Latest News

‘Turnout will be key.’ What California leaders think will happen in congressional races

More from the series

The California Influencers Series

Expand All

California Influencers this week answered this question: Given the importance of the competitive California House races in the battle for control of Congress, what are the most important things to watch for in the closing weeks of those campaigns? Here are their answers:

Barbara Boxer – United States Senator (1993-2017)

There are 10 competitive races in California that could switch from Republican to Democrat. The odds are half of those will. It is of course possible that there are fewer. It all depends on voter intensity and who is more motivated to get to the polls. Historically midterm turn out is very low but it is possible because of so many heartfelt issues this will change. Issues like attacks tax on the free press, violence against women, immigrant family separation, fear of losing insurance due to preexisting conditions, the rise of the white nationalist movement and the tragedy of gun violence, may well shake up the usual makeup of the electorate in a midterm election. If that happens, sharp changes are on the way in the Congress and in my view this country will be on a much brighter course.

Midterm elections tend to be battles of the bases and the intensity of voter interest matters a lot. So, one key question is whether Democratic enthusiasm (and therefore by extension turnout) remains as high as many polls suggest by the time we get to Election Day. In many of the contested congressional districts in California, particularly those that Hillary Clinton won in 2016, another important unknown is whether Republican candidates are able to distinguish themselves from President Trump. If the midterm election is a referendum on President Trump, rather than a choice between two very different visions of policy governance, the number of Republicans in Congress from California will shrink even further.

Catherine Lew – Principal and Co-Founder, Lew Edwards Group

#WatchOutBoys! Whether in 1992 or 2018, hell hath no fury like a woman wronged. The reaction to the Kavanaugh hearings and reactions from women are a wild card dynamic to watch for going into this election cycle. A couple hundred female candidates are already headed to November’s congressional elections –the most ever in our country’s history. In California, over a dozen female newcomers are challenging incumbent California representatives this fall. Following Anita Hill’s testimony 27 years ago, California became the first state in the nation to be represented in the Senate by two women. Watch out for whether larger percentages of women, Democrats, and younger voters turn out this fall to make their voices heard. 2018 could very well be another bellwether for Democrats and female candidates. I subscribe to former Senator Barbara Mikulski’s sentiment, who famously said: “Calling 1992 the Year of the Woman makes it sound like the Year of the Caribou or the Year of the Asparagus. We’re not a fad, a fancy, or a year.” #HeretoStay #MeToo

Tom Campbell – Professor of Law and Professor of Economics, Chapman University

In the two competitive open congressional seats in California, the Republican candidates will try to emphasize local issues and a good economy. In all the other races, where there is a Republican incumbent, however, the House election will be a referendum on President Trump. Every Republican incumbent is an enabler of President Trump, in the Democratic challenger’s eyes. Republicans can shout Cong. Nancy Pelosi, Sen. Chuck Schumer, Congresswoman-to-be Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Sen. Elizabeth Warren, Sen. Bernie Sanders, and Socialism — but, I predict, to no avail. In effect, Pres. Trump is on the ballot, none of the others is.

In the remaining weeks of this campaign season, we should see if any factor diverts that focus. If not, then the election outcome will be a predictor for the Presidential race of 2020, and all the primary activity leading up to it. The defeat of Republican incumbents will tell the Democrats to continue all-anti-Trump-all-the-time. It might embolden Ohio Governor John Kasich to challenge Pres. Trump for the Republican nomination. A less than expected performance by the Democratic challengers will guarantee President Trump’s re-nomination, and send the Democrats scurrying for a different message in 2020.

Janet Napolitano – President, University of California

In the closing days of the campaign what matters most is something not easily observable; that is, which candidates have the most effective “get out the vote” operation. Turnout will be key. Will the so-called Trump base win the day? Will Democrats be motivated to vote? A second thing to watch is the polling of the “no party preference” voter. Will they begin to surge to the Republicans or the Democrats? Will they even be motivated to vote? One thing is certain: the upcoming election will tell us a lot about where the country is trending.

