Democrats have been debating whether congressional candidates should campaign on anti-Donald Trump sentiments or on local issues, arguing that Republican incumbents are out of touch with the voters they were elected to represent. The Trump avenue is tempting given the president’s penchant for secrecy, narcissism, blatant lying and his increasingly erratic and contradictory tweets and actions.
But as Harley Rouda, candidate for California’s 48 District, explained at a July 23 Stonewall Democratic Club meeting in West Hollywood, it’s not either-or messaging—Trump or local issues. They are intertwined.
But the LGBT community is anxious, watching the former Reality TV star rollback or erase rules, regulations, executive orders and laws that marked progress toward full equality under President Barack Obama. Trump appears to consider California an enemy, too, directing the Environmental Protection Agency to revoke California’s Clear Air Act waiver. California’s fighting back, including California Attorney General Xavier Becerra joining the Equality California lawsuit challenging Trump’s transgender servicemember ban, first unsuccessfully tried as a law introduced by Republicans Reps. Duncan Hunter and Vicky Hartzler.
Stonewall Democrats cheered as the six introduced themselves and asked for help of the packed crowd at the West Hollywood auditorium. Everyone seemed keenly aware of the responsibility these candidates are shouldering as the key to Democrats flipping GOP seats, retaking the House of Representatives and putting an accountability check on Trump. Democrats need to win 218 seats in November for a House majority.
There was nothing uppity about these candidates. It was as if they were giving a briefing to friends—indeed, law professor Katie Porter opened a huge spiral notebook but referred to it only once. Each candidate noted the obstacles to winning but also shared their optimism at the real opportunity for change.
“The main issue I’m running on is having real representative government—people who are not accountable to special interest groups, to corporations and lobbyists and the party but people who are really going to represent their districts and get things done,” says Katie Hill, 30, the married bisexual former executive director for PATH (People Assisting the Homeless) who was empowered to run by the Women’s March.
Hill is running to unseat Steve Knight in the 25th congressional district who, she tells the Los Angeles Blade, is loyal to corporate donors, the National Rifle Association, the Koch brothers and Trump buddy Rep. Kevin McCarthy of Bakersfield who hopes to be the next House Speaker. “When McCarthy tells Steve Knight how to vote, he votes that way because he’s dependent upon that for reelection,” says Hill.
Steve Knight “has one of the worst track records on people from the LGBTQ community, as well as women and anyone who’s not had a voice, typically,” says Hill. “But I think this is an exciting opportunity—as someone who identifies as bisexual, who is hopefully going to unseat someone who has his own personal track record of voting against our community—but his dad pushed for Prop 22. That eventually led to marriage equality by getting that shut down and Prop 8 shut down. I think we can show that we’re changing this around—that someone like me is the new face of representation.”
The five other candidates who addressed Stonewall were:
—-Navy veteran Gil Cisneros vying for Ed Royce’s open seat against Royce’s hand-picked successor, former Assemblymember Young Kim in the CA39 district;
—-progressive UC Irvine law professor Katie Porter taking on low-key loyal Trumpite Mimi Walters for the CA45 district;
—–businessman Harley Rouda working to unseat “Putin’s favorite congressman,” longtime anti-LGBT hater Dana Rohrabacher in the CA48 district;
—-attorney Mike Levin running against Republican state tax board chair Diane Harkey for Darrell Issa’s open seat in the CA49 district;
—-and Ammar Campa-Najjar, a former Labor Department official in the Obama administration, taking on ethically and legally troubled Duncan Hunter, an enthusiastic opponent of LGBT equality in the CA50 district.
Each of the candidates pledged to sign onto the Equality Act on day one, as well as talk about LGBT issues during their campaigns. But first they have to get elected with the help and vital enthusiasm of grassroots volunteers and donors. They realistically noted that they are vying in reliably Republican districts and need strong turnout from Democrats and No-party-preference voters. “No-party-preference” now outranks Republicans in California voter registration and accounts for about a quarter of voters in these contested congressional districts, according to Politico.
But Democrats just got some good news. On July 24, respected University of Virginia political analyst Larry Sabato’s Crystal Ball poll shifted 17 House races in favor of Democrats, with several vulnerable Republican races moving from “likely Republican” to “toss-up,” according to The Hill.
As of July 25, Real Clear Politics (RCP) lists seven generic congressional polls that all showed Democrats up by 6 to 12 points. In California, CA10 (Jeff Denham vs businessman Josh Harder) is considered a toss-up, as are races in CA25, CA39, CA45, and CA48. RCP has CA49, Levin’s race, as “Leans Democrat.” CA50, Campa-Najjar v Hunter, and CA21 (David Valadao vs businessman TJ Cox, “Leans GOP.” CA22, Devin Nunes v county prosecutor Andrew Janz right now is “Likely GOP.” But Nunes is being roundly scolded for colluding with Trump over the Russian investigation, while reports have surfaced of him spending $15,000 of political donations for Celtics tickets and $5,000 for private jet travel. Meanwhile Valadao is trying to cope with Trump’s tariffs hurting his agricultural district.
A July 17 nonpartisan poll by Monmouth University specifically spells good news for Rouda in the CA48, giving him a slight 46%-43% edge over Rohrabacher. “At this early stage of the race, Rouda has more widespread support among his fellow Democrats (95% to 2% for the incumbent) than Rohrabacher has among Republicans (85% to 5% for the challenger). Independents prefer Rouda (49%) over Rohrabacher (31%) by a wide margin,” Monmouth reports.
But there’s a caveat. Rohrabacher pulls his decades of support from conservative white Republican voters who did not graduate from college, just under one-third of the electorate in that district, according the Los Angeles Times. Rouda’s supporters are women, voters younger than 50 and non-whites, who also make up about one-third of the district’s electorate. But “just over half the nonwhite voters in the poll said they were following the congressional race ‘not too closely at all,’” The Times reported.
At the Stonewall meeting, Rouda underscored the importance of every vote, noting that he won his primary against Hans Keistead by 125 votes!
Porter noted that the Republicans incumbents are vulnerable because they finally have good challengers—but the challengers are not known. She told a story about addressing a candidate forum and explaining why she would better represent than Mimi Walters. “And someone yelled from the back: ‘Why are you running against Maxine Waters?’” The story illustrated, she said, the dire need for voter education.
While all the races are important to the LGBT community, one win would be especially savory—“Trump’s worst nightmare,” as Ammar Campa-Najjar describes himself, trouncing Duncan Hunter. It’s a steep climb since the conservative district apparently doesn’t care that Hunter is under investigation by the FBI for use of campaign funds for personal expenses—which he has paid back. But Campa-Najjar is looking at voter outreach as an opportunity for commonality.
“I think if you come from an underrepresented community, you care that there’s an assault on our values and our way of life,” Campa-Najjar told the LA Blade. “Personally, I have a stepsister who is LGBTQ and our stepfather is a Trump supporter. So we’ve seen how Donald Trump has really enabled the worst of the worst to come out of people. And right now it’s really about bringing people back together again. Whether you’re Latino or Middle Eastern or LGBTQ or maybe both – or all three – it’s a really defining time for our country. We have to stand for our values. An assault on any one of us is an assault on all of us.”