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California Poses Problem for GOP as 2018 Dawns1-1-18 10:23 AM EST
By Gerald F. Seib 

California is the nation's most populous state, home to 53 seats in the House of Representatives, reservoir of 55 Electoral College votes -- and a growing political problem for Republicans as the 2018 midterm election year dawns.

GOP fortunes have been declining for the last two decades in California, a trend that may be accelerating. The recently passed tax-cut bill, with its limits on deductibility of state and local taxes and mortgage interest, seemed almost designed to strike at high-tax states with pricey real estate such as California. As a result, two of the 12 GOP House votes against the measure came from California representatives, while some of the state's Republicans who voted for the measure did so with misgivings.

Meanwhile, President Donald Trump's immigration policies are widely unpopular in a state with a large population of Hispanics and Asian-Americans. Both the state and the city of San Francisco are suing the administration over its attempt to cut federal funds to so-called sanctuary cities, which decline to help federal authorities find and deport illegal immigrants.

The president's decision to withdraw from the Paris climate accords, and his tendency to dismiss fears of global warming, cut against the grain in California, home of some of the country's most environmentally attuned citizens. Republican efforts to undo Obamacare also are an irritant in a state that has tended to strongly support the law.

Add it all up and a bad situation for Republicans could easily get worse. Democrats already hold both of California's Senate seats, its governorship, virtually all statewide offices and 39 of its 53 House seats.

Now even some of the 14 House seats California Republicans do hold are in jeopardy in this year's midterm election, when control of Congress hangs in the balance. Half of those Republican incumbents come from districts carried by Democrat Hillary Clinton in the 2016 presidential contest.

The Cook Political Report rates eight of the 14 House districts Republicans hold as highly competitive this year, and calls three of them tossups, meaning Democrats' chances of seizing them are roughly equal to the GOP's chances of retaining them.

In short, in a year in which Democrats will be gunning to take over 24 House seats to win back control of the House, California sits atop their target list.

"These Republican incumbents are still in a very difficult position," says Dan Schnur, a former Republican political consultant who now is a professor at the University of Southern California's Annenberg School of Communications.

He wrote a piecein the Los Angeles Times recently asserting that California Republicans "have been left hanging by their national party leadership, whose focus seems to be squarely on the needs of their colleagues in more conservative parts of the country." The Los Angeles Lakers, he noted, have more players on their roster than California Republicans have representatives in Congress.

Mr. Schnur thinks the new tax cut, despite provisions that are problematic in California, may prove a marginal benefit to some of the California Republicans, because it will help energize the GOP base and shift the focus of debate toward economic issues and away from the social issues that separate many Californians from the national Republican party.

Still, he adds, "the biggest challenge for these suburban Republicans is more cultural than it is legislative. They're are a lot more uncomfortable with Trump's behavior than they are with his policy agenda." Immigration, he adds, looms as "the biggest challenge for Republican incumbents."

Even if Republicans manage to hold their own in this year's midterm elections, the state is likely to remain a forbidding land for the GOP in presidential politics.

It's hard to believe now, but California was, not so long ago, a bedrock for Republican presidential ambitions. Its stash of electoral votes "gave Republicans a near lock on the presidency in the 1970s and 1980s," notes the Almanac of American Politics.

That began turning in the 1990s. Among other factors, Gov. Pete Wilson won re-election while supporting Proposition 187, a ballot measure designed to ban state aid to illegal immigrants. Republican fortunes among Hispanics began to decline, and the party's broader fortunes followed suit.

By 2012, then-President Barack Obama carried California with 60% of the vote. In 2016, Mrs. Clinton won 62% of the vote, and 900,000 more raw votes than did Mr. Obama four years earlier.

Four of California's counties switched from Republican to Democrat in 2016, including Orange County, long a bastion of Republican party conservatives.

Orange County hadn't gone Democratic since the time of Franklin Roosevelt. Now the two conservatives who represent the county in Congress, Reps. Dana Rohrabacher and Darrell Issa, are among the House's most imperiled incumbents -- and were the two Californians who voted against the just-passed tax bill.

Write to Gerald F. Seib at jerry.seib@wsj.com

 

(END) Dow Jones Newswires

January 01, 2018 10:23 ET (15:23 GMT)

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