The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

In key House districts sought by Democrats, fear of defeat becomes fuel

Democratic congressional candidate Katie Hill, facing the camera, is one of a number of Democrats worried about a late Republican surge.
Democratic congressional candidate Katie Hill, facing the camera, is one of a number of Democrats worried about a late Republican surge. (Mario Tama/Getty Images)

SANTA CLARITA, Calif. — After two years of energizing rallies, fist-pumping speeches and talk of a building blue wave, Democrats in recent days have begun to feel a last-minute bout of nausea wash over them.

Terrified of reliving the dejection they awoke to on the morning of Nov. 9, 2016, they are attempting to harness those nervous emotions and inject a bit of fear in the hearts of their supporters.

Katie Hill, who has emerged as one of the party’s most promising first-time congressional candidates, looked out at a group of about 100 supporters days ago and revealed that new polling indicated a four-point swing against her in what for decades has been a conservative stronghold, driven by consolidation by Republican voters into the camp of her opponent.

“We were ahead by a few points just a few weeks ago,” she said from a campaign headquarters sandwiched between a vape shop and a gun store. “The last poll we got back a couple days ago has us exactly tied.”

With Democrats eyeing the 2018 elections as a chance for a blue wave, here's how they're fighting to win the 24 seats they need to take control of the House. (Video: Jenny Starrs/The Washington Post, Photo: Carolyn Van Houten/The Washington Post)

“These are the ones that should be — I don’t want to say the easiest — but really the ones that should flip from red to blue in this kind of a climate,” Hill said later about districts such as hers, won in 2016 by Hillary Clinton. “If we can’t do these ones, then how on earth are we going to do ones that are more red?”

Of the 25 Republican-held districts that Clinton won, Democrats are favored in 11 while Republicans are favored in three, according to the latest ratings from the Cook Political Report. But 12 are still toss-ups, and they are seeing a burst of energy and spending from both sides in a way that has Republicans feeling bullish and Democrats worried.

The problem for Democrats: Their candidates are awash in attention, the money is pouring in and volunteers are eager to help. But in many of these seats, voters who live in the districts are proving more difficult to win over than Democrats once hoped.

“Do I hope? Yes. I hope, hope hope,” said Phyllis Steele, a 73-year-old retired teacher from Orange County who had come to hear Democratic candidate Katie Porter recently. “But because of Trump getting elected, for the rest of my life I’ll never trust what’s going to happen again.”

There are multiple pathways for Democrats to win the 23 seats needed to claim the House majority, but both sides have focused on the Republican-held districts where Clinton won. In almost a third of the seats Republicans have resigned or are retiring, which was seen as giving Democrats an edge.

Some of the current trouble exists in majority nonwhite districts where Democrats worry about not turning out Hispanic voters. They have largely given up hope of unseating Rep. Will Hurd (R-Tex.) or Rep. David Valadao (R-Calif.), whose Democratic opponents would have to count on unprecedented Hispanic turnout to come close.

But the bulk of the battles are being fought in historically conservative suburbs that are filled with highly educated voters who disapprove of President Trump and see the midterm ballot as a way to express that displeasure. National Republicans have abandoned some of the districts — including those of Rep. Kevin Yoder (R-Kan.) and Mike Coffman (R-Colo.) — but they have renewed efforts in areas surrounding Los Angeles, where there are five hotly contested races in districts that have long voted conservatively.

David Wasserman, the House editor of the independent Cook Political Report, which tracks political races, says Republicans have been able to narrow an enthusiasm gap. But the Democrats still have an advantage going up against an unpopular president and riding historical trends that show undecided voters breaking against the party in power. Democrats are also posting impressive numbers in several early-voting states, a potential sign that their voters are more motivated.

“Democrats are freaking out because the election is two weeks from now,” Wasserman said, recalling a similar Republican freakout in October 2010 just before the party gained 63 seats.

He said that he expects Democratic gains of between 25 and 35 seats, just above the margin for control. Republicans privately concede that they will lose at least 18 seats, but no more than 40 or so.

