What to Watch in California’s Crucial House Primaries

In the state that could decide the majority, Democrats worry that the top-two system might shut them out of key contests.

Congressional candidate Doug Applegate at the California Democratic State Convention in San Diego on Feb. 24.
AP Photo/Denis Poroy
June 4, 2018, 8 p.m.

It’s Judgment Day for Democrats.

The party has been sounding the alarm for months that its candidate surge could box it out of the general election in three Southern California seats under the state’s jungle-primary system. As concerns mounted, national Democrats tried to cull the fields, and when that failed they picked favorites in the hopes of fostering consolidation. The final play was an exorbitantly expensive rescue mission. The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee and House Majority PAC have combined to invest some $7 million, according to an analysis of Federal Election Commission data.

Tuesday’s biggest question will be whether or not they were successful.

Our preview of the dynamics in these districts are based on interviews with a dozen strategists from both parties—though nearly all of them cautioned that conventional logic and polling are complicated by the fact that this is an unprecedented situation. Democrats have never tried to navigate the top-two primaries in races with this many candidates.

Another trend to watch: Voters will also select nominees in districts that present no shutout risk, but are still crucial to Democrats’ majority path. A few 2016 nominees are vying against some political newcomers and ideological splits dominate a couple of matchups. The results could shape the competitiveness of key battlegrounds this fall.

48th District—Dana Rohrabacher (R)

Rohrabacher has been polling at an ominously low percentage for a 30-year veteran—from the mid-20s to the mid-30s—and that’s partly why fears of a Democratic shutout are most pronounced in this coastal Orange County district. Internal and public polling from both parties shows a tight three-way contest for second between Democrats Harley Rouda and Hans Keirstead, and Republican Scott Baugh. Tuesday will reveal whether the Democrats’ $2.7 million worth of attacks on Baugh are enough to keep him off the ballot in November. Some Democratic strategists have become more optimistic in the final weeks that the spending deluge worked, but there’s a complicating factor: Baugh attracts voters disillusioned with Rohrabacher, and they may be unlikely to gravitate back toward the incumbent. The DCCC acknowledged this when it made a last-minute $140,000 campaign to boost a third Republican, little-known John Gabbard, in what looks like a move to find a less-threatening landing place for the anti-Rohrabacher vote.

49th District—Open

Democratic early voters in retiring Rep. Darrell Issa’s district have shown outsize enthusiasm: Both parties make up 38 percent of returned ballots—even though more Republican ballots were mailed out, according to an analysis from the tracking firm Political Data, Inc. That’s made strategists reluctant to dismiss the possibility of a GOP shutout, though most Democrats find that outcome unlikely because they have four well-funded candidates fracturing their vote. Polling from both parties indicates that Diane Harkey is well-positioned as the top GOP vote-getter, and Democratic outside groups have dumped money into pushing moderate Republican Rocky Chavez out of the top two. Still, operatives involved in the race say this field is the most volatile and that polling has shown Harkey, Chavez, and Democrats Doug Applegate, Sara Jacobs, and Mike Levin all have plausible paths to advance. A fourth Democrat, Paul Kerr, hasn’t shown viability in polling, but has plastered the airwaves thanks to his millions in self-funding. Democratic efforts have centered on making the general, not cherry-picking an opponent, but the party is ecstatic about the prospect of facing Harkey. She recently suggested that federal lawmakers should abide by an 8 p.m. curfew, and her husband was accused of perpetrating a Ponzi scheme.

39th District—Open

Strategists from both parties believe it’s likely that Republican Young Kim and Democrat Gil Cisneros will face off in the general, but surging GOP turnout has added a layer of unpredictability in retiring Rep. Ed Royce’s seat. Republicans make up 46 percent of returned mail ballots, a 12-point advantage over Democrats. The DCCC’s first significant offensive attack in Southern California was to drag down Republicans Shawn Nelson and Bob Huff, though operatives say there’s a possibility either could make the top two, as could Democrat Andy Thorburn. Democrats need to hope that they consolidate behind Cisneros, a lottery winner who invested $1.4 million on the air, according to recent media-buying data. Most operatives expect Kim to take the first slot, in part because she’s largely evaded negative advertising. Her success is good news for Republicans; she’s a minority woman in a heavily Asian district and has proven she can raise money.

10th District—Jeff Denham (R)

There are two top Democratic contenders for the second spot in the race to face Denham in the Central Valley. One is Josh Harder, who is the only Democrat on broadcast TV, but there are some concerns that his profile as a venture capitalist won’t resonate in a rural agriculture district. The other is beekeeper Michael Eggman, the party’s 2014 and 2016 nominee. Eggman’s fundraising has been anemic, but he’s banking on his 50 percent name ID to push him into second. Former Riverbank Mayor Virginia Madueño is a dark-horse pick; EMILY’s List has spent about $300,000 to boost her. There’s a minor shutout risk in this seat because of former Turlock GOP Councilman Ted Howze. He’s spent nearly nothing, but Patriot Majority PAC is worried enough that it’s running $66,000 worth of cable ads, according to media buying data.

45th District—Mimi Walters (R)

Katie Porter, an acolyte of Sen. Elizabeth Warren; Dave Min, a former adviser to Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer; and Brian Forde, a former Obama science adviser, are battling for a spot in the general election for this Irvine-based district. Min and Porter are the front-runners, though Min’s negative attacks on Porter’s record as a consumer-protection attorney suggest he’s worried that she’s taken the lead. Republicans are eager to face Porter, who has gone all-in on her support for single-payer health care. Min is backed by the New Democrats’ PAC.

25th District—Steve Knight (R)

Some Republicans hope Democrats nominate their 2016 candidate Bryan Caforio over political neophyte Katie Hill. She has tried to cut a more moderate profile, largely eschewing mentions of the president and stressing her family’s working-class roots, while Caforio has doubled down on his 2016 campaign messaging to stand up to Trump. Hill has been the beneficiary of more than $360,000 worth of outside spending, and has spent more than twice as much as her opponent on cable in the final week—though Caforio likely has higher name ID and could benefit if the female vote splinters between the multiple women candidates on the ballot.

50th District—Duncan Hunter (R)

Democrats don’t need to pick up this seat to take back the House. In fact, it’s only in play because Hunter is under criminal investigation for alleged misuse of campaign funds. Still, it’s worth watching because Democrats appear poised to nominate Ammar Campa-Najjar, a local activist who is the grandson of a Palestinian man who allegedly helped plot the massacre of Israeli athletes at the 1972 Olympics. Former Navy SEAL Josh Butner is running a more moderate campaign, but he’s lagged in public polling of the race.

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