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Gender gap the key to Democrats’ aims in Congress

The most dramatic news in the year’s first big round of political polling, out a few days ago, was that Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom, once the prohibitive leader in the run for governor, has fallen into a virtual tie for first place with former Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa in the seven-candidate field of significant candidates.

Villaraigosa has gained about 10 percentage points in the survey of the Public Policy Institute of California since serious campaigning began at mid-2017, while Newsom, the former San Francisco Mayor, lost about five points and other candidates showed no significant gains.

That’s somewhat ironic in this year of #MeToo revelations of sexual harassment in politics and business, since both ex-mayors have had well-publicized sexual incidents that both say they now deeply regret.

The poll findings become more ironic when paired with the details of an almost simultaneous poll by the UC Berkeley Institute of Government Studies (IGS).

That survey, examining two long-Republican Southern California congressional districts that are now in serious play, found a large gender gap that’s likely to be duplicated in the other five or six districts where Democrats hope to flip seats in November. These races are vital to the current strong Democratic hopes of retaking control in the House of Representatives for the first time this decade.

Republican congressional incumbents are unpopular all over California, found the IGS survey, heir to the polling organization of the longtime, but now defunct, Field Poll. That’s no surprise when the GOP congressional majority steadfastly does President Trump’s bidding at a time when his approval rating in the nation’s largest state sits at just 29 percent.

The IGS study concentrated on two very different districts with previously secure Republican incumbents. In the coastal Orange County district of Dana Rohrabacher, who has held the seat 30 years, he gets an approval rating of just 38 percent, while 51 percent of voters there say they are inclined to vote against him, no matter which Democrat he might face this fall. They indicated they are more influenced by national issues than local concerns.

It’s much the same in the variegated district of Steve Knight, stretching from ultra-suburban Simi Valley in Ventura County through booming Santa Clarita to the high desert area around Palmdale, where Knight was once a city councilman. The two-term congressman gets a mere 37 percent job-approval rating, while 56 percent of his constituent voters say they oppose his reelection.

Most striking among the components of those big disapprovals is the gender gap. In Rohrabacher’s district, 59 percent of women voters said they lean toward opposing his re-election, while an almost identical 60 percent of women voters in Knight’s district say they won’t vote for him.

Those are huge edges, not easily erased when national Republicans, including Trump, strongly oppose abortion and the environmental and workplace safety and fairness issues generally favored by women. And when Trump refuses to condemn a former White House staffer accused of domestic abuse.

While Rohrabacher voted against Trump’s tax changes, which set a $10,000 cap on what individuals or couples can deduct for state and local taxes (well below the amount of property tax paid by many residents of both districts), Knight is paying for backing that bill. About 32 percent of voters – most of them women – said that vote inclined them to oppose him. Meanwhile, Rohrabacher’s disapproval among women was strengthened by his votes to cripple the Affordable Care Act, better known as Obamacare.

Like other Republicans in contested districts, Rohrabacher and Knight also trail Democratic opponents in fundraising.

There’s a strong likelihood these poll findings on Knight and Rohrabacher come close to matching the feelings in several other districts.

Said IGS poll director Mark DiCamillo, the former Field Poll chief, “Republicans should be worried about the effect Trump is having on California. There’s an undercurrent that what’s happening in Washington is negatively affecting California.”

His survey suggests it’s a strong tide, not merely an undercurrent. And the strongest component is the firm anti-Republican sentiment Trump has aroused among women voters in this state – who will also help decide the futures of Newsom and Villaraigosa.

Email Thomas Elias at [email protected].