The Battle for Orange County in the Fight for the House

by Nathan L. Gonzales November 28, 2017 · 10:26 AM EST

YORBA LINDA, Calif. — Celina Estrada and Sam Zapata weren’t even born when Republican Ed Royce was first elected to Congress in 1992. Yet a year before the 2018 elections, the two students spent a recent evening knocking on doors in the hills of Orange County, California, to support the vulnerable congressman.

Royce hasn’t had a close race in years. In 2016, he won with 57 percent and outspent his Democratic opponent, $3.7 million to $77,000. This cycle, however, inspired to counteract the effects of a Donald Trump presidency, five of his Democratic challengers had over $100,000 in their campaign accounts at the end of September, and two of them are self-funders.

Hillary Clinton was the first Democratic presidential nominee to win Orange County since 1936, sparking interest from Democrats in defeating a handful of GOP incumbents, including Royce and Reps. Darrell Issa, Dana Rohrabacher, and Mimi Walters. But Republicans have already started establishing a ground game, providing defense to some of their most vulnerable incumbents.

Gaining a seat or two in Southern California might leave Democrats short of the 24 they need to gain nationwide for a House majority. But defeating three incumbents — or a clean sweep of Orange County — would put the party in prime position.

Royce (who had $3.4 million in the bank as of Sept. 30) will likely benefit from a flood of television ads from outside groups late next year, but he’s already getting unprecedented ground support from the Congressional Leadership Fund, a super PAC aligned with Speaker Paul D. Ryan.

Positioned in Placentia
Instead of relying on a barrage of TV ads next fall, the CLF has opened 20 field offices in competitive congressional races around the country.

“The old model is lazy and broken,” said Corry Bliss, the fund’s executive director. “There will always be money for TV ads, but every cycle, TV ads are becoming less and less important.”

In Royce’s 39th District, the one-room office in Placentia is on the second floor of a Spanish mission-inspired strip mall, shared with Hospice Care of California and SchoolsFirst Federal Credit Union, and across the parking lot from an IHOP.

One weeknight earlier this fall, over a dozen high school and college kids sat at six, white folding tables making phone calls in a sparsely decorated room that contained a minifridge, small microwave, pizza boxes and bags of chips, along with stacks of door hangers and CLF stickers.

The most common sound was the three-tone signal of a non-working number, but at this early stage of the race, cleaning up the call list (acquired from Data Trust) should make the campaign more efficient next year.

The only paid staffer is field director Steven Theobald, a self-described farm kid from Huntington, Indiana, who has been overseeing the operation since June. Last cycle, he worked for the Ohio Republican Party, while Bliss was managing GOP Sen. Rob Portman’s re-election campaign.

After making some calls, Estrada and Zapata drove a few miles away to knock on doors in an upscale neighborhood where manicured lawns and lighted shrubs frame driveways with luxury vehicles. Zapata, a high school junior from Tustin, is volunteering for the experience and a recommendation letter, while Estrada is earning internship credit at Cal Poly Pomona.

They went door to door around a darkened cul de sac, guided to key households by an app on their phones. They’d ask the person who opened the door if they were supporting Royce, what their most important issue was from a short list of options, and if they approved of the job President Donald Trump is doing. Volunteers input the answers into the app, along with other observations such as whether the resident had an American flag on display or appeared to have pets.

The CLF’s goal is identify 50,000 key voters in each targeted district in order to come back to them next year with tailored messages and to shift a critical race a couple of points toward the GOP candidate. A similar strategy helped Portman win by more than 20 points last fall.

As an outside group, the CLF can’t coordinate with the candidates or the National Republican Congressional Committee, so some campaign operatives see the CLF ground game as inefficient and duplicative, taking away from money that would otherwise go to ads.

“CLF will spend millions and millions of dollars attacking Democrats. This is sacrificing one television ad in every district,” Bliss explained about the field effort. “The idea that any member of Congress will lose because of one television ad is laughable and stupid.”

“This is the smartest, most efficient way to invest our donors’ money,” Bliss added.

Investing from Irvine
Democrats are also on the ground in Orange County, but taking a different approach.

About 20 miles south in Irvine, Kyle Layman, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee’s political director for the western region, is one of six full-time staffers operating out of a WeWork space in a sleek glass tower in an upscale office park across from the Spectrum Center, an outdoor mall.

“Setting up the DCCC’s first office in California is all about recognizing opportunity and being willing to take risks in order to gain new ground,” communications director Meredith Kelly said. “By being based in Irvine, DCCC staffers are closer to the voters and the candidates.”

Layman, a former chief of staff to California Rep. Raul Ruiz, oversees directors of digital, communications, candidate services, targeting, and research. The DCCC also has “March to ’18” organizers (who are often meeting with activists) in each district who can use the Irvine office as a home base.

Operating out of a co-working space allows the local staff to focus on their mission rather than operations, and provides a startup culture that the DCCC headquarters on South Capitol Street lacks, and which could breed some creativity.

While the office is located in the 45th District, represented by Republican Mimi Walters, it’s within driving distance of four other targeted races, including three more in Orange County and the 25th District, north of Los Angeles in the San Fernando Valley. And unlike the CLF, an outside group, the DCCC can coordinate directly with candidates, and there are plenty of them in Orange County this cycle.

In the 45th District alone, five Democrats had over $150,000 on hand at the end of September compared to the last cycle, when one Democrat spent less than $120,000 for the entire election.

Democrats face competitive primaries in each Orange County district, but DCCC operatives believe it’s in their best interest to help all of their candidates build professional organizations so that the eventual nominee can start the general election in a strong position. And a field office helps facilitate that goal.

The National Republican Congressional Committee doesn’t have a similar operation in place but is expected to have a presence in the area in the coming months.