(CN) – While Democrats in California tout several issues leading up to the 2018 midterm elections, including immigration, health care, and tax reform, one constant rings louder than all others: opposition to President Donald Trump’s policies, which they hope will be the undoing in several Republican-held districts.
The Democratic National Committee’s list of “weak” Republicans across the nation looks to deliver on the promise of a “blue wave” in 2018, in which Democrats secure 24 seats to flip power in the U.S. House of Representatives.
Four of those targeted districts make up the once-conservative stronghold of Orange County, California. Reliably Republican since 1936, 51 percent of Orange County voters pulled levers for Hillary Clinton in the 2016 presidential election while Trump garnered just 43 percent.
Rep. Mimi Walters, a Republican from District 45, will face challengers Brian Forde, an Obama White House senior adviser and Katie Porter, a UC Irvine professor who has already been endorsed by U.S. Sen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts. The DNC listed Walters as a frail candidate because she voted for Trump policies, including health care overhaul and the GOP tax plan.
Sherry Bebitch Jeffe, senior fellow at the University of Southern California’s Sol Price School of Public Policy, said several candidates who sided with Trump are limping toward the midterms and others have dropped out of their races entirely. Longtime congressmen Ed Royce from Orange County and Darrell Issa from San Diego County – who in the end did not vote for the GOP tax plan – have already decided to call it quits.
“Issa and Royce voted to repeal Obamacare, so they were viewed as weak because Trump is weak in California,” said Jeffe.
Several Republican candidates are vying for Royce’s seat, including former Assemblywoman Young Kim, ex-state Senate Minority Leader Bob Huff, and a county supervisor.
In Issa’s district, Republican candidates include Assemblyman Rocky Chavez, a San Diego County supervisor and several others. Democrats vying for Issa’s seat include Doug Applegate, who lost to Issa in 2016, and environmental attorney Mike Levin, who received an endorsement from the Bernie Sanders-established Congressional Progressive Caucus PAC.
Changing demographics in Orange County could explain a shift in party preference, as the Latino population grew from 23.4 percent in 1990 to 33.7 percent in 2010, according to U.S. census data.
The upcoming midterms have Republican activists in Orange County anxious according to Amanda McGuire, a California State University, Fullerton junior and president of the campus Republican club.
“Party members are incredibly weary of the influence some of the new Democrats in the districts,” McGuire said. “However, Republican activists of a wide range of ages now feel energized to steer the GOP with a new image.”
That reinvigorated faith in the party and faith in Trump is a change from those same voters who shied away from candidate Trump and have had more time with his policies, said McGuire.
Los Angeles resident Julie McChancey said she has no party preference for 2018 but voted for Trump in the 2016 election. She grappled with issues like immigration, crime and health care for veterans when she cast her vote.
“I know it’s going against the grain in sunny LA, but Democrats caused the problems with sanctuary cities and Trump was going to fix that,” said McChancey.
Another independent voter, Carmen Yu of Los Angeles, said her preference leans more toward the Democratic Party on issues like health care, racial justice and prison reform.
“I work in the health care industry and so I see it all firsthand,” said Yu, who recently moved to Los Angeles from the San Francisco Bay Area.
Statewide, Republicans make up approximately 25 percent of registered voters, concentrated mostly in Northern California and the Central Valley. That’s a drop of almost 10 percent from 1997, while the Democratic Party saw a decrease of about 2 percent over the same time.
Meanwhile, registration for “no party preference” more than doubled to 25 percent of registered voters in 2018. This could spell trouble for other “weak” GOP candidates, including Reps. Tom McClintock of District 4, Dana Rohrabacher of District 48, Steve Knight of District 25 and David Valadao of District 21.
And California’s “jungle” primary system further muddies the water, by pitting the two candidates with the most primary votes against each other in the general election. That system could lead to two Democrats or two Republicans duking it out in November rather than the traditional two-party face-off, meaning the “blue wave” could crest in California if too many candidates split up the vote.
“Nothing is that simple. I have learned never to say ‘never’ in politics,” said Jeffe. “The 2016 election underscores that and now the Democratic Party is learning that California, a tried-and-true blue state, can’t be taken for granted.”
A key demographic Democrats need to win over are rural voters, by convincing them the party can help solve problems people in urban centers don’t typically face, said Michael Duran, California Democratic State Central Committee member.
Access to clean water, stable high-speed internet, infrastructure and fair representation outweigh the talking points candidates discuss outside of the less populated counties, said Duran.
But not everything is rosy for California Democrats, given a recent split on the vote to endorse Sen. Dianne Feinstein. Now 84, Feinstein has held the seat since 1992 and is the longest-serving woman in the Senate.
At the California Democratic Party’s convention in San Diego in February, state Senate Speaker Pro tem Kevin De León received more endorsement votes from delegates than Feinstein, though not enough to secure the endorsement. The results could indicate fractures in the party’s hope for a unified approach in 2018, however.
The latest polls from the Public Policy Institute of California show Feinstein ahead of De León by double digits. But De León is the darling of the progressive wing of the party, said Jeffe, and those policies – like climate change and immigration reform – are becoming more prominent in the state’s fabric.
“On paper it’s Feinstein, but politics is never just on paper,” Jeffe said.
California's primary election is June 6, with the general election set for Nov. 6. Candidates have until March 9 to file papers to run for House and Senate seats.
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