The California primary that culminates on June 5 — that’s the best way to look at it, since a large majority of votes will be cast by mail ballot — has a lot of interesting subplots. Under the state’s top two system, all candidates compete in the same nonpartisan pool and the first- and second-place finishers, regardless of party or percentage of the vote, will proceed to the general election. At present it looks like two Democrats, incumbent Dianne Feinstein and state legislative leader Kevin de León, will be in the general election for U.S. Senate. There is a lot more suspense surrounding the gubernatorial contest, in which Republican John Cox, with a boost from Donald Trump, seems to be consolidating the GOP vote, making him a slim favorite to edge out two viable Democrats for a general-election spot opposite Democratic lieutenant governor Gavin Newsom.
But the most nationally significant drama involves three Republican-held U.S. House seats in Southern California that Democrats think they can carry in November — and really need to carry to reach their national goal of gaining 23 net seats and thus control of the House. In each of these districts — two in and around Orange County, and the other running south to the San Diego suburbs — Democrats are in danger of missing the general election because they have too many viable candidates, while Republicans may be able to consolidate their votes in favor of just two. This “top two lockout” problem has become a national obsession for Democrats fretful that their planned 2018 “wave election” could crest and subside prematurely in one of their best states.
Normally there’s not much risk of a lockout when vulnerable incumbents are being challenged, since said incumbent’s partisans will vote for her or him leaving the other general-election spot for the opposition party to occupy. That’s the situation in four of the seven GOP-held California districts carried by Hillary Clinton, which instantly became 2018 targets. But in two other targeted districts — Ed Royce’s 39th District in Orange County and Darrell Issa’s San Diego-based 49th District — the incumbent retired, and large and unmanageable fields of Democrats lined up against smaller fields of Republicans, making it entirely plausible that multiple Democrats could split up their vote in ways that place all of them just out of the money. And in one other district, the 48th (another Orange County–based district), the incumbent, Dana Rohrabacher, is so weak that Republicans may neatly split their vote between him and a well-known GOP challenger, former Orange County GOP chairman Scott Baugh. That could leave Democrats finishing third, fourth, fifth, and sixth — and entirely out of luck.
You might expect the national, state or local Democratic parties to sort this all out by picking (or better yet, financing) preferred candidates to winnow the field and improve the odds of at least one candidate making the top two and getting a general-election spot. But this year, and in this state, that’s been much easier said than done. As David Dayen notes, Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee interventions in Southern California have run into all sorts of trouble:
[Gil] Cisneros (a major Democratic donor who eventually got the DCCC endorsement) and [Mai Kanh-] Tran had lived in the 48th Congressional District, but were encouraged to move to the 39th to make way for businessman Harley Rouda in the 48th. The DCCC then soured on Rouda, recruiting a separate self-funder, stem cell scientist Hans Keirstead. Then an anonymous claim against Keirstead alleging sexual misconduct while he worked at the University of California, Irvine, pushed the DCCC back toward Rouda; they put him on the coveted “Red to Blue” list, though some fear it came too late in the primary to make a difference.
All these shifting preferences have been difficult to follow for actual voters. Before the DCCC more or less abandoned Keirstead in the 48th, he had already been endorsed by the state party, which meant his name would appear on mailers sent to every registered Democratic voter in the district. And in several cases in multiple districts, candidates who folded their campaigns in order to help more viable rivals make the top two did so after it was too late to get their names off the ballots.
Before the Democratic Party is blamed for the “disarray” in these House contests, it’s worth noting that a campaign finance environment shaped by Citizens United has made it all but impossible to do anything about rich self-funding candidates with the pocketbooks and egos to run and remain in contests they should stay out of. And there has been a surplus of such candidates among Southern California candidates this year, as Dayen reports:
In CA-39, 48, and 49, the 14 active Democratic candidates have raised a total of $23.73 million, according to FEC data. A whopping $16.12 million — over two-thirds of the campaign war chests — comes from the candidates’ own wallets.
Another product of the current screwed-up campaign finance system, “independent” expenditure efforts, has made the situation even more chaotic:
More outside money has been spent in these three races than any non-special House election in America (with the exception of one race in Pennsylvania). Democratic groups have thrown in $10.04 million, nearly five times more than Republican groups’ $2.27 million. That’s on top of the $16.1 million in Democratic self-funding.
There’s very little public polling in any of these races, but a survey released in March by Change Research showed that a top two lockout for Democrats in the 39th (where Republicans Young Kim and Bob Huff were running first and third) and the 49th (with Republicans Rocky Chavez and Diane Harkey narrowly leading the field) was entirely possible. And in some respects the 48th, with its weak but universally known incumbent Republican (Rohrabacher), its viable GOP challenger (Baugh) and its multiple warring Democrats, is a perfect storm for the lockout scenario.
On top of everything else, it should be remembered that primary turnout (much lower than in general elections, as is the case in most places) patterns in California favor Republicans by a few points. And tracking of already-received mail ballots in Southern California indicates that despite all the talk of Democratic enthusiasm, GOP voters appear to be showing up. According to one credible source, in the 48th District returned mail ballots from GOP registered voters have exceeded those from Democratic voters so far by a 45/36 margin. Republicans have an even larger 46/34 lead in ballots returned in the 39th District, though they are dead even in the 49th.
It is the distribution rather than the volume of these votes that will determine whether Democrats manage to screw themselves out of three opportunities for House wins in November, when turnout patterns are likely to be more favorable to their party. But it will be white-knuckle — or -hoof — time for a lot of West Coast donkeys when the votes begin to be counted on June 5.