“The Democratic ceiling has probably declined because we’ve seen Republicans recover in Trump-won districts somewhat,” Wasserman said. “I think they’re less likely to pick up 45 seats than they were a month ago. But I don’t think their floor has changed.”

The battle between the parties in the Clinton-won districts has been a lengthy one. Democrats opened an office in Irvine, Calif., last year, located in a conservative bastion of Orange County and not far from the National Republican Congressional Committee offices. Clinton won the county, the first Democrat to do so in a presidential election since 1936. The aim was to fuel the Clinton advantage with anger from Californians, many of them women, who have made the state the center of the Trump resistance.

“It’s a story of white college-educated voters being disenchanted with the Republican brand,” said a Democratic strategist involved in the campaigns out here. “That’s why we’re competitive.”

Democrats are focused on the health-care bill, climate change and the Republican tax bill. They believe the tax bill has particular resonance in the upper-middle-class pockets where homeowners will take a hit with a cap on property tax deductions.

They are also walking a fine line between trying to tap into the liberal energy coursing through much of the party while still appealing to moderates who make up the districts where they are running. Harley Rouda, who is running in the heart of Orange County against veteran Rep. Dana Rohrabacher, used to be a Republican and is touting the support he’s getting from Republicans around the district.

“What we’re seeing bubble up is this frustration with politicians in general who are becoming more partisan,” he said in an interview at his campaign headquarters. “They’re tired of politicians who continually lie and push forward agendas.”

Hill is running in a district to the north that for the past 25 years has been represented by a Republican, most recently Steve Knight. The 25th District is home to the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library and has long been dominated by white conservatives. Even Hill’s father is a lifelong Republican and has voted for Knight several times.

Hill is running ads touting herself as a lifelong gun owner and talking about firing her first shot at age 7. Her signs are purple, in an attempt to showcase bipartisanship, and she has had to temper the expectations of the influx of volunteers driving north from nearby Los Angeles.

“I’ve had to do a lot of education,” she said. “I’m a good progressive . . . but I’m also not willing to take a lot of this rhetoric that has become pretty pervasive in some of the liberal strongholds because it’s just not going to work in my district.”

Hill said that a turning point in her race came around the time of the hearings into the nomination of Supreme Court Justice Brett M. Kavanaugh, and undecided voters began to break toward her Republican opponent. As one of the few candidates who has spoken openly about her own sexual assault, she found it particularly disheartening,

“It’s good that we’re a little more nervous now,” she said. “There’s a tendency to get complacent. Even for me there was a sense of, ‘We don’t need to raise as much money now. I can actually just be out talking to voters and not raising money.’ Now it’s like, ‘No, we really need to keep this fight on.’ ”

“What we’re seeing is so many people who said, ‘I didn’t do enough in 2016 and I woke up the next day asking myself what more could I have done?’ ” she said. “I don’t think anyone wants to feel that way this year.”

In a backyard in Hacienda Heights to the south, enthusiasm was audible for Gil Cisneros, the Democratic congressional candidate seeking the open 39th District House seat against Republican Young Kim. “Gil on the Hill! Gil on the Hill!” supporters chanted, posing for photos with him and preparing to spend hours knocking on doors.

What they could not do was vote for him. About two-thirds of those who had committed to spending this Sunday afternoon on political activism lived elsewhere. One couple came from San Francisco.

“This election is too important, and right now ours is too close. It is too close,” Cisneros told the crowd in this diverse district east of Los Angeles that Clinton won by nine points. “The last three polls that came out had us up only by a point — only up by a point. This election can still go either way.”

On Monday night, about 100 people showed up at a synagogue in Tustin to listen to Porter — the Democrat challenging another threatened Republican, Rep. Mimi Walters, who first won her 45th District seat in 2014 — talk about the tax bill. She was confident, answering questions about what she’ll do when, not if, she arrives in Washington.

But voters there seemed racked with uncertainty. They want to feel optimistic, but they said that after Trump’s unexpected victory, they will never trust their expectations again.

“I’m getting anxious. I’m getting very anxious,” said Carol Barnes, a 70-year-old retired clinical laboratory scientist from East Anaheim. “We just have to keep going and hope for the best. I don’t want to go home crying again.”