Jennifer Rubin: Nunes and other Trump sycophants cannot take re-election for granted

Nunes is unlikely to lose his seat, but in a wave election there are always some surprising results.

House Intelligence Committee Chairman Devin Nunes, R-Calif., a close ally of President Donald Trump who has become a fierce critic of the FBI and the Justice Department, strides to a GOP conference at the Capitol in Washington, Tuesday, Jan. 30, 2018. House Speaker Paul Ryan is defending a vote by Republicans on the House intelligence committee to release a classified memo on the Russia investigation. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite)

We are nine months from the midterm elections, and it’s just one poll, and a non-neutral poll at that. That said, Democrats surely will be encouraged by a Public Policy Polling survey (done for the Democrats’ leading candidate). It shows that House Intelligence Committee Chariman Devin Nunes, R-Calif., whose memo has created a fiery backlash against him and his anti-FBI cohorts, is ahead by only 5 points and has not broken 50 percent. “He was leading a re-election bid by only 50 percent to 45 percent against a generic Democratic opponent, with a 4.1 percent margin of error, according to a Public Policy Polling survey released by his potential opponent Andrew Janz last month.” That was before the memo stunt.

The New York Daily News reports:

“Nunes has won with more than 60 percent of the vote in his last three elections, including 68 percent in 2016 buoyed by a victory for President [Donald] Trump in his district. … Janz put up a billboard in November that showed his opponent as a ‘good boy’ on a child leash held by Trump and in turn by Russian President Vladimir Putin.”

Well, a good sense of humor always helps.

California’s 22nd Congressional District sure doesn’t look like an attractive opportunity for Democrats. It is rated “Safe Republican” by three neutral, respected polling groups. Because California uses a single primary system — all candidates regardless of party appear on the primary ballot, and the top two face off in the general election — we will get an indication in June whether Nunes is much weaker than in previous elections. One interesting statistic jumps out: It is a plurality-Latino district (44 percent), meaning it has a nonwhite majority.

Now, the district is ranked R+8, which normally wouldn’t be competitive. However, keep in mind that Trump won the district by 9 points, Mitt Romney by 15. These are not die-hard Trump fans by any stretch of the imagination. And if the special elections last year were any indication (“the Democratic margin has been 12 percentage points better, on average, than the partisan lean in each race”), it is not inconceivable Nunes could lose. Janz may be well-suited to take on Nunes. He is a deputy district attorney with the Fresno County District Attorney’s Office, giving him some standing to decry Nunes’ tactics and assault on the FBI.

Again, Nunes is unlikely to lose his seat, but in a wave election there are always some surprising results. (Moreover, Nunes cannot consider his race in the bag; he and his donors will have to run a fully competitive race, potentially diverting resources from other races.)

Democrats should certainly focus on more competitive races, but thanks to Nunes and Trump, Democrats running against GOP incumbents would be well advised to focus on three things.

First, by making the case that Republicans (with Nunes as the poster boy) are politicizing law enforcement and damaging our national security, Democrats may chip away some of those proverbial soccer moms (suburban women concerned about security).

Second, Trump has talked a good game but done virtually nothing on the opioid addiction front. In Nunes’ district, smack in the middle of the San Joaquin Valley, it is a substantial concern. A National Public Radio report just last week found:

“You won’t find the state’s highest overdose rates here in the San Joaquin Valley. But the epidemic holds at a dull roar, with overdose rates still higher than the state average in every Valley county except one. In the six counties here, opioids claimed 151 lives in 2013, and 195 in 2014.”

Fresno County health officer Ken Bird says that’s too many. “If we’re over the state average, I don’t accept that,” he says. “That’s how I see it.”

Votes for Medicaid cuts and failure to direct new resources to fighting opioid addiction may be problematic for conservative Republicans.

Finally, Democrats badly need to register and turn out the Latino vote to maximize their pickup opportunities in states with large Latino populations, including California (with seven seats rated a solid pickup possibilities for Democrats), Florida and Texas. Likewise, in competitive Senate races (like Arizona’s and Nevada’s), Latino voters could very well determine which party holds the Senate majority.

In sum, chances are Nunes will be re-elected, but Democrats can throw a scare into him and, more important, show Republicans in more competitive races that attacking the FBI, doing nothing on the opioid front and waving the bloody shirt on immigration have consequences.

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