Kim Belshé – Executive Director, First 5 LA

The national news features a daily deluge of foreign interference in our elections, creating a crisis of confidence in our democratic institutions which may depress turnout. Instead of ‘watching’ competitive races, I ‘d like to see more Californians participate in our democracy by voting, and if they can, volunteering for get-out-the-vote efforts. Service of this kind in your community sets a great example for those future voters, our children. Small acts of democracy is the part of a bigger solution to re-build confidence.

Jim Brulte – Chairman, California Republican Party

The most important thing to watch is the enthusiasm gap...if there is one. Early in the year democrat voters were more enthusiastic than GOP the primary the Gap closed. IT remains closed. IF there is an enthusiasm gap, it will help one party or the other in a base election.

Angie Wei – Chief of Staff, California Labor Federation

The President isn’t on the ballot, but he’s the biggest thing to drive this election. How many people who resist this president’s policies and character will turn out to vote? New citizens, women, Latinos, millenials. That turn out will determine the outcome of so many other races in our state.

Chad Peace – Founder/President, IVC Media and Founding Board Member, National Association of Non-Partisan Reformers

Watch for candidates that are willing to buck the nationalized political narratives. Hyper-partisan politics is a natural and predictable consequence of consultants from both sides of the aisle using the same playbook for decades: divide the electorate and turn out their respective base. The playbook keeps being used because one of the candidates in any given race keeps winning. In California, however, “no party preference” voter registration is booming and a few races, like for US Senate (D v. D) and Insurance Commissioner (D v. I), will confound political operatives who only see red and blue. It is important to watch the candidates in these races to see whether they rediscover the old playbook for campaigns of persuasion, and give voters who don’t share their party affiliation a reason to vote for them.

Jim Wunderman – President and CEO, Bay Area Council

California has a chance finally to be relevant in national politics. With its late primary and a well-established Democratic majority among congressional seats, California doesn’t often have a chance to influence elections at a national level. But with Democrats needing 23 seats to take control of the House and more than 10 seats at play in California, the Golden State could play a key role in deciding the outcome. And how those races get decided will depend on voter turnout and who is feeling most energized to cast their ballots. Issues not directly related to those specific races may have a big influence on turnout. Polling this week by the Public Policy Institute of California shows that voters overall are leaning against Proposition 10 (allowing rent control) and Proposition 6 (repealing SB 1). Will that discourage voters who may decide their vote doesn’t matter or will it incite them to keep fighting. And what impact might the turbulent Kavanaugh hearings have on voter enthusiasm? It will be interesting to see how candidates in these swing races embrace or downplay these issues. Early absentee voting returns in the coming weeks may tell us something about who will turn out, although that’s not an absolute measure. Elections are decided by those who vote, and who votes in this election may have profound national consequences.

Michele Siqueiros – President, Campaign for College Opportunity

In every election the only thing that matters when all is said and done is voter turnout. So in the weeks leading up to this battle for the control of Congress we will all be watching how fired up voters are and if voter turnout is high, the GOP will have to respond to a blue tsunami not just a blue wave.

Ashley Swearengin – President and CEO of the Central Valley Community Foundation

It’s going to be an exciting close to the 2018 midterm election cycle. Things on my watch list include paying close attention to the votes of D.C. incumbents. There are some big and controversial votes coming their way on issues they may normally be able to avoid, but with competitive races this cycle, incumbents may be forced to move to the center, especially considering the role of independent voters in those tight races. Here in the Central Valley, another interesting thing to watch is the amount of financial resources flooding in from other outside markets. That’s creating a heightened political environment in the Central San Joaquin Valley that we haven’t seen in many years. I live in one of those congressional districts and believe me – my mailbox is full and overflowing every day. That’s going to continue all the way through Election Day.

Daniel Zingale – Senior Vice President, California Endowment

The most closely contested House races in California are happening where many residents are under represented in elections. Levels of participation among lower income, Latino and younger eligible voters have lagged behind that of other groups. That means the full potential power of California’s voice in Washington DC is muffled. But there are some encouraging signs of progress in closing the voter participation gap. California Secretary of State Alex Padilla recently reported more than 200,000 16 and 17-year-old residents have pre-registered, half of whom will be 18 and eligible to vote this November. A more robust and representative electorate could tip the outcomes of these races and even the balance of power in Washington DC. That is worth keeping an eye on.

