” a term that Issa embraced as he launched a “Chutzpah Bus Tour” of the district in the closing days of the campaign.
Issa has been in the U.S. House for 16 years and this was his first close re-election race. His opponent, Applegate, mixed liberal politics with a Marine background that helped in a district that includes Camp Pendleton, but was hurt by revelations that he was accused of harassing and threatening his ex-wife a decade ago.
Republican Denham prevailed in a Central Valley district that spans Stanislaus County and part of San Joaquin County but also had a closer than usual race in an area that consistently elects Republicans despite the high number of registered Democrats and growing Latino voter registration.
Denham’s backing of Trump did not hurt him in Stanislaus County, which includes Modesto, as the county’s voters bucked the statewide tide and narrowly favored Trump over Clinton for president. But Denham and Eggman virtually tied in San Joaquin County, which voted for Clinton.
His beekeeper opponent, Eggman, and national Democrats had worked furiously to link Denham to Trump in the heavily Latino district while Republicans invested heavily to keep the seat. More than $11 million was spent on the race, most from outside groups. That compares to just over $100,000 in outside spending during the 2014 race between Denham and Eggman, where Denham had easily prevailed by 12 percentage points.
Denham sought to focus on local issues, particularly water, and benefited from a perception among many voters that he is a moderate on immigration.
Knight had been widely considered the most vulnerable Republican congressional incumbent in California but outperformed expectations on election night. Knight waffled on whether he supported Trump and voters in the high desert district north of Los Angeles didn’t punish him for it.
Knight hammered on the fact that Bryan Caforio, his Democratic opponent, recently moved to the district, portraying Caforio as a political opportunist. Knight won the Los Angeles County portion of the district but did especially well in Ventura County, where he received more than 57 percent of the vote.
His comfortable win came despite Trump winning just 39 percent of the total vote in Ventura County and 23 percent of the vote in Los Angeles County.
Democrats did have some bright spots in California on election night and remain in control of the vast majority of California’s seats in the U.S. House as well as both Senate seats. Vulnerable Rep. Ami Bera, D-Elk Grove, narrowly survived his re-election race in the Sacramento suburbs and the comfortable victory of Salud Carbajal means Democrats keep the House seat held by the retiring Rep. Lois Capps, D-Santa Barbara.
But, as throughout the nation, Democratic predictions that Trump’s controversies would sink incumbent Republicans who endorsed him were wrong in California.