The Democratic fields in California’s House races were so competitive that it remained unclear in several contests which Democrat would advance to the general election – only that one of them likely would.
LOS ANGELES – Democrats claimed new life in their bid to retake the House Tuesday, with a path back to the majority that once again runs squarely through the Golden State.
Bolstered by an increasing number of young and Latino voters and by President Donald Trump’s deep unpopularity in California, Democrats this year poured millions of dollars into flipping several suburban, Southern California House districts. For months, though, the party feared a nightmare scenario in which no Democrat would appear on the November ballot in several critical House races – victimized by the state’s top-two primary system in which the top two vote-getters advance to the general election regardless of party affiliation.
But as results from the primary election on Tuesday rolled in, Democrats breathed a loud sigh of relief.
In all seven Republican-held House districts that went for Hillary Clinton in 2016 – and that Democrats are targeting this year – a Democrat was running second as of early Wednesday, likely securing a spot on the November ballot.
“It looks like the asteroid missed,” said Rob Pyers of the California Target Book, which handicaps races in the state. “While the late and provisional ballots have shown the capacity for surprise in the past, it rarely goes in the GOP’s favor.”
The election resolved the party’s difficulty managing large fields of Democratic candidates who threatened to splinter the primary vote. Weighing in to shape the primary fields, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee endorsed favored candidates and dropped $7 million to make sure those districts remained on the battlefield in November.
The Democratic fields in California’s House races were so competitive that it remained unclear in several contests which Democrat would advance to the general election – only that one of them likely would. Democrats were dueling for second place in the districts held by Reps. Dana Rohrabacher and Steve Knight, and in the district from which Rep. Darrell Issa is retiring.
Though the Associated Press had yet to call the House races, with large numbers of mail-in and provisional ballots yet to count, Paul Mitchell of Political Data, the voter data firm used by Republicans and Democrats in California, said Democrats in most contests are “in the clear.”
The prospect of a Democratic lock-out weighed heavily over the Democratic Party for much of the year, with party leaders lobbying Democrats to reconsider their candidacies and intervening more forcefully in recent weeks.
In the high-profile contest to succeed retiring Rep. Ed Royce, the DCCC, along with local party leaders, brokered an unprecedented armistice between two Democratic candidates, Gil Cisneros and Democrat Andy Thorburn. The pair of quarreling millionaires had been hammering each other with negative ads, and the committee spent more than $2 million to ensure the DCCC-endorsed Cisneros made the general election.
It paid off on Tuesday night.
After Democrats spent Tuesday anxiously awaiting the results of several crowded Orange County races, Cisneros emerged from the primary likely to face Republican Young Kim, a state assemblywoman who led Republicans in fundraising and name recognition.
Democrats could still face a shutout in Rep. Paul Cook’s non-competitive 8th Congressional District, where a former Republican state assemblyman, Tim Donnelly, was running second. And Pyers said Rep. Jeff Denham’s Central Valley district “bears watching.” Though Democrat Josh Harder was running second to Denham in returns early Wednesday, Republican Ted Howze, a former Turlock city councilman, trailed by fewer than 1,000 votes.
Still, “This is basically a home run for Democrats,” said Doug Herman, a Democratic consultant based in the state. “We got Democrats into the fall, and that’s all the party had to do.”
The result was a setback for Republicans, who had hoped to lock up one or more competitive House races in June. But Dave Gilliard, a strategist for several Republicans running in contested House races in California, said the heated primaries forced the Democratic candidates to move to the left to appeal to base voters, “which will help us defeat them in November.”
“They did not get locked out,” Gilliard said in an email. “But their candidates in these districts did not impress considering the amount of money spent.”
Republicans also appeared to aid their general election prospects by avoiding a shut out of their own in California’s gubernatorial race. Though Republicans have almost no chance of winning the governorship, they feared that not having a candidate in the general election could depress GOP turnout down-ballot. But Republican John Cox finished second to Democrat Gavin Newsom in the race, eliminating that concern.
In addition, California’s overall turnout – which is still trickling in – isn’t showing signs of a blue surge in participation. Unlike Iowa and New Jersey, where record numbers of Democrats showed up to vote in an off-year primary, California performed like a traditional midterm cycle.
“Turnout is going to stand out as pathetically low here, compared to everywhere else in the country,” said Rob Stutzman, a Republican consultant in the state. “There was no sign of the ‘Resistance’ tonight. It was MIA.”
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