Republican was a dirty word in California this year. Just ask Jeff Denham.

Jeff Denham, shown on election night, has conceded in the congressional race against Josh Harder.
Jeff Denham, shown on election night, has conceded in the congressional race against Josh Harder. aalfaro@modbee.com

There is nothing California Republican Rep. Jeff Denham says he could have done to keep his seat. Not even embracing — or criticizing — President Donald Trump.

Denham lost to Democrat Josh Harder, and downplayed the impact of Trump’s inflammatory comments about a migrant caravan headed to the U.S. had on voters in his district, which is about 40 percent Latino.

Instead, Denham turned to the Republican Party, saying it needed to re-evaluate its strategy in California.

Republicans are expected to hold only eight of the state’s 53 House seats in the next Congress. If Republicans in California don’t re-evaluate strategy, even the reddest districts in California could be at risk in future elections, Denham warned.

Denham said his own race, as well as those of other Republicans, were faced with trouble this year from a Democratic operation well-positioned to turn out voters, unprecedented Democratic fundraising and new California voter laws designed to register more younger voters.

Democrats targeted seven Republican seats in California in districts won by Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton in the 2016 presidential election. Six were flipped, including all of the House seats in Orange County, a traditionally Republican area.

Denham focused on water, a huge issue in the agrarian district, while Harder focused on health care. Neither focused heavily on Trump, preferring to highlight local issues.

“I’ve been through a number of tough elections, but this was the toughest,” Denham told McClatchy in his first post-race interview.

Mike Lynch, a veteran Democratic strategist based in Denham’s district, said he agreed there was likely little Denham could do personally to keep the seat.

Lynch did cite one big Denham stumble: The congressman’s vote for the Republican repeal of the Affordable Care Act, which would have weakened protections for pre-existing conditions, after telling constituents at a town hall the week before that he wouldn’t vote for it. But it’s still hard to say if that would’ve changed the results.

Lynch didn’t agree with Denham’s lack of blame for Trump, saying even Republican attitudes in the district tend to run anti-Trump.

Also hurting Denham was the big Latino vote. Ethnic breakdowns of the overall vote haven’t been tabulated. But early returns on Latino voter turnout indicated their participation was about the same as in presidential election years for the first time in a midterm election.

Denham pointed to other factors.

He said Republicans were hurt by California’s motor voter law, which encourages 16- and 17-year-olds to pre-register to vote as they get their driver’s licenses so they will be automatically registered at 18, and same-day registration, which allowed people to register up until Election Day and cast a provisional ballot.

The partisan gap is only going to get worse, the congressman said, unless Republicans figure out how to appeal to younger voters.

Another lapse: The GOP has also failed to adequately respond to ActBlue, an online Democrat donation site that allows people to make small and large donations to candidates of their choosing

It funneled over $700 million to House and Senate Democratic candidates in the 2018 campaign. In Harder’s last quarter of fundraising, he received over $2 million in donations from ActBlue, part of a total haul for the quarter of $3.5 million.

Denham hasn’t been the first one to say so — Republican Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell said in comments after the election that Democrats had them badly beat in the online donor game and that he had directed his staff to come up with a response for 2020.

But why haven’t they acted to address it sooner? Denham said he didn’t know the answer, since it isn’t the first election where ActBlue flexed some serious fundraising muscle.

Add to its current fundraising a record $30 million the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee invested nationwide to turn out the vote and a flood of volunteers from Democratic strongholds such as San Francisco, where safe Democratic officeholders had the freedom to head for nearby districts such as Denham’s.

As a result, Denham said, all California Republicans “need to be worried.”

Denham’s next act is not in the public sector. He said he’s focused on expanding his plastics business, looking forward to giving up long plane rides to and from Washington. He downplayed talk of running again, though he wouldn’t rule it out entirely.

“We’re moving on,” he said.

Kate Irby: 202-383-6071, @kateirby
Kate Irby is based in Washington, D.C. and reports on issues important to McClatchy’s California newspapers, including the Sacramento Bee, Fresno Bee and Modesto Bee. She previously reported on breaking news in D.C., politics in Florida for the Bradenton Herald and politics in Ohio for the Cleveland Plain Dealer.