In a tweet to his 78,000 followers Sunday, U.S. Rep. Harley Rouda, a Democrat from Orange County, California, described his Republican opponent Michelle Steel’s attendance at an indoor fundraiser without a mask as “sickening.”

Democratic U.S. Rep. Gil Cisneros also blasted his Republican opponent, Young Kim, on Twitter for attending the “superspreader fundraiser,” calling it a “slap in the face to frontline workers” and his constituents in southern Los Angeles County and northern Orange County.

Earlier in the month, another Democrat, U.S. Rep. TJ Cox of Bakersfield, told a television debate audience that his GOP challenger, David Valadao, “is in lockstep with Donald Trump” and that Valadao aims to undo federal health protections.

These charges by incumbent lawmakers — who represent vast areas of California, from its inland farmlands to its coastal mansions and urban working-class neighborhoods — reflect a disciplined and widely used strategy Democratic congressional hopefuls are deploying across California and the nation: By associating their Republican opponents with the out-of-control coronavirus pandemic and threats to the Affordable Care Act, they hope to convince voters the Democratic Party is the one that can better protect Americans’ health.

In doing so, they are linking their challengers to President Donald Trump, who is deeply unpopular in the Golden State, with just 32% of likely voters approving of the way he is handling his job, according to a recent Public Policy Institute of California survey.

“Democrats have been able to tie the national conversation around the coronavirus pandemic with health care and with the economy and social unrest,” said David McCuan, a political science professor at California State University-Sonoma. “That allows Democrats to turn or hold individual districts.”

But the strategy isn’t a slam-dunk for Democrats, especially in the districts they flipped in 2018 — including seven in California. Despite the changing demographics in the once Republican strongholds of Orange County and the Central Valley, McCuan and other political analysts said Republican victories are possible if even a small number of residents who voted Democratic in 2018 swung back to the GOP.

Republicans have already taken back one of those seats. U.S. Rep. Mike Garcia (R-Santa Clarita) beat Christy Smith in a May special election — 55% to 45% — to fill the vacancy left after Katie Hill resigned from Congress amid allegations of inappropriate relationships with staff members. Voters in the district that includes Santa Clarita and Simi Valley will pick between the same two candidates in Tuesday’s election.

In these competitive districts, political analysts say the winner will come down to voter turnout and Trump’s approval ratings, which is now inextricably tied to his handling of the public health crisis. Nationwide, 26 congressional seats are ranked as toss-ups, according to the Cook Political Report, which tracks races.

“A lot of it’s about the president,” said Wesley Hussey, a political science professor at California State University-Sacramento. “And part of the component of the presidential election is health care, and that does trickle down to congressional races.”

Calls to the state Republican Party and the National Republican Congressional Committee were not returned. And none of the Republican challengers to the Democrats interviewed for this story responded to repeated interview requests.

In California’s southern Central Valley congressional district currently held by Cox, political analysts predict another nail-biter. Cox ousted Valadao from Congress in the last election by just 862 votes, in part by tying the three-term incumbent to Trump and criticizing Valadao’s votes to overturn the Affordable Care Act.

Now, Cox has added Trump’s handling of the pandemic as a reason for voters to reject Valadao again.

“He is in lockstep with Donald Trump,” Cox charged in a televised debate Oct. 20. “And I don’t know how you can stand behind a guy that’s saying, ‘Hey, we did a fantastic job and 200,000 Americans have died so far.’”

In the recent poll by the Public Policy Institute of California, California voters rated COVID-19 as the state’s top concern.

The tweets that Cisneros and Rouda penned Sunday, which included photos of their opponents at a fundraiser without masks, capitalize on that concern. Rouda, for example, reminded voters that his opponent, as the head of the Orange County Board of Supervisors, publicly questioned the local public health officer’s springtime recommendation that residents wear masks.

“Michelle Steel is Orange County’s top official and she violated public health orders to attend an indoor, maskless fundraiser just to receive a check,” Rouda told California Healthline on Monday. “The example she is setting shows that she lacks the leadership needed for her current position and the position she’s running for.”

Steel spokesperson Lance Trover accused Rouda of politicizing the pandemic, saying Steel has helped secure personal protective equipment for front-line workers, and food assistance and testing for the county’s most vulnerable residents.

Steel has publicly criticized Democratic Gov. Gavin Newsom for opening California’s economy too slowly, and her campaign has shared photos of Rouda socializing on a beach and in a restaurant without a mask. (Rouda said the only other people in the beach photo were close family members, and that the restaurant photo was taken before the pandemic.)

“Harley Rouda is a hypocrite who has spent the entire summer seeking to politicize the work of Orange County in battling the coronavirus,” Trover said.

While wearing a mask may resonate in California’s swing districts, there remain solidly red areas of California where defying a government mandate can score a candidate political points. U.S. Rep. Tom McClintock, a Republican who represents a sprawling conservative district spanning multiple northern and central counties, has called masks useless, balked at wearing one at a congressional hearing and asserted that state lockdowns have led to increased deaths.

So in addition to focusing on McClintock’s COVID response, his opponent, Brynne Kennedy, a first-time candidate and small-business owner, is targeting another health issue: his opposition to the ACA.

In her travels throughout the mostly rural district, Kennedy is highlighting his votes — 66 by her count — to weaken or overturn the Affordable Care Act.

“This is radically out of step with where our district is,” said Kennedy, whom political analysts describe as a long-shot candidate. “Talking about that to people, that’s very concerning to them, and it’s absolutely on the ballot this year.”

Kennedy’s focus on protecting the federal health care law, particularly preserving access to insurance for people with preexisting medical conditions, mirrors the messaging of her fellow Democrats.

And it’s putting a lot of Republicans on the defense, especially with Trump on the campaign trail advocating for the repeal of the Affordable Care Act, said GOP political consultant Rob Stutzman.

“Republicans are making a point of telling voters that they will support protecting preexisting conditions,” Stutzman said. “It’s clearly a vulnerability.”

U.S. Rep. Josh Harder (D-Modesto) has been talking about preexisting conditions since he first campaigned for his seat two years ago, referencing his brother’s health issues as a young child. He believes health care is once again the single-biggest issue in his race.

But Harder has recrafted his pitch from 2018, when he talked about backing “Medicare for All,” a position now seen as a vulnerability in swing districts where Republicans have labeled their opponents as liberal or socialist.

Now, Harder and other Democrats are talking about shoring up the ACA and creating a “public option” that would allow every American to enroll in a government-sponsored plan.

Harder said he is asking voters to reelect him to ensure Congress has the votes to protect the federal health care law if the Supreme Court invalidates it.

“We need to make sure that people understand that the stakes couldn’t be higher,” he said. “The only way that we get a legislative solution that prioritizes people with asthma, cancer and other preexisting conditions is if we elect Democrats to the House, to the Senate and the presidency.”

This KHN story first published on California Healthline, a service of the California Health Care Foundation.

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