Democrats were thrilled that a pair of senior California Republicans decided to retire this week, seeing new opportunity in a pair of must-win districts in their quest to retake the House majority.
But while Reps. Darrell Issa (R-CA) and Ed Royce’s (R-CA) decisions to head home take two tough incumbents with huge war chests out of the picture, their retirements leave Democrats facing a new worry: Whether they might fail to get a candidate into the general election in either district due to California’s unusual “jungle primary” system.
The state, by law, holds all-party June primaries where the top two candidates to receive votes face off in the general election, regardless of what party they align with. That’s cost Democrats a chance at contesting open swing seats in the past — and could be especially problematic this year with the glut of candidates running for these seats.
Democrats are very aware of the problem, and the DCCC isn’t ruling out getting involved to try to push its favored candidates and freeze others out. But there’s only so much the party can do, especially when candidates have plenty of money and aren’t scared of party elders.
“The top two [primary] is absolutely an issue. It’s happened before. It’s also very difficult to get candidates to not run, it’s just a fact of life,” Rep. Ted Lieu (D-CA), a vice chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, told TPM Wednesday afternoon.
Democrats know from experience how problematic the top-two primary system can be. In 2012, then-Redlands Mayor Pete Aguilar (D), a top Democratic recruit, split the Democratic vote with three other candidates in that year’s primary, finishing behind then-Rep. Gary Miller (R-CA) and a Republican state senator. He was boxed out of the general election as two Republicans squared off in a district that President Obama ended up winning by a 16-point margin, costing the party the seat until he won it in a second try in 2014.
“Nobody has the scar tissue of the top-two primary like I do. We need to be mindful of that as we move forward in both the 39th and 49th,” Aguilar told TPM, referencing the two newly open Southern California seats. “The DCCC is aware of what happened to me in 2012, and we’re all going into this with our eyes wide open.”
Aguilar isn’t the only one worried about Democrats potentially getting boxed out of the general election, costing the party prime pickup opportunities. Nor is his experience the only time it’s happened to the party. Rep. Steve Knight (R-CA) won his seat by defeating another Republican in 2014 in a competitive district after Democrats failed to get a candidate through to the general election.
The issue was brought up by several members at California Democrats’ weekly caucus luncheon on Wednesday, Rep. Scott Peters (D-CA) told TPM.
“People are aware of the Aguilar event in 2012,” he said. “People are aware that it’s an issue and we’ll have to pay particular attention to California.”
The Royce seat is the one Democrats are most concerned about.
Five different Democrats running for the Orange County-based seat had already raised at least $100,000 as of the beginning of October, the last time they had to report their campaign finance numbers.
That includes two self-funders and a candidate who has the support of the big-spending Emily’s List. Self-funding Andy Thorburn gave his campaign $2 million out of the gate, while Gil Cisneros, a Navy veteran and self-funding lottery winner, and Mai-Khanh Tran, a physician with Emily’s List’s support, both had almost a half million dollars in the bank as of three months ago.
That dynamic creates the likelihood of multiple Democrats vying for the Democratic slice of the electoral pie. If Republicans can get two viable candidates to split the GOP primary vote in June, they could luck out and guarantee a win in a seat they should by all rights lose this fall given the district’s slight Democratic lean and a favorable national environment for Democrats.
It’s unclear how many Republicans will run for the seat Royce is leaving. Possible GOP candidates include Orange County Supervisor Michelle Steel, former state assemblywomen Young Kim and Ling Ling Chang, and former Orange County Republican Party chair Scott Baugh.
Issa’s district is also a concern. Three Democrats running there had raised at least $200,000 as of three months ago: Issa’s 2016 opponent, former Marine Doug Applegate, self-funding candidate Paul Kerr, and environmental lawyer Mike Levin, who has the support of some environmental groups. While the math is easier for Democrats with just three candidates in the race and the GOP field is far from settled, Republicans could end up with two candidates in the district and screw up Democrats’ hopes of picking off the Democratic-leaning district, which stretches from San Diego’s northern suburbs up to Orange County. State Rep. is Rocky Chavez (R) also seriously considering a run, sources tell TPM, while California State Board of Equalization member Diane Harkey (R) announced her bid on Wednesday.
Open swings seats usually pose the biggest risk for this scenario, as incumbents tend to unite their party’s base. But this year that may not be the case everywhere — posing other potentially unpredictable scenarios.
Rep. Dana Rohrabacher’s (R-CA) coziness with Russia has promoted one serious primary challenger who’s raising real money. With seven Democrats in that race, including four who’d raised more than $100,000 already, two Republicans could potentially sneak through in that district as well — especially if Rohrabacher decides to retire and Baugh decides to run for that seat instead of Royce’s, as has been rumored locally.
In each district, it’s still a relatively remote possibility that this scenario develops. But every seat matters for Democrats as they try to overcome structural issues and take back House control, and blowing relatively pickup opportunities in California is not the way back to a majority.
Democrats say there’s only so much they can do about the jungle primary situation — and convincing candidates to drop out, the simplest way to avoid their math problem, is almost impossible once they’ve been in the race a while.
“It is monumentally difficult to tell someone not to run, and the only thing more difficult than that is to tell someone not to run who’s been running for a year,” said Lieu. “At a very basic level there’s not much anyone can do. It will be what it will be.”