President Joe Biden's visit to California and Oregon close to Election Day shows how Democrats are summoning crunch-time political reinforcements in states that are usually afterthoughts for the party.
As unlikely as it seems, a key component of the Republican drive to retake control of the House on Nov. 8 may lie with holding districts it already controls in California — the country’s largest Democratic state — and potentially gaining ground in typically Democratic Oregon.
It won't be easy.
Three Los Angeles-area House seats are held by Republicans, but redrawn political lines have transformed those districts into territory that backed Biden over Donald Trump in 2020. The same dynamic is in play in a district father north in the Central Valley.
Republican wins could pad a potential new GOP majority. The party also is hoping former state Assembly Republican leader Scott Baugh can upset Democratic Rep. Katie Porter in a coastal district that includes Huntington Beach.
An even bigger surprise would be Tom Patti, a member of the San Joaquin County Board of Supervisors, ousting Democratic Rep. Josh Harder in a district that includes a growing number of commuters with tech jobs in the San Francisco Bay area.
Home to 1-in-8 people in the United States, California hasn’t elected a statewide Republican since 2006. GOP party registration trails Democrats about 2-to-1 statewide. Still, scattered pockets of conservative strength remain, particularly in rural and farming areas and sprawling Southern California suburbs.
In Oregon, progressive challenger Jamie McLeod-Skinner topped Rep. Kurt Schrader in the Democratic primary even though Biden endorsed the incumbent. The district, which stretches southeast from Portland, leans Democratic, but Republican Lori Chavez-De Remer is hoping to prevail.
Biden was in California on Thursday and scheduled to head to Oregon on Friday for events into Saturday. His agenda: rally Democrats and raise campaign money for the party, as well as promoting his administration’s accomplishments, including last year’s infrastructure package and the more recent health care, environment and social spending legislation.
Democrats also hope their pledges to protect abortion rights will resonate after the Supreme Court overturned the Roe v. Wade decision.
Republicans need to gain a net five seats next month to take control of the House.
Like many states, California’s big cities and coastal areas are Democrat-dominated, but the political complexion changes elsewhere. After a Biden visit to California last year, Democratic Gov. Gavin Newsom easily survived a recall election. But voters in the rural north and agricultural inland largely opposed Newsom, and such anger with Democrats could be a driving force this election.
“Just as the nation is divided into red, blue and purple states, we have those same internal divisions in California,” said Thad Kousser, a political science professor at the University of California, San Diego.
“We especially have a stark east-west divide, where nearly every bit of the state that touches the coast is as blue as the water in the Pacific,” he added. “The farther east you move, you see more Republicans. It’s cultural as well as political.”
One place where Democrats can gain is east of Los Angeles, where Rep. Ken Calvert is the longest-serving Republican in the congressional delegation and has held reliably GOP turf for nearly three decades. But that changed with new boundaries, which split the district about equally split between Republicans and Democrats.
Biden's message may not sway close races, though. Inflation remains high and the president's approval ratings low nationally.
Gas prices, after falling for months around the country, have begun rising again and are especially high in California. Baugh tweeted a snapshot of a gas station sign with prices topping $7 a gallon and wrote, “Biden has done nothing to stop this madness.”
Even Porter and Harder have highlighted their efforts to lower pump prices.
Other potential drags for Democrats are high food prices, an unchecked homeless crisis and rising crime rates, spotlighted in Los Angeles by smash-and-grab robberies and home invasions.
“President Biden has failed on grocery prices, on energy prices, on crime,” House Republican leader Kevin McCarthy, who lives in Bakersfield, said recently. “House Democrats have supported Biden’s failed agenda every step of the way.”
There are House battlegrounds in Orange County, a suburban expanse southeast of Los Angeles that was once a GOP stronghold but has become increasingly diverse and Democratic, and in the Central Valley, known as the nation’s salad bowl for its agricultural production.
One Orange Country district was specifically drawn to give Asian Americans, the largest group in the district, a stronger voice in Congress. It includes the nation’s biggest Vietnamese American community.
That race features Republican Rep. Michelle Steel, a South Korean immigrant, and Democrat Jay Chen, a Navy reservist and the son of immigrants from Taiwan. Both have made inflation and hate crimes against Asian Americans top issues, but also have relentlessly criticized one another.
Nadia Belkin, executive director of the Asian American Power Network, which is working with a coalition of activist groups and spending $10 million to mobilize Asian voters supporting Democrats in swing areas across California and many parts of the United States, said turnout may determine some close races.
“The margins in these chambers are so slight, some of the reform that you’re hoping for -– some of the changes that will directly impact you, whether it’s social or political, economic — could hinge on one vote in either chamber,” Belkin said activists are telling Asian voters.
In another part of Orange County, Republican Rep. Young Kim’s district has new contours that would have narrowly favored Biden in 2020 but retains a Republican registration edge. She is facing Democrat Asif Mahmood, a physician.
North of Los Angeles, Republican Rep. Mike Garcia, a former Navy fighter pilot, is running against Democrat Christy Smith for the third time. Garcia beat Smith in a May 2020 special election, then won reelection against her that November by just 333 votes.
New district lines give Democrats a 12 percentage point advantage in the race, which will make it harder for Garcia to win again.
In the district in the Central Valley’s farm belt, Democrats enjoy a 17 percentage point registration edge. But incumbent Republican Rep. David Valadao enjoys strong name recognition as he faces Democratic Assemblyman Rudy Salas.
Valadao is one of just two House Republicans who voted to impeach Trump and has managed to make it to the general election, along with Republican Dan Newhouse of Washington state.