This feature is part of the CN&R’s Oct. 6 Election Issue. For more stories on the 2022 general election click here.
Democratic challenger Max Steiner’s strategy to unseat long-time incumbent Doug LaMalfa for his seat in California’s First Congressional District is focused on appealing to an unlikely subset of voters: Republicans.
“The Republican Party is running off the rails,” Steiner said during a recent interview at Daycamp Coffee in the Meriam Park neighborhood. He cited as evidence fringe-gone-mainstream Republican beliefs that the 2020 presidential election was stolen and other issues that have transformed the GOP—and American politics as a whole—during the topsy-turvy Trump era.
“We’re racing together towards a cliff and they’re on a track, so I’m just saying, ‘Hop off the crazy train, there’s room in the ‘big-tent’ party,’” he continued. “I tell them, ‘I know you’d normally never vote for a Democrat, but the truth is that moderate Republicans and Democrats are a lot closer politically now than moderate and MAGA Republicans.’”
Steiner is a pro-gun, Iraq War combat veteran and current Army Reservist, and some of his talking points—on developing water infrastructure, military spending and more—are downright conservative by progressive standards. He wasn’t even a registered Democrat, but an independent who says he voted for John McCain over Barack Obama in 2008, until the Jan. 6, 2020, insurrection convinced him that the right has gone irrevocably wrong.
He is also a self-described pro-choice “principled centrist” who leans left on social issues, considers himself a pragmatist rather than an ideologue and believes Trumpism is a legitimate threat to democracy. He hopes this political dichotomy will appeal to enough moderate voters from both parties to carry him to victory in November, a big task in the predominantly red District 1.
The far North State has consistently elected Republicans to the House of Representatives for decades, with only two people filling the seat for the last 25 years. LaMalfa took office in 2013, replacing Wally Herger, who represented the area
(then District 2) since 1987.
The most successful challenger against LaMalfa has been Audrey Denney, who ran against him the last two elections and had her best showing in 2018 (receiving 45.1 percent of the vote). Of the three most population-dense counties in the district, Denney won in both Butte and Nevada during both of her attempts but only received roughly half as many votes as LaMalfa each time in Shasta County, which is one of several reasons why Steiner is focusing his campaign efforts there.
“Audrey built a really good campaign here,” he said. “I need to prioritize resources and time, and I’m hoping I don’t have to rebuild the infrastructure she built. People in Butte know Doug LaMalfa sucks. They voted against him before and will vote against him again.” (As of this year’s congressional redistricting, Nevada County is no longer part of District 1.)
Another reason Steiner is focused on Shasta County is it is a prime example of the current state of Republican politics. A recent article in the New York Times headlined “The California County Where MAGA Took Control” recounts how “an alliance of MAGA activists, secessionists, vaccine resisters and self-described militia members ousted a longtime board member and won a 3-2 majority on Shasta County’s all-Republican—but officially nonpartisan—main governing body.”
That panel has since issued a declaration against state vaccine mandates and refused to accept a proclamation recognizing the local LGBTQ community during Pride Month. There have been documented threats against voters and politicians not aligned with far-right politics since Trump first ran for office. In Redding, in 2020, peaceful Black Lives Matter protesters were met by Proud Boys and armed militiamen who claimed the county’s then-sheriff personally asked them to be present.
“There are a lot of Republicans there who are thinking, ‘Oh my God, my party has left me, the radicals have taken control, and Doug LaMalfa has definitely thrown in with these radicals,’” Steiner said.
He’s met—and says he’s made ground reaching out to—people who previously backed LaMalfa.
“Even if he wasn’t their first choice, he was the Republican, so they hosted fundraisers and voted for him, and now they feel betrayed. They can’t ignore how radical their party has become, they have to live with it, and they feel a little personal animus towards Doug.”
Steiner talks a lot about reaching out to non-MAGA Republicans, but just how does he find them? County fairs are one place (he said he’s campaigned at nearly all of them), but he said he has better results at gun shows.
“I’ve gone to every gun show in the district, because I don’t think Democrats ever go to gun shows and talk to people,” he said. “They’re fun, and honestly, I have way less negative interactions at a gun show than at a county fair.
“At fairs, you say you’re a Democrat, and you often get, ‘I hate Democrats, you guys stole the election and kill babies and you all work for Nancy Pelosi!’ But at a gun show, they say, ‘I hate Democrats … wait, why are you even here?’ And then we can have a conversation.
“We don’t agree on every aspect of gun policy, because I’m a big fan of background checks, red flag laws and recording transactions, while they usually have a more laissez-faire approach. But they have a lot of respect for veterans, understand that I believe in gun control the way it’s handled in the military, and we can start from a place that we both believe in gun ownership.”
Fire and water
Steiner said the two main planks in his platform (“other than democracy,” he interjected) are fire suppression and North State water issues. He agrees with the incumbent on expanding water infrastructure, namely building Sites Reservoir and raising Shasta Dam. Also like LaMalfa, he calls for better forest management.
“The core concept I want to get across is we as Californians have hugged our forests to death,” he said. “The pendulum has swung from clear-cutting to no cutting. We need to find more balance through sustainable forest management. That’s going to mean cutting down a lot of trees. We want to get as much value as we can from that, and we want fire to stay low to the ground and out of canopy.”
Steiner also believes that firefighters should be organized more like the military, in that they should be paid good salaries with benefits and on a 20- to 25-year retirement track, as opposed to hourly wages and income dependent on the severity of the fire season. Time not spent battling blazes would be devoted to other management efforts.
Though he and LaMalfa may share some goals, Steiner said the differences are clear. For one, Steiner believes both of these issues are rooted in climate change.
“I think it’s crazy my opponent doesn’t believe it’s caused by man,” he said. “Well, I’m sorry Doug, maybe you should drag your head out of the ground. I think it’s an embarrassment for the district and really detrimental to our interests.
“He’s unnecessarily antagonistic,” Steiner added. “No matter who you are, to be effective, you have to build bridges.”
For all his talk of building bridges and earnest efforts to find solid, middle ground, Steiner said some people are just too far out of reach.
“The roughest part of running for Congress is realizing there really are 30 to 40 percent of Americans who believe some things that just aren’t true, who are very vulnerable to propaganda and who are willing to accept things based on what they want to believe is real rather than search out facts that are real.
“It’s impossible, honestly, to debate with someone who refuses to accept reality in the same way you do.”
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