Democrats are counting on rookie candidates to flip the House. How’s that working out for them?

Andrew Romano
West Coast Correspondent
Top, from left: Ammar Campa-Najjar, Andrew Janz, Gil Cisneros.
Middle: Harley Rouda, Josh Harder, Katie Hill.
Bottom: Katie Porter, Mike Levin, TJ Cox. (Photos: Gregory Bull/AP, Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call, Justin Sullivan/Getty Images) 

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Fact No. 1: There is no state more central to the Democratic Party’s effort to win back the House than California. Of’s top 25 “tipping-point districts” of 2018 — that is, the districts most likely to decide which party controls the House next year — a whopping six are in the Golden State. (California has 53 seats, or about 1 of 8 in the House.) The next closest state (New Jersey) has three on the tipping-point list.

Fact No. 2: All six of the Democrats running in California’s tipping-point districts are political rookies — first-time candidates with no prior campaign experience.

Given the stakes, you might assume the party would be relying on proven, professional politicians. But the opposite appears to be true this cycle — both in California and across the country, where thousands of novice Democrats decided after the 2016 presidential election to “resist” the new Political-Rookie-in-Chief Donald Trump by running for office themselves. A record number of them are women. Many are people of color. Many are millennials. And more candidates than ever identify as scientists, teachers and members of the LGBTQ community.

“These aren’t people who’ve done debate club and gone through and checked all the boxes to become perfect political candidates,” Katie Hill, the Democratic nominee in Southern California’s 25th District, recently told the New York Times. “These are people who have tried to do something different — serve in the military, do social work, be teachers.”

The question is, how are they doing in politics?

Now’s a good time to ask. Primary season is ending. The fall campaign is getting underway. And the traditional measures of candidate strength — poll numbers, fundraising hauls, media coverage, etc. — are beginning to register.

California may be the best place to look for answers, with a large and varied cast of tipping-point rookies who together constitute a representative cross-section of the larger Democratic Class of 2018.

Katie Hill, the Democrat running for California’s 25th Congressional District seat in Congress in May. (Photo: Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call/Getty Images)

Take Hill, for instance. She is 30 years old. She is bisexual. She and her husband live on a small ranch in Agua Dulce, where they raise goats. Before declaring her candidacy on International Women’s Day, she was leading one of the region’s largest homeless-services providers. In May, Hill and her staff — “the most millennial campaign ever” — participated in a remarkably intimate two-part documentary on HBO’s Vice News Tonight. One of her campaign videos shows her free-climbing a hundred-foot cliff in the Angeles National Forest.

Initially, observers predicted that Hill would lose the Democratic nomination to Bryan Caforio, a Yale-educated corporate lawyer who had previously run in 2016. After initially trailing Caforio in fundraising, however, Hill surged past him at the end of 2017 and wound up besting him in the June 5 primary by a couple thousand votes. In November, Hill will compete with two-term Republican incumbent Steve Knight, a former police officer, to represent the sprawling district where she grew up, which ranges from the comfortable northern suburbs of Los Angeles (Simi Valley, Santa Clarita) to the much poorer and more desolate communities (Antelope Valley, Lancaster) at the edge of the Mojave Desert.

To the south of L.A., in the inland Orange County district centered on Irvine (CA-45), Democratic nominee Katie Porter, 44, cuts a similarly untraditional figure. A consumer protection attorney who studied under Elizabeth Warren and now teaches law at the University of California at Irvine, Porter was also considered a long shot; at first, analysts expected her more moderate rival (also a UC-Irvine professor) Dave Min, who was endorsed by the California Democratic Party and 13 members of Congress, to prevail in the primary. But Porter edged past him and in November, she will go head-to-head with two-term Republican incumbent Mimi Walters. If she wins, she will be one of the first single mothers in Congress, as well as one of the only members to admit to having been a victim of domestic abuse.

To the north, in the San Joaquin Valley’s largely agricultural and heavily Latino 10th Congressional District, venture capitalist and native son Josh Harder, 31, edged out previous Democratic nominee Michael Eggman in the June 5 primary. If he defeats four-term incumbent Jeff Denham in November, Harder could become the youngest member of Congress (depending on who else wins that night).

