Five, four, three, one.
When House Republicans passed their massive tax overhaul last Thursday afternoon, 13 Republicans broke ranks: Five New Yorkers, four New Jerseyans, three Californians, and one deficit hawk North Carolinian voted against the plan.
The defections stem from a Republican tax plan that overwhelmingly disadvantages high-tax states like California, New York, and New Jersey who are paying for dramatic cuts to corporate tax rates. It caps the mortgage interest deduction for homes more than $500,000 and repeals and caps state and local income and property tax deduction, respectively, which many in blue states rely on.
What’s surprising is the distribution of the “no” votes across these three states.
Just three of the 14 California House Republicans went against leadership, whereas bigger margins of the New York and New Jersey delegations voted against the bill.
This isn’t the first time that’s happened. In the House’s Obamacare repeal vote in May, not a single California Republican voted against the bill, which would have radically disrupted a health care system that was thriving in the Golden State.
Clearly some blue-state Republicans are taking a stand. But it raises an important question: What makes California Republicans so different from New York Republicans or New Jersey ones?
“I don’t know,” Rep. Darrell Issa (R-CA), who has been named the most vulnerable House Republican in 2018, and who voted against the tax bill, said of his colleagues.
The answer appears to have a lot to do with polarization, not only on a national level but in how it plays out in California specifically. Even so, this handful of Republicans might be hewing to leadership on the tax bill, but they do so at their own political risk.
California Republicans are convincing themselves everything will be okay
The majority of the California Republican delegation voted for the tax bill — but few were enthusiastic about it. Many took the risk on the hope that the Senate would fix their problems, as the LA Times reported.
“It’s not the final outcome on it. We still have a ways to go,” Rep. Doug LaMalfa (R-CA) said. “The all-important final vote on the conference bill will be where the rubber meets the road.”
Reps. Mimi Walters, Ken Calvert, and Steve Knight echoed the same sentiment, saying House leadership gave them assurances the bill would move in the right direction. According to the Washington Post, Majority Leader Rep. Kevin McCarthy (R-CA) “urged his fellow California Republicans not to air any grievances publicly while urging them to privately pursue changes to benefit their constituents.”
Their silence turned into tacit support. But many took a huge risk.
The road ahead in the Senate doesn’t look good for Californians. The upper chamber’s tax plan takes some of the worst changes for high-tax states even further, fully repeals both the income and property state and local deduction, and sunsets the individual tax relief reforms in order to pay for the corporate tax cuts. To put that in context, 46 percent of Walters’s district, for example, takes the state and local tax deduction, according the Tax Policy Center.
Others said that while the plan might disadvantage California overall, their districts wouldn’t be as affected. It is true Republican members in California often represent inland districts with lower property values and income.
But the vote is still dangerous. Republicans in California clearly ran on cutting taxes — but this tax bill could raise taxes on their constituents.
California’s partisanship and the McCarthy factor
House California Republicans are a unique case.
California has a culture of partisanship unlike other states. Democrats control every statewide office and have supermajorities in both the chambers of the state legislature. A 2014 study from the American Political Science Association showed California is by far the most polarized state legislature in the country. And because of the open primary system, California Republicans are unlikely to have a candidate in the general election for either Senate or governor in 2018.
“It can’t get much worse for the California Republicans,” Kurt Bardella, a former Breitbart executive and Issa spokesperson, told Politico. “Demographics are against them and this has been a lost decade with no electoral successes to speak of.”
The outgrowth is a GOP that clings to the poles of the party. Trump still has a 70 percent approval rating among California Republicans, despite sitting at around 25 percent approval statewide.
To be sure, California House Republicans have made some overtures to the center on issues like the environment and immigration, as Politico’s David Siders and Carla Marinucci write:
But on major-ticket items like health care and tax reform, California’s culture of sticking with party has remained strong — one only helped by close allies in leadership that bring the promise of the national GOP’s support.
That’s the McCarthy factor. The conservative California majority leader who’s both close to House Speaker Paul Ryan in leadership and an ally of President Donald Trump has an apparent strong hold on the California delegation.
He’s not someone who will lead a policy debate, but he’s known for being well-liked and a skilled political tactician — enough to give members assurances of electoral protection.
“It’s easy to think of reasons Republicans would have voted no and reasons they would have voted yes — the difference is one of the presence of a very high-ranking leadership [member],” Ethan Rarick, the associate director at UC Berkeley’s Institute of Governmental Studies, said. Rep. Devin Nunes (R-CA) also sits on the tax-writing Ways and Means Committee.
In these regards, California Republicans act more like the rest of the country than the blue state that they are.
“I think you look at the country as a whole, New York is more the outlier than California is,” Rarick said of this era of polarization. “The New York Republicans being so vocal about this issue is almost more surprising than Californians going with.”
But it also sets up their constituents for more risk. Cutting the state and local tax deduction puts undue burden on the state’s budget — which in California is run wholly by Democrats.
Democrats are targeting California Republicans in 2018
As Republicans pushed through their tax bill through the House and barreled through the Senate’s Finance Committee, Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) made her message to California Republicans clear:
“After their deafening silence, any California Republican who votes for the GOP tax scam will be forced to answer why they care so little for their constituents,” she said in a statement.
It’s the same message Democrats gave when House Republicans voted for the American Health Care Act — the House’s repeal of Obamacare. And while that ultimately didn’t pass Congress as a whole, it’s become fodder for political attack ads and campaign rhetoric for Democrats across the country. The tax bill, however, looks more likely to pass — and may be a big political liability for California Republicans.
Democrats have some factors in their favor going into the 2018 midterm elections. Republicans only hold small majorities in both the House and the Senate — they are just 24 seats short in the House — and Trump remains extremely unpopular nationally. The Democratic base looks energized, which means it will be easier to fundraise, recruit good candidates, and get people out to vote.
Already, Democrats have seen major victories in 2017, unexpectedly winning down-ballot races in deeply red districts in Virginia, Ohio, and Georgia. In California, which sends the third most Republicans to the House, this wave could have a major impact on the political makeup of Congress.
“Statewide, [Republicans] have nothing to lose. Barring something really unusual, they can’t win a state election,” Rarick said. “Republican House members have a lot to lose on an individual level. Seven are in districts that were won by Hillary Clinton.”
The National Republican Congressional Committee knows what’s coming. Already the House GOP’s official fundraising arm has added four California Republicans — Reps. Darrell Issa, Jeff Denham, Steve Knight, and David Valadao — to the committee’s Patriot Program, which supports vulnerable Republican races.
Meanwhile, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee — the official arm for Democratic House races — is currently running Facebook ads against 10 of their 14 California Republican targets. Health care and tax reform are among their biggest talking points.
“At this point it looks like California Republicans are eager to lose their seats in 2018,” Tyler Law, a spokesperson for the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, said.