Potential California Primary Nightmare Propels Dems to Action

The party is working to prevent the plausible scenario in a few districts in which no Democrat advances to the general.

Rep. Dana Rohrabacher
AP Photo/Susan Walsh
Ally Mutnick
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Ally Mutnick
May 9, 2018, 8 p.m.

Democratic officials charged full force this week into one of three Orange County-based House seats where the party is at risk of being shut out of the general election—and it was likely just the beginning.

With private and public polling indicating the party could end up without a candidate in California’s 39th, 48th, and 49th districts, all of which Hillary Clinton carried in 2016, stakeholders from the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee and members of the state’s delegation are meeting frequently to discuss how to navigate this crucial final stretch before the June 5 top-two primaries. House Majority PAC, the party’s flagship outside group, is also closely monitoring the races.

“The difference between two Republicans going and two Democrats going might be a matter of a few percentage points,” said Rep. Ted Lieu of California, a DCCC vice chairman. “That’s why we’re going to be worried until the end of the primary.”

The first play for the party, which has come under fire from the grassroots elsewhere for meddling in its own primaries, was spending some $300,000 on cable TV and radio criticizing two second-tier GOP candidates in the race for retiring Republican Rep. Ed Royce’s seat, in hopes that someone from the splintered Democratic field can leapfrog them into second place.

The DCCC ads knock Orange County Supervisor Shawn Nelson for taking a lucrative pension and former state Senate Minority Leader Bob Huff for supporting tax increases—arguments meant to lessen the candidates’ appeal with conservative voters. The spots are running for a week on cable and satellite news channels with sizable Republican viewership, such as Fox News, ESPN, and CNN.

The goal is likely to shift Republican votes to former state Assemblywoman Young Kim, who has led the GOP field in recent polling.

“These are legitimate issues I think voters will be concerned about,” said veteran GOP strategist Dave Gilliard, who is working with Kim. “If it drives votes our way, we will take them.”

Besides Royce’s district, Democrats also fear the worst in the contests for nearby seats held by Rep. Dana Rohrabacher and retiring Rep. Darrell Issa. There is a smaller risk in seats held by GOP Reps. Jeff Denham and Duncan Hunter.

The problem is currently most acute in the race against Rohrabacher, according to Democratic and Republican sources familiar with recent polling. Rohrabacher’s support ranged from the mid-20s to 30 percent in May surveys from both parties. His GOP rival Scott Baugh and two top Democrats were in a tight race for second place.

One of those Democrats, Hans Keirstead, a pioneering cancer researcher, won the endorsement of the state Democratic Party. The other, Harley Rouda, has the backing of labor groups and several delegation members, including Rep. Linda Sanchez, the vice chairwoman of the House Democratic Conference.

The DCCC hasn’t publicly endorsed a candidate, but multiple people involved in the race say the committee is working to boost Rouda’s bid. Rep. Zoe Lofgren, dean of California’s Democratic House delegation, endorsed Rouda on Wednesday and other members plan to do so in the coming days.

“Voters need to coalesce behind one Democrat to prevent Republicans from shutting Democrats out of the general election,” Lofgren said in a statement. “Harley Rouda is our best Democratic choice.”

The party has faced top-two primary hurdles since the format was instituted for the 2012 elections, and has inserted itself into races when necessary. In 2014, Democrats dropped into the 31st District to avoid a repeat of the previous cycle when Rep. Pete Aguilar was boxed out of the general election by fewer than 1,400 votes. Similar strategies were used in 2016 in the race for the district now held by Rep. Salud Carbajal.

But Democrats have never utilized the playbook in fields this large, where it can be intensely complicated to simulate how votes will reshuffle. Democratic strategists warned that the attacks can have unintended consequences, particularly in a media market as massive as Los Angeles.

“Watch the Avengers movie,” California-based pollster Paul Maslin said. “Doctor Strange said, ‘I’ve tried about 14 million possibilities but only one will win.’ It’s not quite that dramatic, but the truth is you could start driving yourself crazy with, ‘If we did this, would this happen?’”

In interviews late last month, several California delegation members questioned the wisdom of attacking Republican candidates.

“Look, no option should be off the table,” Aguilar said. “But it is probably not the greatest strategy if us as individual members try to think through what Republican primary voters are thinking.”

The strategy may be the most clear-cut in Rohrabacher’s district, where Democrats know they need to sap Baugh’s support. Baugh downplayed the efficacy of a potential Democratic attack on him: “I don’t think it has credibility among Republicans.”

Last week, the DCCC posted opposition research on Baugh to a page on its website that serves as a guidepost for super PACs, including its own walled-off independent-expenditure unit. In yet another wrinkle to the move, at the bottom of the list of Baugh hits, the committee offered positive messaging on a third Republican, John Gabbard, who has spent about $17,000 on cable—suggesting the party hopes that outside spending could further splinter the GOP vote.

Part of Democrats’ problem stems from an inability to consolidate around one candidate, leaving a fractured base. The DCCC made a de facto endorsement in the 39th District, placing Gil Cisneros, a lottery winner-turned-philanthropist, in its Red to Blue program, telegraphing a clear preference to donors and irking other well-funded Democrats in the race.

But some Democratic members and strategists conceded it could be harder to endorse in other districts where support has not coalesced in the same manner.

“The polling was clearer. It’s not that way in the other ones,” Democratic Rep. Scott Peters, who represents part of San Diego, said late last month. “I know there’s a risk to seeming heavy-handed from Washington.”

In the race for Issa’s seat, the 2016 nominee, Doug Applegate, has led the Democratic field in recent surveys. But he trails his opponents in cash, and two of them—Sara Jacobs and Paul Kerr—are independently wealthy. A fourth, Mike Levin, nearly won the state party endorsement.

Democrats are comforted by the fact that Republicans have three credible candidates in Issa’s district. Some believe the top-two scenario could even work to their benefit if Democratic turnout surges from anti-Trump fervor and high-profile, one-sided races for Senate and governor.

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