Welcome to the jungle.
National Democrats are making a last-minute push to avoid catastrophe in California, where the state’s unusual jungle primary system could leave them without general election candidates in a number of districts they’re banking on to seize control of the House.
The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee and a number of elected officials from the state are rushing in to try to lift some Democrats over others and knock back second-tier Republicans, risking backlash and second-guessing in an effort to avoid getting locked out of winnable districts.
California’s top-two all-party primary system means that whatever two candidates win the most votes on June 5 will get to square off in the general election, regardless of what party they belong to. That, and a surge in the number of viable Democratic candidates compared to past years, has Democrats worried that their challengers could split the vote and let Republicans lock them out in five different districts they hope to contest this fall, most of them centered in fast-diversifying Orange County.
Their biggest worries are the open seats held by retiring Reps. Darrell Issa (R-CA) and Ed Royce (R-CA), as well as against Rep. Dana Rohrabacher (R-CA), a weak GOP incumbent facing real competition from another Republican who could slip through. They’re also keeping an eye on the races against Reps. Duncan D. Hunter (R-CA) and Jeff Denham (R-CA), though there’s less concern about those contests.
“The DCCC needs to do whatever it can to make sure that we are not boxed out in November,” DCCC Vice Chairman Ted Lieu (D-CA) told TPM.
After closely monitoring the problem for months and quietly pushing lower-tier candidates to head for the exits (with mixed results), the DCCC kicked into high gear in recent days to do what it could to keep its party from blowing some golden opportunities in a number of golden state districts.
Their biggest move to date — and their most controversial — was a Friday endorsement of businessman Harley Rouda over Dr. Hans Keirstead in the race to face Rep. Dana Rohrabacher (R-CA), the district most Democrats say is the one they’re most worried about. The move is a split from the state Democratic Party, a hub of hardline progressive loyalists, which endorsed Keirstead earlier this spring, as well as with SEIU and a number of other state unions.
Rohrabacher is uniquely vulnerable because of his strident Russia praise — but that’s given an opening to Republican former state assemblyman Scott Baugh as well, who is in the mix to make the runoff against the deeply flawed incumbent.
“I’m very concerned about that race. It would be a shame if we didn’t get a Democrat into the top two. There’s no reason we shouldn’t other than too many candidates and too big of egos,” said Rep. Linda Sanchez (D-CA), a Rouda backer.
That move comes following a gradual rollout of endorsements for Rouda from lawmakers in nearby districts — he now has more than a half-dozen congressmen in his corner —and days after Rouda released a poll showing the two Democrats in a three-way tie at 13 percent apiece with Rohrabacher at 30 percent support.
An online poll conducted for Keirstead allies released earlier this week found a different situation, with Rohrabacher at 27 percent, him at 19 percent, Baugh at 17 percent and Rouda hanging back at 11 percent support.
Rohrabacher’s district is far from the only one national Democrats are worried about.
A few weeks ago, the DCCC jumped in to back Navy veteran and lottery winner Gil Cisneros (D) in the race for the open seat to replace retiring Rep. Ed Royce (R-CA). The move drew howls from Cisneros’ opponents, the loudest of them from businessman Andy Thorburn (D) and the progressive organizations backing him like the Bernie Sanders-affiliated Our Revolution and the California Nurses Association.
That endorsement could come back to bite them, as a local Democratic official who’s backing Thorburn accused the married Cisneros of drunkenly trying to seduce her then withholding a campaign donation — a charge Cisneros and his allies strongly deny. Others told TPM Cisneros wasn’t drunk that night — including local Fox News reporter Jamie Chambers, who said he talked to Cisneros around the time of the alleged encounter and that he was “sober, clear, and lucid.”
Pushing one candidate over others isn’t their only option.
Party leaders have quietly worked on second-tier candidates for months to drop out to help the remaining Democrats consolidate the vote. And a few have done so – including Rachel Payne, who recently dropped her bid for the Rohrabacher seat. But others, like EMILY’s List-backed Mai Khanh Tran in Royce’s district, have told them to stuff it.
Rohrabacher’s seat is the one they’re the most worried about. But Issa’s is the one they’re struggling the most to act in.
Four different viable Democrats are running for the open seat, which stretches from Orange County to San Diego and which Issa almost lost last cycle. That includes the man that almost beat him last time, former Marine Doug Applegate (D), who many Democrats aren’t as high on this time because of accusations of stalking and two temporary restraining orders put out by his ex-wife. But he’s clung onto some of his base, and while many in the party are hopeful that one of the other Democrats will emerge, they’re not sure who it will be. National Democrats think former State Department employee Sara Jacobs has some momentum, but Navy veteran Paul Kerr (D) and green energy executive Mike Levin (D) have their own bases of support.
“The Democrats have endorsed across the board … Two of them [Jacobs and Kerr] have money, one [Applegate] has name recognition, so it’s really hard to handicap it,” said Rep. Scott Peters (D-CA), who represents a neighboring district in San Diego. “Darrel didn’t do us any favors by retiring, because it would have been him and one of the Democrats, and I think that’s true with Ed Royce too. We’re in uncharted waters right now.”
Issa said he was hopeful Democrats would get shut out in his district.
“If the voters make the right decision there will be two Republicans on the ticket in November,” he said. “I think we might get it.”
Democrats have gone on the attack in recent days against a number of second-tier GOP candidates in the hopes of consolidating Republican voters’ support behind one option — and making it easier for one of their own candidates to leap-frog the second-place challenger.
The DCCC moved last week to do so in Royce’s district, launching $300,000 worth of ads to knock down two of the three Republicans with real support in the race. Sources tell TPM that they and The House Majority PAC, House Democrat’s main super PAC, will likely make similar moves in other districts in the coming days. Lieu suggested there were plans in the works to do the same to Baugh in the Rohrabacher district, and attack one of the Republicans running for Issa’s district, Assemblyman Rocky Chavez (R), comments national Democrats confirmed to TPM.
“Rocky Chavez voted to increase taxes and as a Republican that is a very difficult thing in a primary to get past Republican voters. So we could point out certain facts,” Lieu said.
“The strongest play is to go after Baugh and bring him down,” said one national Democrat monitoring the races.
National Republicans have yet to jump in, but could use similar tactics.
Democrats are less worried about failing to get a candidate through against Denham, whose base of support is strong enough with Republicans that another Republican shouldn’t be able to get through there. And their only real worry with the ethics-challenged Hunter, as Lieu put it, is “if there’s an indictment” before the primary that could fracture the GOP base.
Democrats have been burned before in these districts.
“Our focus has to be on ensuring that a Democrat advances to the November election,” Rep. Pete Aguilar (D-CA), who got boxed out by two Republicans in his own first race for Congress before getting there with help from the DCCC in his 2014 rematch, told TPM. “Obviously there were lots of lessons learned from things in the past.”
They’re also hopeful that a huge turnout gap that’s favored Republicans in past years will be reversed. Democrats have had more enthusiasm nationwide this year, and competitive statewide races for governor, senator, and lieutenant governor will drive turnout on the Democratic side, making it easier for one of their candidates to win because Republicans have no viable statewide candidates.
But Democrats admit direct involvement to boost one candidate over another risks backfiring as the jilted candidate could capitalize on anti-Washington, anti-establishment fervor in the base to gain momentum. That happened already in Texas, where Laura Moser used the DCCC’s clumsy attacks against her to vault herself into a primary runoff against the party establishment’s preferred choice.
“It’s a double-edged sword. Whoever doesn’t get the DCCC endorsement is going to go ‘Oh, Washington’s trying to pick,'” said Sanchez.
This story has been updated to include more information about the allegations against Cisneros.