After Midterm 'Blue Wave,' Democrats Turn Attention to Unseating Nunes, Hunter in 2020

Rep. Devin Nunes speaks to reporters during a press conference at the U.S. Capitol. (Win McNamee/Getty Images)

In last November's midterm elections, Democrats accomplished what very few thought they would: picking up seven California congressional seats held by Republicans, including four in Orange County and two in the Central Valley.

On the heels of that success, Democrats are now setting their sights on two other Republican incumbents who narrowly eluded getting swept out by the blue tsunami: Devin Nunes and Duncan Hunter.

In the 2018 election cycle, Nunes — one of President Donald Trump's earliest and most ardent defenders — used an extensive fundraising operation to rake in more than $12 million for his re-election campaign, almost half of it coming from small individual donors.

"Much of it was raised through digital ads on right wing web sites like Info Wars," said Drew Godinich, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee's spokesperson in California for the 2018 election. "We'd never really seen that before."

The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee (DCCC) never seriously believed Nunes could be beaten. But his challenger, Fresno prosecutor Andrew Janz, exceeded expectations, with very little help from the Democratic Party.

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Janz raised an eye-popping $9.2 million, cashing in on small contributions from Democrats nationwide. Despite the large Republican advantage in voter registration in the 22nd Congressional District, Janz ended up losing by fewer than 12,000 votes, 53 to 47 percent.

"Traditional metrics said this race was not close," said Heather Greven, who worked on the Janz campaign last year. "Devin Nunes spent $12 million on his district instead of using some of it to protect other California Republicans," like David Valadao, who lost a squeaker to Democrat TJ Cox in the neighboring 21st Congressional District.

"By forcing Nunes to spend on his own race, we knocked out the GOP’s top fundraiser," Greven added, meaning Nunes apparently felt vulnerable enough that he didn't use his vast war chest to help other Republicans facing stiff challenges, as he has in past years when he coasted to re-election.

This time around, the DCCC says it will invest in organizers on the ground in the Central Valley and Orange County, where they'll fight to protect the seven freshmen Democrats who picked up Republican-held seats while also focusing on Republican incumbents.

In addition to Nunes, the DCCC is targeting Hunter, a San Diego Republican who is under indictment for alleged misuse of campaign funds, among other things. Hunter's use of Islamaphobic rhetoric against his opponent, 29-year-old newcomer Ammar Campa-Najjar, was widely criticized by civil rights groups.

Despite Hunter's legal problems and the criticism of his campaign tactics, Hunter squeaked past Campa-Najjar by just 9,000 votes. Campa-Najjar is running again in 2020, but Hunter's 50th Congressional District is staunchly Republican.

The independent, nonpartisan Cook Report lists the Nunes seat as "likely Republican" and the Hunter district as a slightly less secure "leans Republican."

One thing's for sure: This time around Republicans won't be caught asleep at the wheel.

They're mounting their own campaigns targeting freshmen Democrats, but in a presidential year with a higher turnout, the likely spike in Democratic-leaning Latino voters will give the GOP a very heavy lift in those increasingly moderate districts.

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