Manuel Pastor – Director of Program for USC Environmental and Regional Equity

The elections for seats in the house are likely to hinge on Democratic turnout and independent and moderate Republic swing voters. A few interesting things to watch. The first is whether money for Democratic candidates will be there sufficiently given how many seats are now in play nationally; that could divert attention since California wins are less crucial. the second is whether the gas tax repeal -- a fiscally irresponsible measure put on the ballot to drive up Republican turnout -- catches fire (it seems to be sizzling but not much more). Finally, these races will all be affected by the rising national disapproval of Trump, the rising gender gap, and any efforts to improve youth turnout.

Mindy Romero – Founder and Director, USC California Civic Engagement Project

The battle to control the House runs right through California and the impact of Trump’s polices and rhetoric will play a critical role in the mobilization of voters. Statewide, every congressional candidate has made a calculation about how to engage with the Trump Factor - both Democrats and Republicans alike. They face a landscape riddled with political landmines and moving targets. And many voters are playing close attention.

Take the Kavanaugh nomination. Even before the events of last week, 74% of California’s likely voters said that the choice for the next Supreme Court Justice matters to them personally, according to the PPIC. Or take gun control laws. Since the Parkland shooting, outrage over school gun violence is at a new high, particularly for young voters.

The biggest potential game changer this fall could be California’s sizable Latino voting population. Latinos who vote will have a chance to respond to two years of fearmongering and anti-immigrant policies by the Trump administration.

Their votes will be significant. In the 2016 elections, Latinos made up at least 10% of voters in the state’s six competitive congressional districts. They made up nearly a quarter of all voters in three of these districts. It will be the size and quality of the investment in Latino get-out-the-vote efforts that will help ultimately determine California’s direct impact on congressional policies.

Roger Salazar – President, Alza Strategies

As is the case with most close contests, you have to follow the money. As the races tighten up and resources get more scarce, take a look at where the last minute money is flowing. The trick is to figure out whether that last minute money is shoring up a win or a panicked attempt to stave off a loss.

Kathryn Phillips – Director, Sierra Club California

We’ve seen around the country in other elections that have successfully flipped state legislative or Congressional seats since November 2016 that the ground game makes the difference. Advertising, free media, rallies and debates all play an important role. But the thing that will flip districts is how many volunteers on the ground, knocking on doors or making phone calls, the challengers are able to attract and put to work effectively in the final weeks. People who actually hear from a canvasser are motivated to vote and will create the wins for challengers.

Bonnie Castillo – Executive Director, California Nurses Association

November is critical to begin to reverse the disastrous policies of the Trump Administration and it’s enablers in Congress. But let’s not forget that over the past decade Democrats have lost some 1,000 national, state, and local elections, in large part due to the all too common failure of offering a true alternative to the corporate agenda that has left behind far too many of our neighbors.

Across the country, we are seeing a sea change with many candidates running, and winning, on platforms that define real solutions to the widening chasm in wealth and income inequality, soaring medical bills, housing costs, and student debt, racial injustice, sexual harassment and gender disparities, protecting the rights of all in our diverse country, and a climate crisis we see in California with searing regularity.

Fortunately, we have some outstanding candidates in California House races – including Katie Porter and Harley Rouda in Orange County, and Ammar Campa-Najjar in San Diego — who offer a vision and program to offer the real change that our communities and nation need.

Jim Boren – Executive Director, Fresno State’s Institute for Media and Public Trust

In every election, beware of last-minute attack ads as candidates go negative to get the votes they think will push them to victory. Smart voters should weigh the quality of information being released and go to as many news sites as possible to check the claims. Voters should also check whether the attacks are directly from a candidate or an “independent” committee.

