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How Democrats targeted Valadao, and will stay after Nunes

Rep. David Valadao, R-Hanford, left, has conceded to Fresno Democrat TJ Cox in the race for Valadao’s seat in California’s 21st Congressional District.
Rep. David Valadao, R-Hanford, left, has conceded to Fresno Democrat TJ Cox in the race for Valadao’s seat in California’s 21st Congressional District. Fresno Bee file

I learned important lessons in 1996 when I was the Democratic candidate who flipped a Contra Costa-Alameda County congressional seat long held by Republicans.

My team and I sought to put those lessons into practice when I created the Fight Back California Super PAC and launched The California 7 Project.

Ellen Tauscher represented Contra Costa and Alameda counties from 1997-2009, and is chair of Fight Back CA Super PAC. CALmatters

We believed the seven Republican districts that voted for Hillary Clinton over Donald Trump in 2016 were ripe for flipping in 2018, and we were right. Included in that calculus was the 21st District held by Republican David Valadao of Hanford.

It wasn’t easy. It took the hard work of dedicated activists too numerous to name, but whose contributions have helped shape history.

We believed that the only way we could be successful was if we started running campaigns early and talked to voters face-to-face about the issues that mattered most to them.

We also knew we needed to educate voters about the records of Republican incumbents. That’s exactly what Democrats did and how we ended up flipping every single one of the seven Clinton-GOP districts in 2018.

The untold story of this election is the role that grassroots organizations and independent Super PACs played in winning each of these seats. Fight Back California was the first one out of the gate.

We began by focusing on deep research, starting in Republican Congressman Jeff Denham’s Turlock-area district to understand what voters cared most about.

By late summer of 2017, activists in district-based organizations such as Flip the 49th and Indivisible began registering voters, were knocking on doors and calling people to educate them about the terrible records of these GOP incumbents.

As House Republicans took bad vote after bad vote on health care, consumer protection and taxes in the summer and fall of 2017, Fight Back California ran ads calling out each of “The California 7” for failing their constituents.

Soon after, a joint field effort organized by Tom Steyer’s NextGen America and the California Labor Federation took root in all seven districts. During the course of the campaign, they talked to hundreds of thousands of voters.

In early 2018, when it looked as if the huge cast of Democratic candidates in the open primary could result in two Republicans advancing to the general election, Fight Back California released polling that helped thin the fields so that we would advance Democrats to the general election in every one of the seven districts.

In Republican Congressman Dana Rohrabacher’s Orange County district, where the threat of a Democratic shut-out was greatest, we worked with House Majority PAC and ran ads against former Republican Assemblyman Scott Baugh. That helped Democrat Harley Rouda get into the general election that he ultimately won.

When the general election began in earnest, more California-based groups emerged to continue the grassroots outreach.

Courage Campaign partnered with Flip the 14 to text and call voters in Republican Congressman’s Steve Knight’s district in Los Angeles and Ventura counties and in four Republican-held Orange County districts.

In Valadao’s district in Kings, Kern, Tulare and Fresno counties, activists from Communities for a New California and Valley Forward contacted over 40,000 voters. They deserve much credit for Democrat T.J. Cox’s narrow victory over Valadao.

In each of the seven districts, California Democrats worked for more than 18 months. We used discipline, communications, and funding from small and large donors to help our seven Democratic candidates get over the finish line in 2018.

Rest assured, we will do the same to help our seven new Democratic members of Congress defend their seats.

In this March 20, 2017, photo, House Intelligence Committee Chairman Rep. Devin Nunes, R-Tulare., center, is flanked by the committee’s ranking member Rep. Adam Schiff, D-Calif., left, and Rep. Peter King, R-N.Y. J. Scott Applewhite Associated Press file

We had hoped to do better this year, and we came close.

Republican Rep. Devin Nunes of Tulare won by 44 percentage points in the2014 midterm election. This year, we gave him reason to sweat. Fight Back California and grassroots groups communicated with over 75,000 voters in Nunes’ district. The Democrats’ candidate, Fresno County Deputy District Attorney Andrew Janz, came within 6 points of victory.

Nunes is on notice. We’ll be back. More accurately, we’re not leaving.

Ellen Tauscher represented Contra Costa and Alameda counties from 1997-2009, and is chair of Fight Back CA SuperPAC, eotauscher@msn.com. She wrote this commentary for CALmatters, a public interest journalism venture committed to explaining how California's Capitol works and why it matters.