Dems fear crowded primaries could cost them in California

Dems fear crowded primaries could cost them in California
© Greg Nash

SAN DIEGO — California Democrats are anxious that crowded primaries could cost the party two must-win seats as it looks to take back the House majority.

State leaders delivered a blunt warning at the state party convention last weekend about the perils of too many candidates running for the seats held by retiring GOP Reps. Ed RoyceEdward (Ed) Randall RoyceRetiring GOP rep: ‘I think we should look at maybe the length of our chairmanships’ Outgoing GOP rep: Republican Party 'heading into trouble' in election Sunday shows preview: Russian charges, Florida shooting dominate coverage MORE and Darrell IssaDarrell Edward IssaCalifornia Hispanics, even Republicans, are primed to make history House rejects effort to condemn lawmaker for demanding 'Dreamer' arrests Hispanic Dems seek vote to condemn GOP lawmaker for demanding arrests of 'Dreamers' MORE.

Five Democratic candidates are competing for the nomination in Issa’s district, while nine Democrats are running for Royce’s seat.

Hillary ClintonHillary Diane Rodham ClintonWoman behind pro-Trump Facebook page denies being influenced by Russians Trump: CNN, MSNBC 'got scammed' into covering Russian-organized rally Pennsylvania Democrats set to win big with new district map MORE won both districts in 2016, suggesting that Democratic candidates should fare well there in 2018. But California has a “jungle” primary system, in which candidates of all affiliations compete in a single primary before the top two candidates advance to the general election.

That means Democrats could end up splitting their party’s primary votes and leaving the top two spots in the general elections for Republicans.

National and local groups have been attempting to winnow down the primary fields in both races.

“We have an overpopulation problem,” state party chairman Eric Bauman said at the convention’s Sunday session, telling the crowd of activists to encourage some candidates running in the primaries to run for another office instead.

“We could be aced out of seats that are primed, set and ready for us, where the voters in those districts want to elect a Democrat.”

Daraka Larimore-Hall, the state party’s vice chairman, went even further during a speech at the convention that was aimed at congressional candidates who are polling below 10 percent.

“If you step aside today to make sure we don’t send two Republicans to the general, you will be my hero,” he said. “If you put your career before your party ... I will not support you for f----ing dogcatcher.”

Democrats will be able to see how many candidates stick around for each race after the March 9 filing deadline. Some party insiders say they’ll wait until after the deadline to make decisions about primary endorsements.

Bauman told The Hill that his team is working closely with the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee (DCCC) and congressional leadership. He said they’re continuing to meet and speak with candidates, as well as work with others to find them alternative positions to run for.

“From my perspective, I never ask anyone to stand down. I never say to anybody ‘it’s not your time,’ ” Bauman said. “But my approach is to talk about the importance of the greater good.”

“Unless we can deliver House seats in significant numbers to the Democratic conference, there’s no possibility of regaining control of the House and if we don’t regain control … there’s no possibility of putting the brakes on Donald TrumpDonald John TrumpAccuser says Trump should be afraid of the truth Woman behind pro-Trump Facebook page denies being influenced by Russians Shulkin says he has White House approval to root out 'subversion' at VA MORE’s dangerous and divisive agenda.”

The anxiousness dates back to 2012, when Rep. Pete AguilarPeter (Pete) Ray AguilarProgressive group targets GOP moderates on immigration Trump’s vanity wall is biggest obstacle to protecting Dreamers Texas GOP lawmaker: Trump wall 'expensive and least effective’ security plan MORE (D-Calif.), who was then a first-time candidate, came in third while two Republicans emerged out of the primary. Aguilar went on to win the seat in 2014.

To prevent similar defeats, some national groups like the DCCC aren’t ruling out wading into primary fights.

“Grass-roots activists have been critical to holding House Republicans accountable, and the DCCC has recognized and appreciated their success and influence in making these races competitive,” spokesman Drew Godinich said. “The DCCC is keeping all options on the table to ensure that voters have a Democrat on the ballot this November.”

Until recently, the DCCC had largely stayed out of primary fights this cycle. No California candidates have been named to its “Red to Blue” program, which provides fundraising and organizational support for the party’s top challengers.

But that ended last week when the committee released opposition research about a Democratic candidate running in a crowded Texas primary — a decision that was met with strong backlash, mainly from progressives.

Other groups that have typically shied away from taking sides in Democratic primaries are considering taking action in the primaries in California, given the unique circumstances of the state’s top-two primary system.

Democratic mega-donor Tom Steyer has pledged to spend $30 million on efforts to help flip the House, and will be a big player in California. Steyer said his group NextGen America “very rarely” plays in primaries, but is seriously considering it now.

“We understand the risks of a open-seat primary with an awful lot of Democrats running so we’re working on it actively but we haven’t done anything,” Steyer told The Hill at the convention.

Democratic candidates vied at the convention to win enough support from delegates to score the state party’s endorsement as a way to stand out in a crowded field. And some candidates were vocal about the risks of the party remaining divided.

In the caucus to decide which candidate to back for California’s 49th District, which is currently represented by Issa, Democratic hopeful Mike Levin urged delegates to coalesce around the front-runners in the five-candidate primary.

Levin cited a poll from Democratic group “Flip the 49th” that found if all five candidates stay in it increases the likelihood that no Democrats advance to the general. Instead, it predicts Republicans Rocky Chavez and Diane Harkey would score the top two slots.

“I would ask you to give us all as a party an opportunity to unite,” said Levin, an environmental attorney. “If we do not unite around the strongest couple of candidates in this race, you end up with five candidates on the June 5 ballot. We will all potentially lose.”

While Levin was the top vote-getter at the Saturday caucus, he fell below the 60-percent threshold, meaning there won’t be a Democratic endorsement in the race. No candidate running for Royce’s seat secured the party’s endorsement either.

Meanwhile, there are six Republicans running to succeed Issa and at least four running to replace Royce, meaning that competition between the GOP’s candidates could potentially hand the general elections to Democratic candidates instead.