David Townsend – Founder, TCT Public Affairs

Tip O’Neil reminded us that “all politics is local”. But these are not normal times. The large shadow of Trump covers California with a disapproval rating of 60% .... 50% is intense disapproval. Trump won in a “send a message” election. It appears that this too will be a “send a message to Trump” election in California. Trump”s bombastic style, lying and treatment of women will very likely cause the Republicans to lose at least the House of Representatives. And his continued bad behavior is the most prominent thing to watch as we go into the last month of the campaign. Democratic candidates will be wise to never mention Trump and stay focused on the critical issues and concerns of the voters in their district. But the shadow of Trump will be there.

Madeleine Brand – Host, KCRW Radio Los Angeles

The money. Where it’s coming from and where it’s going. The midterms are almost as expensive this year as a presidential year. And a lot of the money is dark and unregulated. It’ll be interesting to see where the political parties put their money - which candidates they think are most viable.

Linda Ackerman – President, Marian Bergeson Excellence in Public Service Series

The most important issue that will impact California in the mid term election is the confirmation vote for Supreme Court Nominee Judge Kavanaugh. The media circus being led by the Democrats and the mainstream media will give California voters a chance to decide to support the rule of law or hysteria. The California electorate should be looking at the robust economy and jobs climate we are experiencing as opposed to the above mentioned media show. They should be looking at trade agreements being considered with countries around the world and efforts by the president to make our world a safer place with current ongoing peace negotiations. It is easy to become distracted in these last few weeks of campaign, when often a late surprise, some major event or revelation or scandal appears right before the election in an attempt to sway voters opinion. How this is perceived and reported on could have a major impact on whether we have a blue wave or a red one. Every congressional race includes local issues that will also influence how people vote. The importance of those issues, coupled with the national issues will be weighed by the voters to determine their decisions.

Jon Coupal – President, Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Association

The better question is what is the least important thing to watch in the closing weeks of the campaign. Under that heading, we should add polling. Polling prior to 2016 was notoriously wrong, even for the credible pollsters with good reputations. The Kavanaugh debacle makes for fairly disgusting theatre, but will probably serve only to increase voter turnout on both sides. Probably a wash. Unless there is some bombshell of bad economic news – unlikely at this stage of the game – the resurgence economy will likely inure to the benefit of Republicans. The nearly doubling of positive perceptions of President Trump by African Americans is notable but it is impossible to determine if this will translate into bigger turnout at the polls.

Rob Stutzman – Founder and President, Stutzman Public Affairs

The spending patterns by committees on each side will tell you if the Democrats are successfully expanding the playing field or if Republicans are going to hold onto certain seats. For example, the Dems have abandoned their commitment to defeat Rep. David Valadao in the 21st district, but it also appears the GOP is abandoning the 49th district previously held by Darrel Issa. A sleeper race to keep an eye on is Rep. Jim Costa’s re-elect in district 16, this seat is always a mid-term problem for this incumbent Democrat because of low turnout in the district and this year the GOP candidate, Elizabeth Heng, is fresh new face.

Maria Mejia – Los Angeles Director, Gen Next

As we near the midterm elections and the two parties battle one another for control of Congress, we should stop thinking about power and start focusing on performance. This election cycle, we have an opportunity to strengthen our leadership bench by electing more women to Congress. Electing more women to serve in key leadership positions is more than just about gender balance, it is about a high level need to tap into the full potential and spectrum of American talent as a key strategy for more effective governance. There is too much at stake, and it is short sighted and foolish of us to continue to operate in purely ideological lines.

Chet Hewitt – President and CEO, Sierra Health Foundation

The most important activity to watch for in the coming weeks may well be what polls tell us about the leanings and motivation of three groups of voters to actually vote: women, independents and members of communities of color. Research has shown that anger is often the most motivational factor in getting people to vote. After a day of hearings on the nomination of Brett Kavanaugh to the Supreme Court, one could assume that there is sufficient anger to motivate voters on both sides of the aisle nationally and in our state. What people are unwilling to tolerate any longer, hopefully coupled with a vision for what kind of state and nation we do want to live in, will determine who will be in charge of Congress after the midterm elections.

