FULLERTON, CALIF. — Speaking to a gathering of Orange County Democratic activists last week, Rep. Adam Schiff (D-CA) described the upcoming California elections in dire terms.
“The very idea of America is at stake” in the next elections, he warned.
President Trump is an existential threat to American democracy, and the GOP-controlled Congress is “utterly complicit.” The only solution is “to throw the bums out, to restore some semblance of our system of checks and balances,” and “the road to flipping the House may very well run through California and in particular Orange County.”
Then the man who hopes become the House Intelligence Committee’s next chairman — and get subpoena power in the majority to go after Trump — admitted how nerve-wracking that made this Tuesday’s all-party primaries in his backyard, which Democrats fear could leave them without candidates in as many as four competitive seats.
“We are all pulling our hair out, obviously, with this cockamamie jungle primary we have,” he said to nervous laughs from the dozens in attendance.
Schiff’s comments encapsulate the gnawing anxiety Democrats across the Golden State feel as the June 5 primary looms. They see huge opportunities in California, viewing the state as central of their battle plan to take back the House, with five crucial pickup opportunities and four more seats that could be competitive. But to get there they first have to avoid getting shut out in the state’s top-two primary — and in four of the nine seats that’s a real possibility.
His speech was meant as a rallying cry. But his audience included a number of the candidates divvying up the Democratic vote in one of those key races: Navy veteran and lottery winner Gil Cisneros, businessman Andy Thorburn and former Obama administration official Sam Jammal were all in attendance, hoping to woo any late-breaking voters milling about the Fullerton Arboretum in their quest to replace retiring Rep. Ed Royce (R-CA).
Royce’s seat and Rep. Dana Rohrabacher’s (R-CA), both Orange County-centered districts that Hillary Clinton carried in 2016, are the ones where most Democrats are the most concerned about getting locked out. They’re also keeping a close eye on the race to replace retiring Rep. Darrell Issa (R-CA) in another Democratic-trending district that stretches from the county’s southern reaches along the coast to San Diego’s northern suburbs.
The trio of seats are top pickup opportunities for the party, Democratic-trending suburban districts in what was once was one of the most solidly Republican corners of the country. Orange County launched the careers of both Ronald Reagan and Richard Nixon — Nixon’s presidential museum is in Royce’s district — and its politics have long been dominated by Republicans. But the county is fast-growing and fast-changing, with a burgeoning Latino population and numerous younger Asian Americans, especially Vietnamese- and Korean-Americans, who are breaking with their Republican parents and voting Democratic, as well as college-educated voters repelled by President Trump. Hillary Clinton was the first Democratic presidential nominee to win the county since Franklin Delano Roosevelt in 1936.
That’s created great promise — and great peril — for Democrats as they seek to navigate the state’s unusual “jungle primary” system and make major inroads into a county that was once so uniformly upscale and heavily white and conservative that locals referred to it “Orange Curtain” for its GOP dominance, but in recent years has become a polyglot mix of diverse suburbs.
National and state Democrats did all they could to keep the peace between their candidates and winnow the field in many of these districts, while stepping in with millions of dollars in negative advertising to flay Republican candidates they view as threats to steal the second slot in the general election.
Those machinations led to an unusual truce between Thorburn and Cisneros, orchestrated by the California Democratic Party, to stop attacking one another and stay positive. Both candidates told TPM has been helpful in averting a skirmish that had grown increasingly nasty in the race’s closing weeks.
“It was kind of getting out of hand … it was the right thing to do,” Cisneros said.
“It’s in everybody’s best interest that we reached that agreement,’ Thorburn said.
But party elders weren’t able to accomplish the same thing between businessman Harley Rouda and scientist Hans Keirstead, who have been ripping into one another in Rohrabacher’s district — the place where Democrats are most worried about getting locked out. The controversial Rohrabacher is bleeding votes to his former protege, heightening the risk that both Republicans will finish at the top in Tuesday’s primary and cost Democrats a golden opportunity.
Democrats managed to convince a number of second-tier Democratic candidates to drop out, helping the rest of their candidates consolidate the field in both the Rohrabacher and Royce districts.
“My decision to drop out of the race happened immediately after Scott Baugh entered the race hours before the filing deadline. Suddenly, it was a completely different race,” former candidate Laura Oatman, who now backs Rouda, told TPM at a protest hosted by the liberal group Indivisible outside Rohrabacher’s office last Tuesday. “Obviously I wouldn’t be doing what I’m doing now if this was about ego or personality or anything else. This has to do with flipping the seat.”
But for every Oatman, there are plenty of others who refused, like Jammal and Dr. Mai Khan Tran in Royce’s seat, who are likely to peel away votes from the front-runners. And that’s not to mention the impossibility of convincing a self-funding candidate to bow out for the good of the party. In all three races, there are at least two wealthy Democrats that are at least partly funding their campaigns and are mostly impervious to pressure from local and national Democrats — Keirstead, Rouda and Omar Siddiqui, another spoiler candidate, in Rohrabacher’s district, Cisneros, Thorburn and Tran in the Royce seat, and businessman Paul Kerr and Sara Jacobs, a former Hillary Clinton campaign staffer and a heir to the Qualcomm fortune, in the Issa seat.
“In this set of races, where you have these people who one way or the other have all made millions of dollars … these guys have a type of arrogance that overrides that we see from any other type of candidate,” one top California Democrat told TPM.
Issa’s district is particularly crowded, with a number of Republicans, 2016 Democratic nominee Doug Applegate and businessman Mike Levin all pulling chunks of the vote and all four Democrats bunched closely in most public and private polling. Most Democrats think they’ll end up with one of their own against California State Board of Equalization member Diane Harkey (R), a hardline conservative, in the November runoff.
At least in Royce’s district, the GOP side doesn’t look much more settled: former Royce staffer and state assemblywoman Young Kim is the GOP frontrunner, while Shawn Nelson and Bob Huff are serious enough threats to make the runoff with her that national Democrats have spent millions trying to knock the pair down and boost a fourth Republican, hardliner Phil Liberatore (R), to help him siphon votes from them.
Democrats are hopeful their voters’ hair-on-fire enthusiasm as well as a competitive gubernatorial primary with two Democrats spending heavily will help them boost turnout significantly in a state where Democratic voters typically vote at much worse rates than Republicans, especially in midterms and primaries and most especially in midterm primaries.
And there were signs of enthusiasm all over the county. The Indivisible rally at Rohrabacher’s office, a weekly tradition, drew roughly 50 people in the middle of the day, as cars rolled by honking their approval. An Indivisible candidate forum in Rep. Mimi Walters’ (R-CA) nearby district, one of the races in which Democrats are sure to get a candidate in the general election, packed in several hundred activists at Portola High School in Irvine that same night.
But it’s unclear how much that enthusiasm will translate. Based on the early vote, Democrats appear to be in the best shape in Issa’s district based on excitement alone, where Democrats have been out-voting Republicans. But the opposite is true in Royce’s district, where many more Republicans have returned their ballots by mail as of Friday, and in Rohrabacher’s seat, where the two are about at parity in the GOP-leaning district.
Democratic activists are clearly fired up to help whoever is the nominee in most of these districts.
Jon Bauman, an actor and longtime Democratic activist best known as Bowzer from Sha Na Na, made a point of promising Orange County Democratic Chairwoman Fran Sdao he’d do events to help whoever emerges as the nominee — “as long as we have a candidate.”
Or as his nephew, California Democratic Party Chairman Eric Bauman, told TPM: “There’s definitely a serious potential change [in seats long held by Republicans] that happens here — assuming the perfect storm doesn’t happen.”