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Rep. Young Kim and other California Republicans support Trump.

California Republicans growing more comfortable with Trump

BUENA PARK, Calif. — We’ve talked a lot during the past two years about the group of a dozen-plus vulnerable House Republicans who hold districts President Joe Biden won in 2020. But what if these Republicans aren’t as endangered as we thought?

We’re in southern California all week talking to candidates running in competitive races that may decide control of the House. In conversation after conversation, we found rank-and-file Republicans increasingly ready to embrace former President Donald Trump in toss-up seats. Trump lost California by roughly 30 points in both 2016 and 2020, so this is a significant development.

There are five Republican incumbents in the Golden State who represent seats that Biden won. Given the razor-thin GOP House majority, if Democrats flip all these seats they could win the chamber back this fall. But it’s not so simple.

Much has changed since 2020 when Biden beat Trump in a popular vote and Electoral College landslide. Biden is currently trailing Trump in the polls nationally. He’s stuck with a 38% average approval rating. So in the mind of these at-risk Republicans, tying yourself to a well-known challenger when Biden is broadly unpopular isn’t the worst idea, despite Trump’s obvious downsides.

“I think the base is more excited than ever. The more they try to lock up President Trump, I think it does the opposite of whatever they’re trying to do,” Rep. Young Kim (R-Calif.) told us. “So there is more enthusiasm, there is more energy that’s going to help the base to come out.”

Biden won Kim’s district in 2020 by just under two points. She faces Democrat Joe Kerr in November.

Farther south, Republican Matt Gunderson is challenging Rep. Mike Levin (D-Calif.) in a San Diego-area seat Biden won by double digits four years ago. But Gunderson insisted the math is different this time around.

“Right now in our polling, Biden’s lead has diminished to 5.7%. So it’s almost half his tally last cycle,” Gunderson said. “That Trump drag impact’s not going to be the same as it has been in the past.”

Democrats are also targeting longtime incumbent GOP Rep. Ken Calvert (R-Calif.) to the east of Los Angeles. Trump won by the district around a point in 2020, and Calvert is eagerly endorsing the former president in 2024.

“My opponent’s going to be supporting Joe Biden, and I’m comfortable with that. He can support Joe Biden. I’ll support Trump, and I think the district will vote accordingly,” Calvert said. Calvert narrowly defeated Democrat Will Rollins in 2022, and two are locked in a highly-anticipated rematch this cycle.

The acknowledgment that Biden’s political standing is eroding in swing seats isn’t a radical assessment. Even in deep-blue California, there are still pockets of opposition to Biden as residents unhappy with rising crime, illegal border crossings and sky-high costs make their displeasure known.

For example, Democratic Gov. Gavin Newsom recently faced a recall effort and there’s fury at progressive district attorneys like George Gascón in Los Angeles County.

One of the largest disparities between Biden’s vote share and the congressional ballot is in California’s 27th District. Biden triumphed by 12 points in 2020 but GOP Rep. Mike Garcia (R-Calif.) has won three tough elections in a row. Democrat George Whitesides is Garcia’s opponent this cycle. Garcia, a retired Navy pilot, just signed onto the Veterans and Military Families for Trump initiative.

In the 45th District seat, which supported Biden by 6 points over Trump, Republican Rep. Michelle Steel (R-Calif.) told us “it doesn’t really matter” what happens on the top of the ticket. Steel said she’s continuing to employ aggressive canvassing and on-the-ground operations.

The Democratic view: Democrats, for their part, are happy to talk about Trump and think their GOP counterparts are making a major mistake here. For all the talk of Biden’s poor poll numbers, only 42% of Americans view Trump favorably.

Steel’s opponent, political newcomer Derek Tran, refers to the incumbent as “MAGA Michelle.”

“She’s part of that extreme movement that’s out of touch with the people of the 45th district,” Tran said. “She’s taken money from MTG. She’s just recently taken a picture with canine killer Kristi Noem.”

There’s also nothing that unites the Democratic base quite like a hatred of Trump. While we were in Irvine on Sunday accompanying Democrat Dave Min (D-Calif.) knocking on doors for his campaign to fill the toss-up 47th District, voters kept bringing up Trump as their top issue.

“He’s just crazy,” one Democratic voter told Min.

— Max Cohen

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Editorial photos provided by Getty Images. Political ads courtesy of AdImpact.