Voters in California Swing Seats Reject Trump, But Back House Republicans

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Republican Congresswoman-elect Michelle Steel, of California's 48th Congressional District, arrives at the U.S. Capitol on Nov. 13, 2020 for an orientation. She is one of four Republicans from California who flipped their districts. (Samuel Corum/Getty Images)

Republican campaigns to win back seven California House seats the party lost in 2018 had to contend with a basic truth in this last election: Voters there had not warmed to President Trump during his first term.

"If the race was going to come down to Trump, we had a very good idea how these seven seats were going to play out again in 2020," said Sam Oh, a Republican consultant with the firm Targeted Victory.

Oh led the winning campaigns of Congresswomen-elect Young Kim and Michelle Steel, two of the four Republicans who ultimately flipped House seats that Democrats won in the 2018 midterms.

Election results in four California congressional districts that Republicans flipped in 2020. Source: California Target Book (Matthew Green/KQED)

"We knew that going into the campaign, there was a very good chance that the Democratic [presidential] nominee would carry these districts again," said Oh on KQED's Political Breakdown. "And one of the things that we wanted to do was create a path to victory that made sense, that we thought was realistic."

That path included factors the campaigns could control, like recruiting diverse candidates with local roots, focusing on issues close to home and making selective (though rare) breaks with the president. The campaigns also may have benefited from having Trump on the ballot to bear the brunt of voter disappointment in his performance, potentially shielding down-ballot candidates.

In these four key California House districts, voters picked Joe Biden (often by wide margins) over Trump, but still sent Republicans to Congress, according to district data from the non-partisan California Target Book.

"The results confirm that in these districts, as in California as a whole, Trump is pretty massively unpopular," said Darry Sragow, publisher of the California Target Book and a former Democratic consultant. "But it doesn't mean the Republicans have abandoned their faith."

The Republican victories in 2020 came in the Central Valley's 21st District, the 25th District in northern Los Angeles and Ventura counties and the 39th and 48th districts in Orange County.

In 2016, Trump lost all four districts, which caught the attention of national Democrats and led to the 2018 "Blue Wave" — when Democrats flipped those seats and three others in California.

In 2018, the president remained personally unpopular in California, and his policies, including the attempted repeal of the Affordable Care Act, family separations at the border and tax reform that limited deductions for many California suburbanites, drew the ire of Golden State voters.

"But in 2018, Trump wasn't on the ballot," Sragow said. "And so you can conclude that voters who might otherwise vote for Republican candidates for congressional and legislative seats took their anger out on the party and did not vote for those Republican candidates who they otherwise would have supported."

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This year, Republicans in Orange County hoped that a more diverse slate of candidates — Kim and Steel are both Korean American immigrants — and a focus on small-dollar donations could help close the gap against Democratic incumbents Gil Cisneros and Harley Rouda.

Oh said the campaigns specifically targeted Vietnamese American voters in Orange County, who they believed might be open to voting for both Biden and a Republican congresswoman.

"One of the things that dynamic candidates, different candidates like Michelle Steel and Young Kim can do, is they can look to ethnic communities for ticket-splitters," Oh said. "We campaigned very heavily in the 48th District to Vietnamese voters, and as we know ... they are people who show up to vote, they lean Republican."

That outreach even included gently criticizing the president, as Steel did over a Trump proposal that opened the door to the deportation of some Vietnamese refugees convicted of crimes. However, other successful GOP candidates like David Valadao and Mike Garcia chose to align themselves more closely with the president.

California's increase in vote-by-mail participation (every registered voter received a mail ballot in 2020) could have also contributed to the ticket-splitting between the presidential and congressional contests, said Sragow.

With more time to research and mull over down-ballot candidates from the comfort of their homes, voters may have felt more comfortable splitting their ticket instead of casting a party-line vote or skipping the congressional races altogether, he said.

The difference in the total number of votes cast for president and for Congress has decreased in each election cycle since the four districts were created: from an average gap of 12,295 in 2012, to 8,280 in 2016, to just 2,970 this year.

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Voters may also have consciously aimed for the president and Congress to serve as checks on one another, said Rob Stutzman, a Republican consultant.

"We're in an era here of over 20 years now of American voters seeking divided government, splitting the power between the branches of government," Stutzman said.

Ticket-splitting was rare in U.S. Senate contests across the country this cycle, but more common in suburban districts like those in Orange County and northern Los Angeles County.

And voters' desire for moderation could inform how both parties approach the 2022 midterms, when Democrats will defend their narrow House majority in a new map determined by next year's redistricting process.

"To Republicans, I think the cautionary tale is these are voters that are seeking a center, center-right direction for the country, but they certainly rejected Trump," Stutzman said. Democrats, he added, "can't just hang Trump around Republicans, especially going forward. Now that he's out of office, you're going to have to compete with ideas."