Can California’s fourth congressional district be flipped?

Dems tap Jessica Morse to unseat Tom McClintock despite last-minute ‘oppo-research’ attack

A mob of Jessica Morse supporters conventioneering at the Democratic Convention in San Diego last weekend.

A mob of Jessica Morse supporters conventioneering at the Democratic Convention in San Diego last weekend.

photo courtesy of jessica morse for congress CA 04

Riding a wave of anti-Trump momentum following the 2016 election, three candidates in California’s fourth district—Jessica Morse, Regina Bateson and Roza Calderon—rose to the top of the heap to challenge incumbent Republican Congressman Tom McClintock.

Each pledged to run a positive campaign, and Morse quickly became the frontrunner, raking in endorsements and contributions. On February 22, on the eve of the California Democratic Party Convention, Bateson and Calderon joined forces and went negative—forming an alliance to deny Morse the crucial state party endorsement.

It didn’t work. Morse received the state party’s nod at the convention on Sunday, a crucial step to defeating McClintock.

“We have the momentum and energy in our district to flip it,” Morse said Monday. “And we’ve got everybody unified and energized and focused moving forward. It also does feel a little like running a marathon and then having somebody say, ’Great, run another one.’”

The fourth district spans Placer County through the Sierras down to the southern Gold Country, with its biggest population base in Roseville, Rocklin and Granite Bay.

Morse’s clinching the endorsement was briefly in doubt last week following an article in The Sacramento Bee, sensationally headlined “This Tom McClintock rival is stretching the truth about her résumé, investigation finds.” The article was partly about a blog post detailing opposition research by a supporter of Bateson’s campaign.

Following the article, Bateson and Calderon signed a statement requesting that delegates vote “no endorsement” for their primary, writing that “new information is unfolding.” They framed the endorsement as allowing “money and party elites to dictate who we will ultimately see on the June ballot.”

Laura Lowell, the chair of the Calaveras County Democratic Party, speaking for herself and not the party, said the move was a “sign of a failing campaign, when they fall back to tactics like this.”

She also said Bateson and Calderon’s efforts damaged the prospect of a Democratic victory against McClintock, who won nearly 63 percent of the vote in 2016. In a reliably Republican district, fragmentation among Democrats could prevent them from running any candidate against McClintock. California election law mandates that the top two vote-getters from the June primary, regardless of party, square off against each other in November for the congressional seat.

In a telephone interview from San Diego, Morse said consolidation was key to victory. “The path to victory is clear, but it’s narrow,” she said. “And we need to be able to get the resources and the energy consolidated against McClintock. We can’t wait until June.”

Prior to the decision, Maia Pelleg, an adviser to Bateson’s campaign, said the endorsement process was “premature” and would deprive the district’s voters of a fair chance to support the candidate of their choosing. Claiming Bateson would have asked delegates for “no endorsement” even if the campaign expected to win, she noted the nearly 21 percent of District 4 voters who registered under “no party preference,” a share only 8 percent lower than those registered as Democrats. These unaffiliated voters will likely be crucial in the general election and may not be swayed by the state party’s endorsement, she said.

“If Democrats endorse a particular candidate, they basically deprive the overwhelming majority of voters from the opportunity to decide which two candidates should face off in November,” Pelleg said. “An endorsement process is not the most practical way of determining who has the best chance of defeating McClintock in the fall.”

Research shows an endorsement can boost a candidate’s share of the vote by 7 to 15 points, according to a forthcoming paper in Political Research Quarterly.

Lowell, a Morse-supporting delegate, took issue with the way she was characterized by Calderon and Bateson’s statement.

“The people who are here at the convention are grassroots activists,” she said. “These are not party elites. These are people who volunteer their time, who come to the convention on their own money. These are not people with a lot of money. These are people who care passionately about the party and state and are willing to do the hard work.”

U.S. Navy Captain Dave Cutter, who was quoted in the Bee article that touted its investigation into Morse’s record, wrote a post on Medium criticizing the piece. Cutter wrote that the article “attempts to minimize and dilute Jessica Morse’s work.” Morse’s former boss, Cutter gave Morse extensive credit for her work, reporting that she was in fact a member of a four-person team advising a four-star general, and that she was “the adviser who rewrote the India strategy” for the U.S. Pacific Command—both facts that were brought into question in the Bee article.

