California proves to be difficult terrain for GOP House candidates; Democrats win clean sweep



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WASHINGTON — Once again, Republicans are left to ponder what went wrong in California.

Nationwide, the GOP picked up 12 seats in the U.S. House of Representatives in this month's midterm elections, and the prospect of adding to those gains in California looked promising heading into Election Day.

Two weeks later, it's the same old story: After all the late absentee and provisional ballots were counted, Democrats ended up winning every competitive California race and even picked up a seat.

The trend represents the continued gradual decline of the GOP's ranks within the nation's largest congressional delegation. Next year, California's delegation will include 39 Democrats and 14 Republicans.

The results raise questions about how GOP candidates can expect to do any better in California in two years, especially since this year featured low voter turnout that typically favors conservative candidates. Far more Democratic voters are expected in 2016, when a Senate seat will be at stake and a new president will be chosen.

Republicans and conservative groups poured millions of dollars into three races against Democratic freshmen. On election night, two of the GOP candidates had narrow leads while the third challenger was barely trailing.

The GOP also was on track for a bonus win in the Central Valley, where dairy farmer Johnny Tacherra took a narrow lead over five-term Democratic congressman Jim Costa. All four races were too close to call a winner on election night.

Rep. Greg Walden, chairman of the National Republican Congressional Committee, said a team will be assigned to study the California election.

"There's a surge in these provisional ballots at the end. We've got to figure out: Where do they come from? Why we don't do better with them?" he said.

The one change in party control occurred in Southern California's Inland Empire, where Democrat Pete Aguilar won a close contest to succeed Republican congressman Gary Miller, who opted to retire after serving eight terms. National Republicans decided against investing in that race.

Rep. Steve Israel, chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, attributed his party's success in California to the candidates and a superior ground game. In the three races featuring vulnerable freshmen incumbents, the committee employed nearly 60 campaign workers in seven different field offices.

"A good field program is usually worth one to two points in a competitive environment, and you're seeing that demonstrated in these California races that were too close to call on election night," Israel said.

In the Ventura County race featuring Democratic freshman Rep. Julia Brownley and Republican Jeff Gorell, for example, Democratic committee staff helped register more than 6,000 voters. Brownley won by slightly more than 4,000 votes.

The GOP's losses in California cannot be pinned on a mismatch of money.

In a Sacramento-area race, GOP-aligned groups went all-in trying to help Republican Doug Ose defeat Democratic incumbent Ami Bera. The race, featuring $19.5 million in spending, was the nation's most expensive House race.

Bera said some of the themes that helped the GOP nationally don't play as well in California. For example, he cited his support for immigration reform and for making improvements to President Barack Obama's health reform law. Ose campaigned on repealing it.

"In California, we believe that the climate is changing. (Former) congressman Ose called climate science sketchy," Bera said.

One Republican-aligned group, the Congressional Leadership Fund, spent nearly $940,000 against Bera and more than $430,000 to defeat Brownley. The group's communications director, Dan Conston, said the results would not deter it from considering spending in future congressional races in the state.

"Our spending against members like Brownley and Bera forced national Democrats to shift resources and abandon key races that desperately needed their help. And we nearly pulled off surprise victories in both," he said.

The turnout on Nov. 4 is projected to be the lowest on record for a statewide general election, which would tend to help Republican candidates. Brownley, Bera and Rep. Scott Peters, who held on to a San Diego seat, each received about 50,000 fewer votes than they did in 2012 — and still won. They should be in better position during a presidential election year when Democrats are able to turn out more voters.

Tyler Houlton, a spokesman for the NRCC, said Republicans have nothing to be ashamed of regarding the California results.

"I don't buy for a second that somehow we had a bad day there, because the last time a Republican unseated a Democratic incumbent was 1994," Houlton said, referring to Republican George Radanovich's defeat of six-term Democratic incumbent Richard Lehman. "We were very happy with our candidates. It didn't turn out the best for us. That's obvious."

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