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Dems step up efforts to avoid California primary shutouts

Dems step up efforts to avoid California primary shutouts
© The Hill illustration

National Democrats are spending big in key House districts ahead of next month’s California primaries, a last-minute scramble aimed at ensuring the party isn’t shut out of winnable races by the state’s unique election laws. 

California’s “jungle primary” system puts all candidates, regardless of party, in a single primary, with the top two vote-getters moving on to a general election. Democrats fear that crowded fields of Democratic candidates could split the party’s vote, allowing Republicans to take both general election slots in several races. 

In an effort to ensure a Democrat advances to the general election in crowded races, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee (DCCC) has booked more than $1 million in television and radio ads attacking Republican candidates across three southern California districts ahead of the June 5 primary. Hillary ClintonHillary Diane Rodham ClintonBiden must wait weekend for State Department pick Texas Supreme Court rejects Alex Jones request to toss lawsuits from Sandy Hook parents Paris Agreement: Biden's chance to restore international standing MORE won all three districts in the 2016 presidential election, making them prime pickup opportunities for Democrats. 

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The spending is only part of the plan — national Democrats have also made controversial moves to boost their own preferred candidates, as they look to winnow the candidate fields. 


But those moves have sparked frustration among some activists and candidates who want the national party to stay out. That frustration is compounded by the ugly nature of some primary fights, complicating Democratic efforts to ensure at least one Democrat advances to the general election in key races.

“I think everyone’s super anxious for what exactly happens,” said a Democratic strategist in California. “I think everyone’s hope is that Republicans stay home and don’t vote. If they do vote, it’s very likely Democrats get locked out.”

Democrats have been beating the drum for months about the perils of having too many candidates in California races. That anxiety has good grounding — in 2012, Pete AguilarPeter (Pete) Ray AguilarAOC v. Pelosi: Round 12? Maloney to lead Democrats' campaign arm House Democrats pick Aguilar as No. 6 leader in next Congress MORE (D), then a first-time candidate, came in third and was locked out of the general. In 2014, national Democrats made sure to get behind Aguilar early, helping ensure he won the seat that year.

Tensions over crowded fields bubbled to the surface at the California Democratic Party’s convention in February, when state party leaders made repeated calls for lower-tier candidates to consider dropping out so Democrats could coalesce behind leading challengers. Some candidates did drop out before the March filing deadline, but most key races still have crowded primary fields.

Some Democrats fear that, without intervention, the party’s concerns may be realized.

In an attempt to alleviate those concerns, the DCCC is escalating its spending three weeks out from the June primary — mostly targeting Republicans who are within reach of the second general election slot.

In the Los Angeles media market, the committee purchased $274,000 in cable and radio ads to target Republicans running for retiring GOP Rep. Ed RoyceEdward (Ed) Randall RoyceCalifornia was key factor in House GOP's 2020 success Top donor allegedly sold access to key politicians for millions in foreign cash: report Here are the 17 GOP women newly elected to the House this year MORE’s seat. One ad attacks former state Sen. Bob Huff for supporting taxes hikes. The other spot targets Republican Shawn Nelson, a member of the Orange County Board of Supervisors, accusing him of hypocrisy over pensions.

The DCCC spent another $575,700 to attack Republican Scott Baugh, who’s emerged as a viable alternative for the seat already held by another Republican, Rep. Dana RohrabacherDana Tyrone RohrabacherOn The Trail: The political losers of 2020 California was key factor in House GOP's 2020 success GOP's Steel wins California House race after Democrat Rouda concedes MORE. With various polls showing Baugh within reach of the second general election spot, Democrats are highlighting Baugh’s past indictment on several felony charges.

The DCCC also bought $524,400 on cable and broadcast in the San Diego media market, which will be aimed at one of the leading Republican candidates running for retiring GOP Rep. Darrell IssaDarrell Edward IssaREAD: The Republicans who voted to challenge election results Gingrich: Trump should attend Biden inauguration Rep.-elect Issa says Trump should attend Biden inauguration MORE’s district. The ads take aim at state Assemblyman Rocky Chavez for voting on tax increases — a clear attempt to hurt his standing among Republicans.

Following suit, two outside Democratic groups — Priorities USA Action and House Majority PAC — also launched a $270,000 digital ad campaign in those three districts on Tuesday, targeting the same Republicans.

Democrats see the spending as a key way to boost the party’s chances without actively campaigning for a preferred candidate. But Republicans are laughing off the new ads, arguing that the eventual Democratic nominees will go into the general hobbled by tough primaries.

“The DCCC is in full freak-out mode over the possibility of being locked out of ‘must have’ races for them,” said National Republican Congressional Committee spokesman Jesse Hunt. “They will spend millions of dollars just to try and drag their damaged candidates to the starting line of a runoff against a formidable Republican.”