“Our community knows me,” Morse said. “Because we have built a campaign on integrity, people can see that and see through anything that’s misrepresenting who I am.”

Morse said the misstatements attributed to her were one-offs cherry-picked from countless speeches she’s given as a candidate—mistakes such as saying “the” adviser instead of “an” adviser.” President Barack Obama’s deputy national security adviser, Ben Rhodes, endorsed Morse on February 24.

Morse said this turn in the race was a distraction from the issues, as she had hoped to use this week to highlight Republican declarations that more guns are needed in schools following the shooting in Parkland, Fla., on February 14. As someone who spent a year in Iraq, Morse said that isn’t a solution.

“I’ve lived in a world where everybody’s armed and it’s called a war zone,” she said. “It’s not safer.”

Joanne Neft is a prominent political figure in District 4 who identifies as a moderate Republican, but helped prior McClintock Democratic challenger Charlie Brown. Although she’s been active in politics for decades in the district, she said, she hasn’t paid much attention to this race as she is grieving for her husband who recently passed away. As a result, she said, she would “probably” throw her support behind whomever the Democratic Party endorsed.

“The majority of people don’t know [the candidates],” she said. “All they’re voting for when the time comes is a D or [an] R.”

Neft said she believes Calderon has been “disruptive and distracting,” but that Morse and Bateson were nearly equivalent candidates. She wished they had joined forces in one campaign against McClintock, who has been seen as vulnerable due to his lockstep support of Trump and his failure to put forth any legislation that made a meaningful difference in his district.

McClintock has also penned 20 opinion pieces for the far-right media platform Breitbart (which published an article last week aggregating the Bee’s reporting).

Instead of Morse, Bateson joined forces with Calderon, a candidate that has faced allegations of embezzling funds from the Placer Women Democrats (Calderon denied the charge but returned the $1,900); carrying on a romantic relationship with the leader of an ostensibly impartial political group; and accepting an improper campaign contribution from the CEO of a social media company.

Pelleg clarified that Bateson and Calderon’s partnership applies only to “a shared view about this specific [endorsement] process.” She declined to comment on the campaign’s stance regarding the Bee and SN&R’s reporting, beyond saying that she believed people should decide for themselves what they make of the information.

“The reporting’s out there,” she said. “And people can make a determination as to how that weighs into their calculations for how they evaluate a candidate. Let people decide what matters to them or not. And you know what? Maybe none of it does matter to any of them.”

Lowell said that for the last two weeks, Bateson’s campaign has made a “ridiculous amount of phone calls to delegates,” which only entrenched their support for Morse. Lowell applauded Morse for sticking to her promise to run a positive campaign, seeing it as a sign that she’d keep promises as a representative in Congress. But for now, the intraparty bickering has brought back the familiar refrain that Democrats can’t get their act together to beat even unpopular Republicans.

“This kind of behavior undermines the entire process,” Lowell said. “It just makes people look at the Democratic Party and scratch their heads. Like, ’what are you guys thinking?’”

Morse said she was open to working with Bateson and Calderon, whom she felt “honored” to run alongside.

Pelleg said in the past, all three candidates had pledged to drop out of the race if the state party endorsed one, but suggested that Bateson’s position might have “changed after meeting so many people across the district.”

McClintock and Calderon didn’t respond to repeated requests for comment.

One positive for the Democrats came a day before Calderon and Bateson’s statement. Flip the 14, a statewide organization focused on defeating all 14 Republican members of Congress in California, and the Sacramento Central Labor Council, or AFL-CIO, which consists of more than 100 labor unions in Northern California, announced a strategic partnership to defeat McClintock.

Even with this momentum building, a lot will have to go right for the left if they hope to reclaim a seat they haven’t occupied since 1993. Morse seems ready for her second marathon.

“McClintock only represents his political party, and there’s a cost of doing that to our community,” she said. “Whether it’s forest fires, workforce housing, access to broadband, healthcare, education—these are issues that impact every member of our community, regardless of party, and need a real advocate to be working on solving them.”