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May 28, 2024
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New Progressive PAC Targets 8 Key House Races in California

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The super PAC, Battleground California, said it would drive turnout among voters of color to try to flip seats that are seen as crucial to winning control of the House this fall.

A phone bank operation for Communities for a New California, one of the progressive groups that are part of the Battleground California super PAC.Credit…Max Whittaker for The New York Times

Democrats nearly pulled off the impossible in the 2022 midterms.

In the final weeks of the campaign, with an unpopular president in his first term, polls forecast a red wave that would sweep the country and flip control of the House and the Senate — prompting alarm from Democrats and predictions from Republicans of a decisive victory.

But that wave never materialized, a mirage of bad polling and inflated expectations. Democrats came close to maintaining a national trifecta, but Republicans eked out a thin majority in the House — prevailing in a handful of seats in New York and California, each by just a few thousand votes.

Now, a new coalition of progressive groups in California has formed a super PAC aiming to bolster Democratic candidates in a state that the party sees as crucial to winning control of the House this fall.

The super PAC, Battleground California, says it aims to spend $15 million this year on eight competitive House races, seven with Republican incumbents — in Northern California, Orange County, the Inland Empire east of Los Angeles, the Central Valley and Los Angeles — as well as the seat left open by Representative Katie Porter, a Democrat who is not running for re-election after a failed Senate campaign.

It is an ambitious effort, one that seeks to establish a durable progressive machine in California — advised and supported by local activists and community organizations — to lift swing district Democratic candidates through an extensive field operation, including marathon door-knocking campaigns aimed at driving turnout among minority groups.

“Trusted messengers from the community are a very critical element,” said Steve Phillips, a co-founder of the California Donor Table, the group leading the Battleground California PAC, adding that those residents are not only more trusted by voters but are better able to provide feedback on what messages work and what messages don’t.

Pablo Rodriguez, the executive director of Communities for a New California, a group focused on civil rights, is among the activists working with the PAC. He said that focusing on local issues, and less on the “national noise” generated by President Biden and former President Donald J. Trump, would be the key to victory.

“The path towards victory,” Mr. Rodriguez said, “is not making big TV or radio buys or even digital ad buys, right? We need to actually have face-to-face conversations with voters.”

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Pablo Rodriguez, the executive director of Communities for a New California, said local issues, instead of the “national noise” generated by President Biden and former President Donald J. Trump, would be the key to victory.Credit…Max Whittaker for The New York Times

Battleground California has set a challenging goal. Only two of the seven Republicans that the PAC will spend against — Representatives David Valadao and John Duarte, who represent predominantly Latino districts in the Central Valley region — won their 2022 races by what would be considered close margins. They will both face rematches with their 2022 opponents: Rudy Salas and Adam Gray, two Democratic former state assemblymen.

The PAC’s target spending figure of $15 million, while substantial, will not go far in a state where House races can get expensive. In the Central Valley, the race for Mr. Valadao’s seat in 2022 fielded more than $25 million in outside spending. Ms. Porter also spent more than $28 million on her re-election campaign. Michael Gomez Daly, political strategist at California Donor Table, said the coalition had raised about $1.3 million to date, aiming for $5 million by July.

Mr. Phillips and Mr. Daly said their targets were within reach for Democrats with enough investment of resources.

“All the districts should be flippable,” Mr. Daly said. He declined to say how many victories would be considered a success, adding that “failure is not really an option this cycle.”

Both Mr. Gray and Mr. Salas attributed their losses in 2022 to depressed turnout, and in interviews they both highlighted their efforts to start get-out-the-vote efforts early. They also had high expectations for a boost in presidential-year turnout.

Mr. Valadao and Mr. Duarte declined interview requests, but Republican pollsters, strategists and consultants in California have said that demographic changes and new efforts to reach voters of color have shifted the balance of power in their favor. They point to Mr. Valadao’s close victory in 2020, as well as wins by minority candidates like Representatives Young Kim and Michelle Steel in that same year. Others say that the presidential race is just as likely to inflate turnout among Republicans.

“It’ll be close, but Valadao will win,” said Cathy Abernathy, a Republican campaign consultant in Kern County. “And he’ll win most likely because Trump’s on the ballot.”

The Republican voter base is also growing in the Central Valley districts represented by Mr. Valadao and Mr. Duarte, according to registration records by the California secretary of state’s office, a net gain of several thousand voters in both districts from September 2022 to February this year — exceeding the narrow margin of victory in those seats in the 2022 races.

“It’s a little bit of contrast to, I think, the typical narrative that people of color are more progressive-minded,” said Rachel Hernandez, a member of the City Council in Riverbank who is running for mayor. Instead, she added, “what we’re seeing in the Central Valley is that the Latino community is electing more conservative candidates.”

Ms. Hernandez added that, for now, that is not an irreversible trend, but a warning sign for Democrats to pay attention to the nuances of the Latino electorate. She encouraged many of the same tactics that Battleground California says it plans to use: molding a message for the needs of a specific community, and working with staff members and volunteers who represent the community.

“My volunteers, for example, up until just this weekend actually, were all young women,” Ms. Hernandez said. “Young Latina women, college-aged, who approached me because they were saying ‘Wow, this is like our campaign.’”

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