SAN JUAN CAPISTRANO, Calif. (AP) — President Joe Biden is making his second trip to California in less than three weeks in hopes of bolstering Democratic House members imperiled by fallout from $7-a-gallon gas, worrisome crime rates and spiking prices on everything from onions to ground beef.
The president’s return to heavily Democratic California in the run-up to Election Day speaks to the looming threat for his party in a turbulent midterm election year when Republicans appear poised to take control of the House, a grim prospect for Biden heading into the second half of his term.
Biden’s visit Thursday is centered on safeguarding two-term Rep. Mike Levin in a district with a slight Democratic tilt that cuts through San Diego and Orange counties and which Biden carried by double digits in the 2020 presidential election.
Biden was in a neighboring coastal district last month on behalf of another endangered Southern California Democrat, Rep. Katie Porter, a star of the party’s progressive wing. The Levin and Porter contests are among about a dozen congressional races in California considered competitive — a handful are seen a toss-ups and are viewed by both parties as critical to control of the House.
“If Democrats are scratching and clawing to hang on to districts Biden carried by double digits, they have likely already lost the House,” said David Wasserman, an analyst with the Cook Political Report.
Levin defended his seat with a 6-point win in 2020, and the district remained largely intact after the once-a-decade adjustment of boundary lines after the census. This year, his race is considered a toss-up as Levin and other Democrats face historical midterm headwinds that typically punish the party in the White House, while soaring prices at the supermarket and gas pump have conspired to make once-safe incumbents vulnerable.
Democrats are being forced to play defense, even in a famously liberal state that then-President Donald Trump lost by over 5 million votes in 2020. Biden’s sagging approval rating is creating a drag on Democratic candidates generally, although voter surveys indicate he's stronger in California than the nation as a whole.
“Even in areas where President Biden won by a strong margin, we’re seeing an unfortunate shift,” Porter wrote in a fundraising pitch Tuesday. “Republicans are polling well across the country and we’re seeing especially concerning trends in blue states like California.”
In an interview, Levin said that the outcome in his race would rest on turnout and that his campaign was redoubling its efforts to contact voters, including with texts, phone calls and door-knocks at their homes.
In a tight race, “the president’s visit is going to be critical to ensuring we get as many voters as possible to submit their ballots,” he said.
While his district remained mostly unchanged in reapportionment, he said one of the challenges is that areas favorable to Democrats were removed in San Diego County, while new voters were added in a largely conservative stretch of Orange County, making the district more competitive.
His message: Democrats are working to lower gas and prescription drug prices while Republicans offer one solution, cutting taxes for the rich.
“Whether the economy is good or bad, whether inflation is high or low, they want tax cuts for their wealthy donors and wealthy friends. That’s their plan for just about everything,” Levin said.
Levin’s Republican opponent, businessman Brian Maryott, said Biden’s visit amounted to “a failed president coming to our district to stand alongside a failed congressman.”
“Voters won’t forget $7 gas prices, the explosion in crime, inflation hitting 40-year highs, the crisis at our border,” Maryott said in a statement.
Biden's visit does carry some risk — a protest was planned nearby. And it's an open question how much good Biden can do to motivate voters in the late days of a midterm election, when turnout falls off sharply from presidential election years.
California is dominated by Democrats who hold every statewide office and commanding margins in the Legislature and congressional delegation. Registered Democrats outnumber Republicans by nearly 2-to-1 statewide, and a GOP candidate hasn’t won a statewide race since 2006.
But this year is confounding political norms.
There is no competitive race at the top of the ticket to drive Democratic voter turnout — Gov. Gavin Newsom and U.S. Sen. Alex Padilla, both Democrats, face only token opposition. And with Democrats firmly in control of California government, the party can’t escape blame for grievances that range from an unchecked homeless crisis, $80 fill-ups at the gas station and some of the nation’s highest taxes.
In Levin’s district, voters were sharply divided about the contest, mirroring the nation's deep partisan chasm.
Steve Barrett, a 68-year-old retired aerospace sales engineer from Dana Point, said he considers himself a moderate Republican and will be voting for Maryott.
He said he doesn’t always vote solely Republican but feels Levin is a “big spender and taxer” and that the Democrats overall are spending too much, which inevitably will lead to tax increases.
Donna Drysdale, a 73-year-old retired court reporter and photographer from San Juan Capistrano, described herself as a middle-of-the-road Democrat and said she was solidly behind Levin.
Drysdale said she feels many Republicans aren’t being reasonable and the country needs intelligent candidates with problem-solving skills to address climate change, threats to democracy and other critical issues.
“I’m scared to death that if the Republicans take over, things are going to continue to go downhill in this country, as far as the division between the two parties,” she said.
A recent voter survey shows pessimism about the economy and the direction of the country, a potential benefit for Republicans in the election’s closing days, though it shows Californians are less pessimistic about the direction of the state.
The October survey by the Public Policy Institute of California found that 71% of likely voters say the U.S. is on the wrong track, and 54% of likely voters think the state is headed in the wrong direction. When asked about the nation’s economy, 76% of likely voters said it was either “poor” or “not so good.”
The dicey situation for Democrats also could help Republican incumbents in Democratic-leaning districts, including GOP Reps. Mike Garcia north of Los Angeles, Michelle Steel in a district anchored in Orange County and David Valadao in the Central Valley, one of just two House Republicans who voted to impeach Trump and managed to make it to the general election.
Porter, a prolific fundraiser often mentioned as a likely future Senate candidate, has spent $24 million on her race, a stunning sum. While her district is about evenly divided between Democrats and Republicans, it has a conservative streak that benefits her GOP challenger, former legislator Scott Baugh, making the race especially tight.
Democrats now hold a 220-212 edge over Republicans in the U.S. House, with three vacancies. To have a majority requires 218 seats.
Ferreting out wavering voters and getting them to the polls “wins elections, and if we don’t turn out enough voters, we risk losing this seat,” Miguel Lopez, a campaign staffer for Rep. Julia Brownley, another endangered Democrat in a district northwest of Los Angeles, wrote in an email.
Learn more about the issues and factors at play in the midterms at https://apnews.com/hub/explaining-the-elections. And follow the AP’s election coverage of the 2022 elections at https://apnews.com/hub/2022-midterm-elections.
Michael R. Blood And Amy Taxin, The Associated Press