The rest of California’s tipping-point Democrats — TJ Cox, a Central Valley businessman who is challenging GOP incumbent David Valadao in the 21st District, around Fresno; Harley Rouda, a real-estate entrepreneur who is facing off against controversial longtime Congressman Dana Rohrabacher in the wealthy coastal 48th District; and Mike Levin, an environmental attorney vying for the 49th District seat vacated by retiring GOP Rep. Darrell Issa, north of San Diego — aren’t as demographically distinctive as Hill, Porter or Harder. But they are all novices, too.

Include the rest of California’s competitive congressional races, and it’s rookies all around: Thai-American prosecutor Andrew Janz vs. Trump defender Devin Nunes; 29-year-old Latino Arab-American Ammar Campa-Najjar vs. recently indicted incumbent Duncan Hunter; Latino lottery winner and philanthropist Gil Cisneros in Ed Royce’s Orange County district.

Democratic candidate Andrew Janz in July. (Photo: Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)

All of which is interesting enough on its own. But the important thing is how these first-timers are doing. The answer? Much better than any of their recent Democratic predecessors — and perhaps well enough, in many cases, to win. Most of the districts mentioned above are considered flippable because Hillary Clinton won them in 2016; Democrats are targeting the others (Nunes’s, Hunter’s) because of the controversies surrounding the incumbents. So far, Hill, Rouda, Levin, Campa-Najjar and Cisneros have outraised their Republican opponents, often doubling or even tripling the GOP candidate’s haul; the rest of the field have all crossed the $1 million and/or $2 million mark — far more money than previous Democrats managed to raise.

The polls are even more promising. Hill tied Knight in the most recent survey. Campa-Najjar and Hunter, and Denham and Harder, were tied as well. Porter was within 1 percentage point of Walters after leading in other recent soundings. Rouda has consistently led Rohrabacher by 3 to 4 percentage points. An Aug. 10 poll showed Cisneros besting his GOP rival, local politician Young Kim, by 11. And while polling of the Janz-Nunes contest has been sparse, a new Democratic survey suggests that Janz is within striking distance.

Whether these numbers hold up on Election Day remains to be seen. But at the very least they suggest that Democrats aren’t wrong to be relying on rookie candidates who see campaigning as a Trump-era cause rather than a career.

And it’s a sentiment that former President Barack Obama seems to share. On Wednesday, Obama announced the location of the first stop on his 2018 House campaign drive:

Irvine, Calif.

Harder, Cox, Hill, Cisneros, Porter, Rouda and Levin are all scheduled to appear with him on stage.



Best of the Rest

“Change” comes to JFK’s district: In the latest blow to establishment Democrats, Boston City Councilor Ayanna Pressley defeated Rep. Michael Capuano for the nomination in Massachusetts’ Seventh District — the fabled seat once held by John F. Kennedy and by Tip O’Neill.

Pressley will become the first black woman to represent Massachusetts in Congress, after serving as the first black woman to serve on the city council. Capuano was a 10-term incumbent, representing a district covering an area stretching southwest from Boston.

The result of this race isn’t likely to change many votes in Congress — Capuano’s record checked nearly every box for a progressive Democrat — but it does change representation. Pressley’s campaign emphasized her ethnic identification with the district and focused on inequality within the district, as she emphasized in a video released early last month. 

“I think it’s a return to the roots for the party,” said Pressley in an interview last month, “and it’s necessary for us to not only confront and resist what is coming out of this White House every day but to progress, not only in our communities but to advance our democracy.”  — Christopher Wilson (More on Pressley’s stunning victory here.)

Boston City Councilor Ayanna Pressley celebrates her primary victory over Rep. Michael Capuano on Tuesday. (Photo: Steven Senne/AP)

Planned Parenthood ponies up: With the hearings over the Brett Kavanaugh Supreme Court appointment as backdrop, Planned Parenthood Votes, the Super-PAC of the Planned Parenthood Federation of America, announced what the PAC’s executive director, Deirdre Schifeling, called “the biggest midterm ground game in our organization’s history.”

The effort will cost $20 million and will aim at door knocking, emailing and phone banking to reach 4.5 million voters in Arizona, Florida, Georgia, Michigan, Minnesota, New Mexico, Nevada, Ohio, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin.

