Tuesday’s primary elections in California hold an unusual importance for the nation. Democrats see an opportunity to flip several Congressional seats in the state. Votes cast now could determine if Republicans will continue to maintain majority control in the U.S. House of Representatives next year — and, along with it, unified control of the federal government.
In most states, the primary is simply a mechanism to decide the candidate each major party will send to face-off in the general election. But because of California’s unusual “top-two” primary system, neither party is guaranteed to have candidates advance.
The two candidates who receive the most votes — regardless of party — appear on the November ballot.
Democrats fear this “lockout” — or scenario where the vote splits among multiple Dem candidates, leading to none of them making the November runoff — in three House districts long-held by Republicans, but that the parties see as vulnerable. In each case, several well-funded but less-well-known Democrats are running against more prominent Republicans.
Here’s how a “lockout” could happen in three districts:
In Orange County’s 39th Congressional district , long-time incumbent Republican Rep. Ed Royce is retiring. In a district where voter registration is nearly evenly split between parties, six Republicans and nine Democrats are on the ballot to replace him.
Royce has endorsed former Republican Assemblywoman Young Kim to replace him. Former Republican state Sen. Bob Huff is also relatively well-known to voters and mounting a serious challenge for a spot in the top-two, with Orange County supervisor Shawn Nelson ahead of him in fundraising.
On the Democratic side, the party has backed lottery winner Gil Cisneros and insurance executive Andy Thorburn, who is challenging Cisneros from his left. Medical doctor Mai Khan Tran and former Congressional and Obama administration aide Sam Jammal also have well-funded campaigns. Another doctor, Herbert Lee, has just poured hundreds of thousands of dollars more into his campaign.
So far, 46 percent of the ballots returned have come from Republicans and just 34 percent from Democrats. It’s conceivable that conservative voters could coalesce around one or two well-known candidates, while Democratic support fractures among the party’s lesser-known field, sending two Republicans to the general election.
The national campaign arm of the party, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, spent nearly $500,000 last week attacking Huff and supporting Cisneros.
In Orange County’s 48th Congressional district , Democrats face a similar dilemma with eight candidates running against six Republicans. Embattled GOP Rep. Dana Rohrabacher is running for re-election, despite his moniker as “Putin’s favorite Congressman.” Former Assembly Republican leader Scott Baugh has also entered the race. They are the likeliest Republicans to advance.
Renowned stem cell researcher Hans Keirstead won the California Democratic Party endorsement, but the DCCC has backed real estate investor Harley Rouda. Former FBI consultant Omar Siddiqui has also raised almost a million dollars in the race.
Rohrabacher’s weakness and Baugh’s name recognition have Democrats so worried about a lockout scenario that in the past week another major Democratic campaign group, House Majority PAC, spent $600,000 against Baugh. The DCCC spent $110,000 to support a third, lesser-known Republican, John Gabbard, in hopes he can pull votes from Baugh.
In San Diego County’s 49th Congressional District , the exit of another long-time Republican Congressman , Darrell Issa, has arguably muddled that field even more.
Moderate Republican Assemblyman Rocky Chavez led in earlier polls, but the more conservative Board of Equalization member Diane Harkey has passed him in more recent surveys. San Diego County Board of Supervisors chairwoman Kristin Gaspar also has some name recognition, while San Juan Capistrano councilman Brian Maryott has poured enough of his own money into the race to top them all in fundraising.
In total, more Republicans are running than Democrats in this race, but—as in the 39th and 48th —none of the Democrats have held elected office. Environmental attorney Mike Levin, retired Marine Col. Doug Applegate—who lost to Issa by a mere 1,600 votes in 2016—and non-profit CEO Sara Jacobs have the backing of major Democratic groups. Real estate investor Paul Kerr has more campaign cash than all of them, after pouring more than $4 million of his own money into the race.
Here, the muddle has created perhaps an unprecedented “top two” moment: The possibility exists, however slight, for either party to get locked out of the general election.
Capital Public Radio’s new podcast Keys to the House brings you stories from this year’s unusual Congressional races. Listen here or subscribe through your favorite podcast app.