Rosalind Hudnell – Former VP of Human Resources, Intel Corp and Former Chair/President of Intel Foundation

At the highest level, particularly given the current Supreme Court nomination process, nothing in November is likely going to be 100% state driven. I will continue to look at whether propositions focused on gas tax and rent control will impact voter turnout the most. And given the daily headlines coming out of Washington could it be actually possible that there could be our own version of a blue wave in historically red districts driven by women in the 7 districts won by Hillary Clinton in 2016? I’m going to be watching to see if those races continue to tighten and whether California begins to see increased national interest for being a key influencer in Democrats taking back the House. If we see a last minute appearance in California by President Trump, which I seriously doubt that would be telling.

Monica Lozano – President and CEO, California Futures Foundation

The importance of the upcoming midterm elections couldn’t be more clear. Control of the US House of Representatives and the Senate are at stake and with it policies and laws that advance or further restrict equity, opportunity and social justice. Thankfully, we are seeing heightened levels of civic mobilization among women, young people, Latinos and other people of color. They are enthusiastic, energized and motivated to participate. They understand they are voting on is a fair and humane immigration system, an economic system that offers prosperity for all, where women’s reproductive rights are protected and heathcare is made affordable. Voter mobilization and turnout continue to be the most important things to watch as we get closer to election day.

Catherine Reheis-Boyd – President, Western States Petroleum Association

It will be interesting to watch how late spending by PACs and independent expenditures on the initiatives, or who knows, maybe a policy decision out of Washington D.C., affects voter turnout in close races like CA-10.

Cassandra Pye – President, California Women Lead and Founder/CEO, 3.14 Communications

Voting is a deeply personal act. Each of us is motivated to (or not) participate in the process based on something (or someone) which matters uniquely to us. What I’m watching for in the closing weeks of this election season are those particular elements that might strike a particular chord with a group or groups of voters. Both major parties have adequate resources for campaign ads and such and some of those investments appear to be already moving the needle on key ballot issues i.e., the gas tax and rent control initiatives. The president could light a fuse, one way or the other, should he decide personally engage in one or more congressional races; former President Obama (or the real secret weapon, his better half) could make another trip to the state and/or deliver an impactful statement or call-to-action which awakens an urge within a segment of voters; a remarkable personality could weigh in and his or her sentiment gain momentum; or, a singular flashpoint – an incident, a statement, a (confirmation) vote or a tweet – which reinforces injustices against women could be that ‘straw’ that will rally new, young, female and/or casual voters to the polls. Any one of these elements, a pair, all or none could make the difference leading up to Election Day.

Amanda Renteria – Board member, Emerge America & Former Chief of Operations, California Department of Justice

Momentum, momentum, momentum. It is a sprint from the moment ballots drop to election day. The campaigns with sustaining energy, a strategy of education and empowerment, and the know-how to get people to the polls will be the winner this year! It is a historic election and there’s a real energy for places like the Central Valley to make the history books.

Corey Matthews – Vice President, LeadersUp

More than 12% of the U.S. Population lives in California. If California can get healthcare, transportation, wage equity, and housing right, then every state would follow its lead. We have the most people of any state (by far) but also the biggest wage and educational gap. We have miles and miles of under developed land but a severe housing shortage. And we have a budget surplus now with an initiative on the ballot to curb transportation production. We need to see decisive leadership on the matters of today because if they are not adequately addressed, our future is compromised. With the rising costs of healthcare and a lack of jobs that provide livable wages, and quality benefits, we need to watch for candidates that want to address challenges impacting the lives of everyday people and not just tending to the needs of the wealthy. California has the duty and responsibility to drive the innovation of our nation forward and with the well-cited changes that will come with technological advancement, our leadership is responsible for ensuring that we do not leave millions of people behind because we can’t get the basics right. Ultimately, we cannot be equipped to address the new frontier of a tech-centered society, without first ensuring that the basic needs of people are met. It would be short-sighted and out of touch of for any leader to run on a platform that doesn’t address healthcare, housing and wages as the most important issues of our time.

Dan Schnur, a veteran analyst and longtime participant in California politics, is director of the California Influencers series for The Sacramento Bee and McClatchy.