Obama to headline campaign rally in California for seven Democratic congressional candidates

Key Points
  • Former President Barack Obama will headline a rally Saturday to campaign for seven Democratic congressional candidates.
  • Obama is scheduled to appear in Anaheim with five Democratic congressional candidates from Southern California as well as two hopefuls running in districts based in the state's Central Valley region.
  • The California rally is expected to kick off Obama's national midterm push for Democrats and be followed by visits to at least three other states.
Former president Barack Obama 
Scott Olson | Getty Images

With just two months before the pivotal midterm election, former President Barack Obama will headline a rally Saturday to campaign for seven Democratic congressional candidates in closely watched contests in California.

Obama endorsed 81 candidates last month for state and federal offices, but the Orange County event will represent the former president's first major political rally focused on the 2018 midterm election. Obama also is expected to campaign in several other states, including Pennsylvania, Ohio and Illinois, before the November election as part of the Democratic Party's nationwide push to retake control of the House.

Candidates scheduled to attend Saturday's rally include Josh Harder, T.J. Cox, Katie Hill, Gil Cisneros, Katie Porter, Harley Rouda and Mike Levin. The seven are from Republican-held congressional districts that Democrat Hillary Clinton won in the 2016 presidential election.

"Trump is pretty much unpopular, especially in the seven districts that Hillary won," said Ben Tulchin, a San Francisco-based Democratic pollster. "Obama coming out here will only make a good situation even better."

Event near Disneyland

The Obama rally, organized by the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, will be held at the Anaheim Convention Center near Disneyland. Organizers expect the campaign event to draw nearly 800 people.

"The real value of Obama coming is to motivate Democrats who live in those districts who are typically outnumbered to turn out in larger numbers than normally would," said longtime Republican strategist Dan Schnur, a professor at the University of Southern California's Annenberg School of Communications.

"There are plenty of swing districts around the state and around the country that used to be red and are now blue. These are still 'red' districts, but they don't necessarily like Donald Trump."

The GOP has a 23-seat majority in the House. However, Democrats are hoping to pick up enough GOP-held seats in California and other close races around the nation to wrestle back control of the chamber they lost in the 2006 midterm elections.

Retiring GOP stalwarts

Some of the seats Democrats are targeting involve House seats being vacated by GOP stalwarts from Southern California. They include the seats held by retiring Rep. Darrell Issa in the 49th Congressional District and departing Rep. Ed Royce in the 39th.

Levin, an environmental attorney, is in a tight race to beat Republican challenger Diane Harkey, a conservative state official, for Issa's seat. Harkey was endorsed last month by President Donald Trump.

The district hugs the coast from southern Orange County to northern San Diego County. Issa, a nine-term congressman, announced plans to retire in January after facing weekly protests outside his district office and narrowly winning the seat by less than 1,650 votes in 2016.

"It is an incredible honor to be endorsed by President Obama and to have him do an event for us here," Levin said. "His was a presidency that, as he said, placed hope over fear, and unity of purpose over conflict and discord."

Harkey told CNBC she was "very happy with some of the economic policies" of Trump but added she hasn't always agreed with Trump's other stances, pointing out she's against his push to increase in offshore drilling.

Democrat's 11-point lead

The race to fill Royce's seat is a contest between Cisneros and Young Kim, a Republican former state Assembly member. Kim, who worked for Royce for about two decades, has been endorsed by the retiring lawmaker.

Cisneros, a Navy veteran and philanthropist, made his fortune winning the California lottery in 2010. His campaign released an internal poll last month conducted by Tulchin Research that showed the Democrat holding an 11-point lead over Kim.

The district includes portions of Los Angeles, Orange and San Bernardino counties. Clinton carried the district in the 2016 election by nearly 9 percentage points.

"It is going to be an election in which turnout is really important, and anything that helps to mobilize folks on your own side is going to be valuable," said Gary Jacobson, an emeritus professor of political science at the University of California, San Diego. "And I think that Obama will have an effect to some degree but who knows how much."

Tight race in Orange County

Meantime, Republican Rep. Mimi Walters is in a fight for her political life in California's 45th Congressional District against Porter, a consumer advocate and law professor at University of California, Irvine.

A Tulchin Research poll released this week and funded by the DCCC shows Porter with a lead of 3 percentage points over Walters. Prior to entering politics, Walters worked as an investment executive for Drexel, Burnham & Lambert.

Another closely watched race pits 15-term GOP Rep. Dana Rohrabacher against real estate developer and Democrat Rouda. One issue has been Rohrabacher's criticism of the Russia-Trump probe and the Republican congressman's close ties to the Kremlin.

California's 48th Congressional District in Orange County remains largely Republican in terms of registration with the GOP having more than a 10 percent point advantage, according to state data. Regardless, Rouda has a 3-point lead over Rohrabacher, according to a July poll released by Monmouth University.

In the 25th District in northern Los Angeles County and portions of Ventura County, two-term GOP Rep. Steve Knight is facing a challenge from Hill, who recently ran a nonprofit helping the homeless.

Central Valley races

Elsewhere, two of the seven congressional candidates scheduled to attend Saturday's Obama rally are from the state's San Joaquin Valley region, known for its agriculture production. Water, trade, immigration and jobs are among the top issues.

Obama remains popular in California, but he didn't always do well in the Central Valley during elections. Obama offered some drought relief when in office but some farmers insisted it didn't go far enough.

GOP Rep. Jeff Denham is seeking a fourth term in the 10th District, located in Stanislaus and San Joaquin counties. His opponent, Harder, has worked in venture capital and private equity.

Republican Rep. David Valadao, seeking a fourth term in the 21st District, is being challenged by Cox, who owns a nut processing plant in the Central Valley. Valadao comes from a dairy family that has faced setbacks this year.

The district includes portions of Fresno, Kern, Kings and Tulare counties. The region's agriculture industry has been hit by retaliatory tariffs imposed by China, including levies fresh fruit, nuts and dairy products.