The sun shines brightly over the desert valley, as a crosswind whips across State Route 86, picking up the faint scent of the Salton Sea.
“That’s our lake,” says Kimberlin Brown Pelzer, the Hollywood star now running for Congress as a Republican in California’s 36th congressional district. She recalls the Salton Sea as an oasis, a vacation spot that welcomed celebrities and families alike in its heyday. Now, however, the water is receding, and the last of the tilapia are expected to disappear.
In the same way, California was once a haven for Republicans. Yet the party seems to be collapsing here.
Explanations vary. Some blame the 1986 Simpson-Mazzoli amnesty, which shifted the demographic makeup of the California electorate. Others blame the Republican response to illegal immigration, through such measures as Proposition 187 in 1994, which alienated Latino voters from the GOP. Certainly the failures of the last Republican governor, Arnold Schwarzenegger, did not help.
Over the past decade, the traditional base of the Republican party — homeowners and small business owners — has been migrating to states with lower taxes and fewer regulations. Meanwhile, California continues to attract immigrants — both legal and illegal — as well as a disproportionate share of the state’s welfare recipients.
The state also still attracts talented people to Silicon Valley and to Hollywood. But those wealthy enclaves are political monocultures, almost entirely left.
Yet there is hope for the Republican Party in the 36th district, which takes up most of Riverside County west of Interstate 215, running all the way east to the Arizona border.
The Cook Partisan Voting Index rates the 36th as a D+2, meaning it is essentially a swing district. And the Democratic incumbent, Raul Ruiz, has failed to distinguish himself in three terms. He is essentially a stand-in for House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-CA), who hopes to regain the Speaker’s gavel next year.
In addition, Ruiz has adopted far-left positions on a variety of issues, especially foreign policy. He is a strong supporter of the Iran nuclear deal, and has been endorsed by J Street, a radical far-left organization that many consider anti-Israel.
In addition, Ruiz has received a 100% rating from Planned Parenthood. When two of his campaign donors were revealed to be the targets of a criminal investigation in 2017, Ruiz did not return their money: he gave it to Planned Parenthood instead.
As a result, Pelzer says, the voters of the district — especially the Republican ones — feel that they do not have a voice in Washington.
“They don’t feel represented,” she argues. “Ruiz only says and does what Pelosi tells him to do.” She notes that Ruiz — like every other Democrat in Congress — voted against President Donald Trump’s new tax cuts. Those tax cuts, she says, have already translated into new jobs in the 36th district. Yet, she says, Pelosi and Ruiz want to raise taxes again.
It takes a certain amount of courage — or chutzpah — to mount a Republican campaign in a year when Democrats believe they are about to ride a “blue wave” back to power in the House. Democrats just need to flip 23 seats to regain the majority. And they are targeting California in particular, because there are several seats currently held by Republicans in districts that Hillary Clinton won in 2016. The surge of liberal activism in the state has convinced several Republicans to retire already.
But Pelzer is on a mission. A Trump supporter from the start, she spoke at the Republican National Convention in 2016. As such, she is believed to enjoy particular clout that could come in handy when taking up the district’s issues.
Local farmers, for example — specializing in dates, grapes, and peppers, among other irrigated crops — want President Trump to make good on his promise to broker bilateral trade deals that could help them reach markets abroad. Pelzer believes she can deliver.
The number one issue in the district, Pelzer says, is immigration. And she supports Trump’s policies, believing there is room for a compromise that addresses the need for farm labor.
“We need some kind of program that is mutually beneficial to our country and to our farmers — and that isn’t grossly abused,” she says. She also rejects the idea that Americans won’t do farm work as “incredibly offensive and racist.” She notes that she grew up helping out on a family farm in Northern California.
A career in modeling took Pelzer to Hollywood, where she found herself winning one acting role after another, eventually landing a recurring role as Sheila Carter — “one of the all-time great soap supervillains” — on The Young and the Restless and The Bold and the Beautiful. The latter has a large international audience, and is the number one most-watched soap opera in the world. Pelzer also trained as an interior designer, and runs a variety of businesses from her home base in Palm Springs.
Her business acumen has led her to adopt a careful approach to her campaign. Though she had raised $262,607 by the March reporting deadline, almost 20 times as much as the closest of her four Republican primary rivals, she had only spent about $90,000, leaving her with substantial cash-on-hand.
She has hired consultants, but is acting as her own campaign manager until the general election. Likewise, she says, she will focus on mailings in the primary, and leave pricey TV ads for the fall.
Pelzer has only done limited polling, but the early numbers, she says, suggest that the district’s voters prefer a Republican on the generic ballot. President Trump has an approval rating of 46% in the district — not staggering, but far ahead of the rest of the state.
Those numbers give Pelzer a shot, and Washington has begun calling. GOP leaders like her poise and drive. They also like her chances.
In 2018, the fate of the House, and the country, could depend on Kimberlin Brown Pelzer in the 36th.
Joel B. Pollak is Senior Editor-at-Large at Breitbart News. He was named to Forward’s 50 “most influential” Jews in 2017. He is the co-author of How Trump Won: The Inside Story of a Revolution, which is available from Regnery. Follow him on Twitter at @joelpollak.