Against the Grain

Democrats Scramble to Avoid California Disaster

In a deep-blue state, Democrats are struggling to ensure they get credible candidates on the ballot in November.

Rep. Dana Rohrabacher
AP Photo/Paul Holston
May 22, 2018, 4:25 p.m.

Democrats are learning the unintended consequences of progressivism in California. The state, which once looked like a political gold mine, is becoming a massive political headache two weeks before its congressional primaries.

California has become ground zero of the anti-Trump resistance movement, but the unharnessed liberal energy has become an unexpected problem in the party’s battle to win back a House majority. Democrats are contesting 10 GOP-held House seats there—nearly half of the number they need to win for Nancy Pelosi to become speaker again—but in several of those races, so many candidates are running that the party risks getting shut out of the general election.

The precarious situation Democrats face is a result of California’s activism running amok. In 2010, the state eliminated partisan primaries in favor of a system in which all candidates, regardless of party affiliation, run on the same primary ballot—with the top two vote-getters facing each other in November. The goal of the reform was to encourage moderation, but with the historic number of Democratic candidates looking to run for office this year, it’s created a perfect storm of chaos.

The districts where Republicans are the weakest are, paradoxically, ones that Democrats are more likely to blow because the party couldn’t coalesce behind one consensus challenger. Retiring Reps. Ed Royce and Darrell Issa are leaving behind districts that Hillary Clinton carried in 2016, but Democrats are belatedly scrambling to prevent their own candidates from attacking each other to the point of no return. And controversial Rep. Dana Rohrabacher is highly vulnerable, but the incumbent’s weakness with his own party’s voters is making it more likely that he’ll face a serious Republican rival in November instead of a talented Democratic recruit.

The liberal energy is also hurting the party’s electability in races where they’ll move on to the general. In one swing-district House race against GOP Rep. Mimi Walters, Democrats are more likely to nominate a progressive acolyte of Elizabeth Warren than a more pragmatic mentee of Chuck Schumer. Katie Porter, the leading Democratic contender, said she supported a single-payer health care system—a position that’s problematic in an affluent suburban Orange County seat. Her main opponent, Dave Min, has backed a more incremental approach.

And against ethically embattled Rep. Duncan Hunter, the Democratic front-runner is the grandson of a Palestinian terrorist who was linked to the rampage against Israelis at the 1972 Munich Olympics. The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee-favored candidate, retired Naval officer Josh Butner, is badly lagging behind.

National Democrats are working feverishly to avert the worst-case scenarios in many of these races. The DCCC brokered a peace agreement between two millionaires running for Royce’s seat, in a last-ditch attempt to prevent acrimonious bickering between the two from costing them a winnable seat. It bought digital ads against the GOP front-runner in Issa’s seat. And it belatedly endorsed businessman Harley Rouda for Rohrabacher’s seat, alarmed that damaging opposition research on a once-promising recruit would lead to an epic disaster.

The Rohrabacher race offers the most instructive of the party’s twin challenges: vetting candidates and navigating crowded fields. Early on, Democrats promoted the candidacy of stem-cell researcher Hans Keirstead, convinced his science expertise and entrepreneurial instincts would be the ticket to win over swing voters in the GOP-leaning Orange County district. But earlier this year, Democratic officials became aware of damaging allegations from a whistle-blower accusing Keirstead of punching one of his female students and engaging in inappropriate relationships with his students and staff.

Those rumors weren’t enough to prevent the California Democratic Party from giving Keirstead a vaunted endorsement at its February convention. But after the DCCC became convinced Keirstead was damaged goods, it scrambled to contain the fallout. The committee endorsed Rouda this month—and just went up with an ad touting his candidacy.

The situation is particularly urgent because Rohrabacher, dogged by suspicious ties to Russia, is losing some of his Republican support to former Orange County GOP Chairman Scott Baugh. Under the top-two system, that means there’s a good chance the Republican vote will be split evenly enough for Rohrabacher and Baugh to square off in the general, leaving Democrats empty-handed.

The scramble to ensure that a Democrat wins Royce’s nearby seat is becoming equally intense. The two front-running Democrats, lottery winner Gil Cisneros and insurance executive Andy Thorburn, have been spending their fortunes on the race and attacking each other in unusually personal terms. The DCCC, which endorsed Cisneros last month, is worried that Thorburn is too liberal to win a general election. With their feud raising the odds that neither would win, the state party negotiated a truce this week between the two candidates.

Republicans, meanwhile, have three credible candidates in the race, led by former Assemblywoman Young Kim. Earlier this month, the DCCC spent $300,000 on ads attacking the two lesser-known Republicans (state Sen. Bob Huff and Orange County Supervisor Shawn Nelson), hoping the late infusion of cash prevents one of them from sneaking through.

Democrats are more optimistic about their chances in Issa’s seat, but none of the four Democratic candidates running have pulled away in the race. Two wealthy self-funders (Sara Jacobs and Paul Kerr) have been trying to spend their way to victory, but 2016 nominee Doug Applegate has a resilient base of support and environmental attorney Mike Levin is a compelling consensus candidate.

If Republicans hold the House, against the odds, it will be because of weak Democratic challengers. Already two left-wing candidates emerged as nominees in last week’s Pennsylvania and Nebraska primaries. California is now turning into the biggest test of whether Democrats can successfully nominate electable candidates.

It’s ironic that one of the most progressive states in the country could damage Democrats’ prospects of winning a House majority. But it’s emblematic of the bigger challenge the Democrats face in 2020: Do they want to win or pander to their increasingly uncompromising base?

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