Challengers in SoCal Republican districts drawing big donations though many are political newbies

FILE: Five Republican-held congressional seats in Southern California have been targeted by Democrats seeking to gain control of the U.S. House in 2018. Democrat Hillary Clinton won the presidential vote in last year's election in the five districts.
FILE: Five Republican-held congressional seats in Southern California have been targeted by Democrats seeking to gain control of the U.S. House in 2018. Democrat Hillary Clinton won the presidential vote in last year's election in the five districts.
Erika Aguilar/KPCC

The Democratic Party has set its sights on flipping five Republican-held districts in Southern California and candidates are lining up to get the party’s backing, although most are new to politics.

At least 24 Democratic candidates have declared their intent to run in one of the five districts, but none have held public office, and only a few have campaigned before.  

The political inexperience of the challengers probably stems from the long odds of beating one of the entrenched incumbents — too long for more seasoned politicians, said Raphael Sonenshein, executive director of Cal State L.A.’s Pat Brown Institute for Public Affairs. 

“These are not districts where you’re going to get experienced Democratic officeholders, say giving up a safe seat in the [state] Assembly or the Senate to try to run for these seats,” Sonenshein said. “Only unconventional people would take a chance like that.”

Those “unconventional people” include a geologist who studies volcanoes, the head of a nonprofit that serves the homeless, two former Marines, two law school professors and a stem cell researcher, to name a few. 

The Republican-held congressional districts considered vulnerable to flipping — where Hillary Clinton won the majority of votes for president in November — are those currently represented by:

• Darrell Issa, 49th District (south Orange County and north San Diego County)

• Mimi Walters, 45th District (central Orange County, including Irvine and Tustin)

• Dana Rohrabacher, 48th District (coastal Orange County)

• Ed Royce, 39th District (north Orange County and parts of L.A. and San Bernardino counties)

• Steve Knight, 25th District (Antelope, Simi and Santa Clarita valleys). 

In some races, incumbents are facing far more challengers than they have in the past, despite wins by wide margins in last year’s election.

For example, Rohrabacher, a 14-term congressman, had just two Democratic challengers in the 2016 election. He currently has at least eight challengers, including six Democrats, one Libertarian and one Republican — although some will likely drop out before the June 2018 primary.  

Democratic candidates are daring to take on Rohrabacher even though he won the 2016 election against Democrat Suzanne Savary by more than 16 percentage points. 

Walters, who won re-election last year by a 17 percentage point margin, currently has six challengers, all Democrats.  

Sonenshein said discontent with President Trump and recent votes by California’s Republican members of Congress to scrap Obamacare have fed the interest in challenging the incumbents.  

“This is a vast opening for new faces who are willing to take a chance as Democrats to run in districts that have voted Republican,” he said.

Triple-digit fundraising starts early

More surprising to some political observers than the large number of challengers is the substantial amount of money they’ve raised in recent months. 

Of the 16 challengers who filed campaign finance reports with the Federal Election Commission for the second quarter of 2017, 12 raised more than $100,000 during the three-month period and some have raised several times that since the beginning of this election cycle, which technically started Nov. 9. 

In comparison, Democrat Doug Applegate, who lost the November election against Issa by a mere 1,600 votes, didn’t reach $100,000 in donations until after the June 2016 primary. 

For the 2018 election, Applegate, who is running again, has already collected more than $580,000, according to his July campaign finance report.  

As a group Democratic challengers received far more in donations over the last three months than their Republican incumbents as a group, even though all of the incumbents out-fundraised their challengers on an individual basis.

In several districts, challengers raised more money from individuals, rather than political parties or political action committees, than the incumbents.

For example, Bryan Caforio and Katie Hill, two Democrats challenging Steve Knight, raised $186,000 and $165,000, respectively, from individuals between April 1 and June 30. That compared to $110,000 raised by Knight from individuals during the same period, according to the candidates' July campaign filings. 

Knight, first sent to Congress in 2014, won re-election last year against Caforio by 6 percentage points, the second smallest margin of victory for the five targeted incumbents after Issa.

How much does early fundraising matter? 

Stephen Stambough, an elections expert at Cal State Fullerton, said early fundraising tallies help separate the viable candidates from the long shots. He said at this stage in the election cycle, it’s important for candidates to show they can raise funds from local donors.

“If the local Democratic money is flowing to one particular candidate, that probably means that that candidate has an inside track to getting the nomination,” Stambough said. 

Applegate, Issa's challenger, raised close to $60,000 from donors who listed addresses in his district over the last three months, according to a KPCC analysis, while fellow Democratic candidate Mike Levin raised around $25,000 in the district.  

In the 25th district, Knight challenger Caforio raised nearly $14,000 from donors who listed addresses in that district while Hill raised around $7,700.

Stambough said a variety of factors will affect the Democrats’ success in the 2018 midterm elections in California, including whether Republicans come out to vote. If two Democratic candidates face off in the governor’s race — the top race on the 2018 ballot — some Republicans could stay home, he said. 

Still, historically Republicans vote in much higher numbers in midterm elections than Democrats. Cal State LA’s Sonenshein said that’s a big concern for Democrats.  

“They could have more people wanting Democrats to run Congress than Republicans but Democrats not backing it up with votes,” he said.

President Trump’s popularity come November next year also looms as a major factor in the congressional elections. A wave of dissatisfaction among voters could wash out incumbents, despite their inherent advantage, Sonenshein said. 

"I think the incumbents are battening down the hatches for a storm that could be coming,” he said. "They’ve got plenty of money. They’ve got a strong party organization nationally that will help them out. It all depends if the wave materializes.”