All three races are high priorities for Democrats, which is why getting boxed out from any of the general elections could be catastrophic to the party’s chances of taking back the House this fall.

The races are also important for two high-powered Californians already in the House: Minority Leader Nancy PelosiNancy PelosiBiden attends first church service as president in DC, stops at local bagel shop More hands needed on the nuclear football Sunday shows preview: All eyes on Biden administration to tackle coronavirus MORE (D) and Majority Leader Kevin McCarthyKevin McCarthyBiden attends first church service as president in DC, stops at local bagel shop House GOP leader says he has 'concerns' over Cheney's impeachment vote McCarthy says he told Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene he disagreed with her impeachment articles against Biden MORE (R), who are hyper-focused on the fight over the House majority with the Speaker’s gavel on the line.

The DCCC has also elevated certain candidates they believe are in the best position to make it through the primary, decisions that have, at times, become sources of friction between national and local Democrats.

The DCCC named lottery winner and veteran Gil Cisneros, running in the 39th District, and businessman Harley Rouda, running in the 48th District, to the “Red to Blue” program. The designation isn’t an official endorsement, but it offers key financial and organizational support to designated candidates.

The efforts to back the most viable Democratic candidates have opened new divisions in the party.

The race to succeed Royce, for example, has taken an ugly turn with a fight between Cisneros and his main opponent, Andy Thorburn, a health insurance executive backed by allies of Sen. Bernie SandersBernie SandersBoycott sham impeachment Sunday shows - Biden agenda, Trump impeachment trial dominate Sanders: Senate may use budget reconciliation to pass Biden agenda MORE (I-Vt.).

Both candidates have traded blows in recent weeks as tensions flare.

Last month, The Intercept published an allegation from Thorburn, who said Cisneros left him a brief voicemail threatening to “go negative.” Cisneros’s campaign pushed back against those claims, pointing to voice recognition analysis it commissioned that suggested Cisneros’s was not the voice on the recording.

And the two candidates have also launched dueling websites panning their rival. Cisneros’s camp is out with a website framing Thorburn as a tax-evader, while Thorburn’s camp has a site calling Cisneros a gun lover.

Meanwhile, in the district currently represented by Rohrabacher, the DCCC’s move has put them at odds with the California Democratic Party, whose delegates and activists voted to endorse stem cell researcher Hans Keirstead at the convention in February.

Rouda and Keirstead have both released internal polls that show the two Democrats tied for second place along with Baugh.

State party chairman Eric Bauman released a statement following Rouda’s designation as “Red to Blue,” warning that the “DCCC should tread carefully in openly supporting a different candidate.”

“California Democratic activists value our independence and the grassroots nature of our endorsement process,” Bauman said. “Decisions that undercut the independence or our endorsed candidates have the potential to be extraordinarily counterproductive.”

Democrats have been the most hands-off in Issa’s 49th District, with the DCCC so far expressing no preferences.

Democrats have four candidates, each of whom has their own base of support. Marine Corps veteran Doug Applegate, the 2016 Democratic nominee, has led some polls. Mike Levin, an environmental attorney, came close to scoring the California Democratic Party’s endorsement at the February convention.

Sara Jacobs, a first-time candidate and former nonprofit CEO, has gained traction over the past couple months. EMILY’s List endorsed her, and its super PAC, Women Vote, has spent nearly $1.1 million on advertising and mailers.

Democrats acknowledge that the race still remains wide open in the final weeks of the primary. But it’s likely that Republicans could face a shutout threat of their own in the fight for Issa’s seat, with more than one credible Republican candidate in the race.

Chavez has led several polls, but his support from former GOP Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger has kept him open to attacks from the right. Diane Harkey, a member of the State Board of Equalization backed by Issa, has crept up in the polls. San Diego County Board of Supervisors Chairwoman Kristin Gaspar, meanwhile, will meet with President TrumpDonald TrumpMore than two-thirds of Americans approve of Biden's coronavirus response: poll Sarah Huckabee Sanders to run for governor Mexico's president tests positive for COVID-19 MORE about California’s “sanctuary state” laws.

As the messy primaries drag on, Democrats warn that the party must prioritize general election unity to have a shot at taking back the House.

“If we are going to stop Donald Trump, we can fight each other now, but we better embrace each other the day after these primaries,” former Rep. Steve IsraelSteven (Steve) J. IsraelBiden faces monumental task healing divided country The Hill's Morning Report - Trump impeached again; now what? Democrats need a post-Trump message MORE (D-N.Y.), a former two-time DCCC chairman, told The Hill in a recent interview. “If we go into this general election with grudges, we are handing the majority to Republicans.”