Rep. Devin Nunes blames Twitter for only narrowly avoiding defeat in the 2018 election in his newly filed lawsuit against the social media giant, but voter registration and turnout trends suggest the San Joaquin Valley Republican has other challenges to worry about for his next campaign.
Republican registration dropped 5 percent in his Fresno-area district between 2012 and 2018, as more voters registered with “no party preference.” And, if Democrats vote in numbers like they did last fall, he could face a blue wave like the one that unseated seven of his fellow California Republican congressmen in 2018.
Those trends are among the reasons that the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee included his district as one of its top targets for 2020.
But rather than change the tactics that gained him fame as one of President Donald Trump’s top defenders, the congressman from Tulare appears to be doubling down on his approach to appealing to the Republican Party’s base going into the next election.
He continues to avoid media appearances and interviews with The Fresno Bee and other media outlets. Meanwhile, he’s a regular on conservative media, such as Fox News, where he takes shots at Trump’s adversaries.
His lawsuit seeking $250 million from Twitter and his appearances on Fox echo Trump’s depiction of commentary that is critical of him as “fake news.”
Nunes also characterizes social media criticism of him as a coordinated conspiracy. His lawsuit seeks damages from a political strategist who is critical of him and two parody Twitter accounts, one of which taunts him as “Devin Nunes’ Cow.”
“In 2018, during his last re-election for the 22nd Congressional District, Nunes endured an orchestrated defamation campaign of stunning breadth and scope, one that no human being should ever have to bear and suffer in their whole life,” the lawsuit states.
“Unlike prior elections, where Nunes won by sweeping majorities, Nunes won on November 6, 2018 by a much narrower margin, receiving 52.7% of the 222,379 votes,” the lawsuit says, underscoring how close he came to being unseated.
Trends point to his 2020 election being even more difficult, though Republicans are a clear majority in the district.
The Fresno County portion of Nunes’ district has lost more than 1,000 registered Republican voters since 2012, while Democrats have gained nearly 6,000. In Tulare County, Republicans’ registration advantage has held steady. And 23.9 percent of voters in Nunes’ district now decline to chose a party, up from 16.5 percent in 2012.
The most worrisome indicator for Nunes may be turnout. Democrats turned out in record numbers in 2018 for a midterm election. But California’s 65 percent turnout rate among eligible voters last year is still lower than in presidential elections over the last two decades, where turnout has consistently topped 70 percent.
Higher turnout tends to favor Democrats. That’s because the party performs better among demographic groups like young people and minorities, who are less likely to vote in midterm elections. And with President Trump up for reelection in 2020, the Democratic base is likely to be particularly motivated to show up at the polls.
It’s true that Nunes had never had an opponent come as close to defeating him as Andrew Janz, the local prosecutor who challenged him in 2018 and seems likely to do so again in 2020.
Nunes won by 49 percentage points the first time he ran for Congress in 2002. The closest someone got before 2018 was in 2012, when Nunes won re-election by 24 points.
But Nunes is hardly the only Republican to see his vote totals dwindle in recent years. As demographer William Frey noted in new research for the Brookings Institution, Democrats gained votes in nearly 80 percent of counties across the country in 2018.
In California, Central Valley GOP Reps. Jeff Denham, David Valadao and Kevin McCarthy all saw a steady decline in their margins of victory between 2014 and 2018. Denham and Valadao lost their seats in November.
Nunes and McCarthy sit in districts with greater concentrations of Republican voters, which helped them hold onto their seats in 2018 despite double digit declines in voter support. McCarthy, however, won by a far more comfortable margin than Nunes.
A number of factors likely played into that. Nunes, perhaps more than any other Republican congressman, became a lightning rod in 2018 because of his his role defending Trump in the media regarding Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation into alleged Russian involvement in the 2016 election.
It helped him raise nearly $13 million for his reelection from donors around the country, but also mobilized Democrats to give to his previously unknown challenger, Janz, who raised a staggering $9.2 million. McCarthy, by comparison, had only a nominal Democratic opponent, who raised $116,000.
That Catch 22 persists as he looks at 2020. His reputation as a divisive figure who enrages the left can help him win Republican donors, but it also draws scores of national Democratic donors to his opponent.
“It’s difficult for a politician to truly cast themselves as a victim,” said Rob Stutzman, a Sacramento-based GOP strategist.
“In his district it may be fine, but they’d rather see their congressman talk about health care, shrinking the deficit, the U.S. relationship with allies, thing that affect real people,” he added.
Even those close to Nunes said it’s unlikely the voters of Fresno, Tulare, Visalia and Clovis were influenced by Twitter accounts.
“I thought the margin was smaller because there was $10 million spent against him,” said Mike Der Manouel, the head of a private insurance agency in Fresno and a longtime friend of Nunes, referencing Janz’s fundraising numbers that totaled $9.2 million.
Der Manouel said he hasn’t spoken to Nunes about the lawsuit, though he supports his decision to file suit against social media companies that “need to be held accountable.”