The timing of the announcement suggests that even as the group continues to lobby against the Kavanaugh nomination, it is setting its sights on making what is thought to be his likely approval by the Senate into a midterm campaign issue. And the wording throughout the conference call announcement — where the talk was not just of threats to abortion and reproductive rights, but also health care in general and preexisting conditions in particular — suggests a bundling that reflects poll data.

“The American people do not want to see a world without Roe, to see their health care coverage compromised, or to see a wedge driven between them and the doctors they trust,” Schifeling said. “Eighty percent of the American public supports access to birth control and cancer screenings at Planned Parenthood. Over 70 percent of the public supports access to safe, legal abortion. And new polling today from Kaiser shows that 75 percent of Americans want protections for people with preexisting conditions.” — Lisa Belkin

“Red Wave” watch: Two weeks ago, Midterm Mania reality-checked President Trump’s repeated prediction that a “red wave” would sweep through Washington, D.C., in November, strengthening the GOP’s hold on Congress. We found that the evidence suggested otherwise. Since then, the available data have only grown less friendly to Trump & Co. At the time, Democrats led Republicans by 7.8 percentage points on the generic congressional ballot, a gap that was consistent, historically speaking, with gains that would put them back in the majority. But today that average edge has grown to nearly 9 points, and more than half of the polls taken in the past two weeks give Dems a double-digit lead. In a similar vein, Trump’s approval rating registered back then at 42.2 percent approve to 52.4 percent disapprove — a -10.2-point gap. Now that gap has grown by a full 4 percentage points. Meanwhile, the Cook Political Report considered 64 GOP-held House seats to be at risk in late August. Since then, it has added an additional GOP seat to the list (NC-02, east of Durham, where Republican Rep. George Holding is facing a challenge from Democrat Linda Coleman). In other words, if Trump’s “red wave” was likely to remain a figment of his imagination in the waning weeks of summer, it’s only likelier to remain so now, in the opening stretch, post-Labor Day, of the fall campaign.



Up Next

Sept. 6: Delaware primaries

Progressive activists have the opportunity to take down another long-time Democratic incumbent in Thursday’s Delaware primary. Sen. Tom Carper has held the seat since 2001, following a career as the First State’s treasurer, congressman and governor. As with the races that resulted in upset victories for Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Ayanna Pressley, the older, white, male Carper is being challenged by a woman of color, Kerri Evelyn Harris. Harris is an Air Force veteran and lesbian who is running far to the left of Carper in a business-friendly state. She has endorsed a $15 minimum wage, Medicare for all, abolishing ICE and eliminating student loan debt.

Sen. Thomas Carper and Kerri Evelyn Harris. (Photos: Jacquelyn Martin/AP, Patrick Semansky/AP)

Harris faces substantial challenges, including name recognition (Carper first ran for state office before she was born and has received the support of Joe Biden, one of Delaware’s favorite sons) and funding (Carper has spent over $3 million while Harris hasn’t hit $100,000). Still, Harris more than held her own in a debate last week and garnered increased media attention leading up to Election Day. Delaware is a small state where a grassroots campaign can catch hold. And Harris is being helped by some of the paid staffers who helped Ocasio-Cortez win back in June.

“It’s very much word of mouth,” said Harris in an interview earlier this summer. “You know how a small town works? We’re a state that’s a small town, so the more people that talk, the more people get involved. It’s that touch that makes all the difference, people haven’t been used to that. People making phone calls, people showing up at the house, especially in neighborhoods where people say, ‘Oh, those folks don’t vote.’ Those are our target neighborhoods.”

A Harris win would be a huge upset — but it’s not unthinkable, as this primary season has repeatedly shown us.  — Christopher Wilson

Sept. 11: New Hampshire primaries; in NH-01, the retirement of Democratic Rep. Carol Shea-Porter portends a competitive general-election contest

Sept. 12: Rhode Island primaries

Sept. 13: New York primaries for state and local offices; Democratic Gov. Andrew Cuomo is facing a progressive primary challenge from actress Cynthia Nixon


With contributions from Lisa Belkin and Christopher Wilson.


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