Vulnerable California Republicans like Darrell Issa seek distance from Trump

People protest outside the Junior Seau Beach Community Center as U.S. Rep. Darrell Issa, R-Calif., holds a town hall meeting inside on March 11, 2017, in Oceanside, Calif.
People protest outside the Junior Seau Beach Community Center as U.S. Rep. Darrell Issa, R-Calif., holds a town hall meeting inside on March 11, 2017, in Oceanside, Calif. AP

California Republican Rep. Darrell Issa stood before a jeering crowd at a town hall in Oceanside, Calif. and insisted that he’s not an acolyte of President Donald Trump.

“My public statements are clearly out of step with many other Republicans,” Issa said at the meeting this month streamed live on his Facebook page. “I will continue to push my colleagues one by one in public and private to realize (Russian election interference) is an existential threat to democracy."

Issa built a reputation in Washington as a partisan pit bull, launching investigations of President Barack Obama. It’s a reputation he is now eager to shed after struggling to win election in a district that favored Democrat Hillary Clinton over Trump by more than 7 percentage points.

Issa and other coastal California Republicans in Congress are increasingly distancing themselves from Trump, who is enormously unpopular in the state and a threat to their chances of being re-elected.

While Democrats fret over how to win over Rust Belt voters who backed Donald Trump, their chance to win the 24 seats they need to win a majority in the U.S. House in next year’s midterm election depends on unseating California Republicans like Issa.

There are 23 Republican congressional districts nationwide that voted for Clinton and four of them touch Orange County.

Issa, who represents a stretch of sunshine, sand and smoothies north of San Diego into Orange County, is a top target of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee. So are Orange County Republican Reps. Ed Royce, Mimi Walters and Dana Rohrabacher, all of whom also represent districts that voted for Clinton in November.

The Democratic Party has already hired staffers in Issa and Royce’s districts to coordinate with the anti-Trump group Indivisible and to train organizers to lay the groundwork for a challenge of the veteran congressmen.

Trump was the first Republican to lose Orange County in a presidential election since 1936. Once home to President Richard Nixon’s Western White House, it is the most prominent Republican county in the nation to flip to Clinton and a sign of slipping GOP control of rich suburbs.

The demographics of Orange County are shifting, with growing numbers of minority voters, particularly Latinos. The area is also home to higher educated voters, particularly women, who exit polls showed did not embrace Trump’s populism so much as other Republicans.

“Democrats are much more likely to gain ground in places like Orange County, California than in some of the districts that they used to hold in working class areas. Clearly Democrats’ route to the majority runs through wealthy suburbs,” said David Wasserman, who analyzes U.S. House races for the nonpartisan Cook Political Report.

Wasserman said the four Orange County seats represents one-sixth of the seats the Democrats need to win control of the House and are more realistic for the party to target than working class areas in the Midwest or southern states that are deeply Republican.

“So the Democrats would need those seats,” he said.

Issa was an early embracer of Trump during the presidential campaign. Now he’s a lonely Republican voice calling for an independent investigation of ties between Trump associates and Russia.

He’s criticizing Trump’s proposed cuts to the Environmental Protection Agency and efforts to defund Planned Parenthood – even though he’s amassed vote ratings of just 4 percent and zero respectively from the League of Conservation Voters and Planned Parenthood Action Fund.

While Trump called global warming a “Chinese hoax,” Issa this month joined the Climate Solutions Caucus, a group in Congress formed to address solutions to climate change.

Issa is arguably Congress’ most vulnerable incumbent, having won re-election by 0.6 percent.

“Last November was a wake-up call. He now understands that he has to work for it,” said Dan Schnur, who teaches political communications at the University of Southern California and was communications director for John McCain’s 2000 presidential campaign.

Issa, who declined requests for an interview, emphasizes his independence and told the largely hostile town hall crowd in Oceanside this month that “I do not work for the executive branch.”

All four of the Republicans who represent parts of Orange County – Issa, Royce, Walters and Rohrabacher – have become major targets of the anti-Trump group Indivisible, with repeated protests outside of their offices.

Democrats have struggled in the past to recruit good Orange County candidates and get them the money needed to compete. It remains to be seen if Democrats can make inroads against an entrenched incumbent like Royce, even as they drool over the fact that his congressional district favored Clinton by nearly nine percentage points over Trump.

Royce, in the meantime, is beginning to create distance between himself and Trump.

Royce, chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, broke with other Republicans to criticize Trump’s budget proposal, declaring himself “very concerned that deep cuts to our diplomacy will hurt efforts to combat terrorism, distribute critical humanitarian aid, and promote opportunities for American workers.”

He condemned Trump’s tweet threatening the withdrawal of federal funds to the University of California-Berkeley after violent protests over a planned speech by conservative provocateur Milo Yiannopolous.

Both he and Walters joined the Democrats in calling for Trump Attorney General Jeff Sessions to recuse himself into the Justice Department investigations of Trump and Russia.

Rohrabacher is pushing back against the White House threat to crack down on California and other states that legalized recreational marijuana. Rohrabacher, though, disputes the notion that he and the other Orange County Republicans are vulnerable to an anti-Trump backlash.

“I don’t think the Democrats have a rat’s chance in hell to take over the House next time,” Rohrabacher said.

Rohrabacher might have reason for confidence after cruising to re-election in November with 58 percent of the vote. But Democrats are hoping that Rohrabacher, who has been called “(Russian leader Vladimir) Putin’s favorite congressman” is vulnerable on his outspoken support of Russia at the time of investigations into the Kremlin’s meddling into U.S. politics.

Rohrabacher has already attracted two Democratic challengers for next year’s election.

One of them, businessman Harley Rouda, has a new online ad that highlights Rohrabacher telling a Yahoo News anchor in December that the idea of Russian human rights abuses is “baloney.”

Schnur said that if not for Trump, though, he thinks all the Orange County Republicans would have safe seats.

But, while he said Walters and Royce in particular are good at working their districts and would still be difficult to unseat, they’re going to have to deal with the fact that even the Republican base in California contains a lot of voters who don’t like Trump.

“They’re now facing a much more complicated electorate,” he said. “It’s a challenging landscape.”

Sean Cockerham: 202-383-6016, @seancockerham