LOS ANGELES – Two years ago, Democrats celebrated a sweep of seven Republican-held congressional seats in California, proof of the party’s growing ability to compete in swing districts here and across the country.
But this year, Republicans reclaimed four of those seats even as Joseph R. Biden Jr. overwhelmed President Trump in California. The losses stunned Democrats and contributed to the party’s slim margin in the House of Representatives in January.
The turnaround is a testament to the competitiveness of the seats, especially in Orange County, once a stronghold of conservative republicanism that has evolved steadily Democratic over the past 20 years.
But in all respects, the results were a setback for Democrats in that state and nationally, signaling the significant hurdles they will face in 2022 competing in the predominantly suburban swing neighborhoods that fueled their takeover of the Chamber in 2018.
The Democrats’ losses have come for a number of reasons, including California’s own strengths and campaign complications during a pandemic. But as much as anything, they reflected the power of Republican attacks, some false or exaggerated, that Democrats were the party of socialism, defeating the police and abolishing private health insurance.
The attacks – carried out largely by Mr. Trump as part of his re-election strategy – came as parts of California were swept away by street protests against police abuse and racial injustice , some of which have turned into glass. episodes of looting and clashes with the police which were widely covered by local television.
“The Republicans hung on Democrats’ necks that we are all socialists or communists and we all wanted to dismantle the police,” said Harley Rouda, an Orange County Democrat who was defeated by Michelle Steel, a Republican member of the council of Orange County surveillance. . “In my opinion, as a party, we have done a less than adequate job of refuting this narrative. We won in 2018 and took over the House because people like me – moderates – toppled radical Republican seats.
Republicans have said Democrats’ attempts to portray themselves as moderates have been thwarted by a party shift to the left and by protests.
“It was incredibly easy for us to draw contrasts,” said Jessica Millan Patterson, leader of the California Republican Party. She said the protests “were happening everywhere. It looked like a war zone.
Still, the election results are the result of many factors – and this was particularly the case in a campaign that unfolded against a deadly pandemic and with such a polarizing figure as Mr Trump dominating the political debate.
Democrats said they were also hurt by a national policy, set by the party, to avoid door-to-door approaches during the pandemic. Presumably, that won’t be a factor in 2022.
“The No. 1 problem with our campaign is we didn’t solicit,” said Rep. TJ Cox, a Democrat who represents the San Joaquin Valley and who lost to David Valadao, the Republican he overthrew. in 2018. “We didn’t go door to door.” He said it was like playing for a football team that had been told “they can’t pass”.
Christy Smith, a Democrat from northern Los Angeles County who failed to win a district captured by her party in 2018, said she adhered to public health guidelines to her disadvantage. (2018-winning Democrat Katie Hill resigned after being accused of having an inappropriate relationship with a staff member.)
“We weren’t able to attend a forum or a town hall,” Ms. Smith said. “It’s my favorite way to campaign.”
California’s often hesitant efforts to combat Covid-19 have been damaging in Republican-leaning districts where there has been public disregard for mask-wearing warrants and contempt for the state’s Democratic Governor Gavin Newsom.
“Everyone is concerned about Covid,” said Sam Oh, a Republican consultant to two of the Republican winners, Young Kim and Ms. Steel. “But we’re trying to find a way to give small business owners a way to keep on living. It is incredibly important and Democrats are deaf to it.
And Republicans, analysts say, have recruited strong candidates, which is always the most critical job of an election. They included Ms Steel and Ms Kim, who will be among the first Korean-American members of Congress, and Mike Garcia, a former military pilot who won a special election in May to replace Ms Hill, then defeated Ms Smith in November.
Democrats set their goals for seven seats Republican held in 2018 and won them all, halving the size of the Republican delegation in California Congress. That sweep suggested Democrats were encroaching on once-Republican areas of the state, presenting a roadmap for how the party could compete in swing districts across the country.
But Republicans have succeeded this time around by playing on themes that have long resonated with moderate voters, especially in places like Orange County: high taxes, intrusive government and order. Democrats said the debates on the national stage hurt them, especially among voters in Latin America and Asian descent.
“I think we underestimated the strength of the attack,” said Dan Sena, who was the first Hispanic executive director of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee. “The message of National Socialism, combined with the message of the crime, was a death by a thousand cuts in a place like California.
Ms Smith said she was frustrated trying to campaign in an environment “where Republicans are so persistent in false narratives,” and Democrats have failed to figure out how to fix it. “We never got our hands on it,” she says.
For California Republicans, the victories were a rare glimmer of good news for a party in decline in that state. “We now have a plan that shows these really dynamic candidates can win with presidential participation, running in a polarized environment,” Mr. Oh said. “We are in an incredibly good position for the future.”
In a potential sign of change, Mr Newsom faces a recall campaign, in large part because of his handling of the pandemic, and if he is unlikely to be taken out of office and replaced by a Republican, it is certainly not impossible. This is how Arnold Schwarzenegger, a Republican, became governor in 2003.
“California is at a crossroads,” Ms. Patterson said. “People are waking up to what Democrats are doing here. It was a referendum on what the Democrats in California did and what the Governor did to that state.
Republicans argued that the results here – and across the country – were powerful proof that many voters rejected the policies left-wing Democrats advocated.
“The Democrats have said they are going to win 10 to 15 seats in the House,” said Torunn Sinclair, press secretary for the Republican National Committee of Congress. “Obviously, they’re missing something. He has to go back to those far left policies that people just don’t want. “Medicare for all”, defeating the police. “
The margins of victory in California’s pivotal districts were narrow for the Democratic winners in 2018 and for the Republican winners in 2020.
“These districts – including mine – were very difficult to reverse,” said Rep. Katie Porter, one of the Orange County Democrats who won in 2018 and was re-elected in 2020. “These are districts. republicans. They were always very competitive races.
Darry Sragow, a Democratic strategist, said the state’s Republican Party has not lost ground in 2020. “But it’s very hard to say they’re better off,” he said. “These congressional districts were always Republicans until 2018, when Democrats took them away.
The Losing Four Democrats are talking about seeking rematch in 2022, although the district lines are set to be redistributed as part of the ten-year redistribution process that will take place ahead of the next election. And both sides have said the races will be close again.
“It was a hiatus,” said Mr. Cox, the San Joaquin Valley Democrat. “But keep in mind that we lost less than 1% without campaigning on the ground. So it’s no surprise that, given the factors at play, we’ve been a bit short. “