Calif. 'Jungle' Primary Presents Concerns for Both Parties

Calif. 'Jungle' Primary Presents Concerns for Both Parties
Michael Macor/San Francisco Chronicle via AP
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The road to winning – or retaining  -- the House majority likely runs through competitive districts in California, and the top-two “jungle” primary in June is causing headaches for Republicans and Democrats, who see its potential to tilt the playing field.

In the Golden State, the top two primary vote-getters advance to the general election regardless of party. And in several targeted Republican House districts, Democrats have enough viable candidates to risk fracturing the vote and allowing two Republicans to advance to the general election, losing any opportunity to flip critical seats.

At the same time, however, some Republicans concede they are unlikely to field a candidate for U.S. Senate and are in danger of missing the gubernatorial general election ballot as well, which would leave both races at the top of the ballot entirely Democratic, thus potentially diminishing Republican voter turnout in the fall.

“The open primary giveth and the open primary taketh from Republicans,” said Bill Whalen, a fellow at the Hoover Institution and former top aide to GOP Gov. Pete Wilson. “It potentially can give Republicans three seats back they might otherwise lose, but it might also cost Republicans at the top of the ticket.”

For Democrats, the possibility of being left out of certain races is worrisome. They are targeting seven districts Hillary Clinton carried in 2016 that are represented by Republicans, and flipping some of them is critical to their overall strategy of regaining a majority for the first time in nearly a decade. If they get shut out of the ballot in November, competitive races fall entirely off the map.

For Republicans, however, the issue is not one of major urgency, but rather an open question with some degree of uncertainty, both in terms of whether they will field a candidate and what the consequences are if they don’t. The Senate race is likely to feature longtime Democratic Sen. Dianne Feinstein and progressive Democratic challenger Kevin de Leon. In the governor’s race, Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom has a significant lead in the polls, but two Republicans, businessman John Cox and state Assemblyman Travis Allen, are in a tight race with Democratic former Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa for second place in the crowded field.  

Jim Brulte, the state’s Republican chairman, said he is “absolutely confident” the party will have a candidate for governor in the general election. He cited a recent poll from the Public Policy Institute of California showing Newsom leading the field with 28 percent of the vote, and Cox in second place with 14 percent. Close behind, however, were Villaraigosa with 12 percent and Allen with 10. Nearly a quarter of voters remained undecided, leaving the race for second place relatively wide open.

A poll from SurveyUSA this week showed Villaraigosa leading Cox by three percentage points. Jason Cabel Roe, a California-based Republican strategist, likened it to a “50-50” chance Republicans would have a candidate on the ballot in November.

“If we’re not competitive at the top of the ticket and Republican voters don’t turn out to vote in those races, that could tip the balance in some seats down ballot,” he said.

Other Republicans, however, are far less concerned. Fred Whitaker, chairman of the Republican Party in Orange County, home to four critical House races, said he didn’t think anything would be lost if Republicans were shut out in the top statewide contests. He argued Republicans won those four seats in 2016 despite no tailwind from the top of the ticket because two Democrats faced off in the Senate race and Donald Trump invested no time or money for organization and turnout efforts in a state he ultimately lost by 30 points. 

Matt Rexroad, a Republican strategist in the state, said he didn’t think Republicans would get shut out of the two-candidate governor’s race, but added he didn’t think it would be a major problem for House races if they did. He argued that a Republican taking on Newsom likely wouldn’t be competitive and therefore wouldn’t create a tailwind for fellow party candidates. Conversely, Rexroad said a Democrat-on-Democrat race could be helpful because at least one of them would likely reach out to Republicans voters to try to build a stronger coalition.

Whitaker, Rexroad and other GOP strategists also pointed to efforts to adopt a ballot initiative blocking an increase of the gas tax, signed into law by Gov. Jerry Brown last year, and said it would be the biggest driver of Republican turnout. Both GOP candidates for governor have pushed for the ballot initiative.

“Whether they’re on the [fall] ballot or not, the measure to repeal the gas tax will be on the ballot,” Whitaker said. “That will motivate our voters to get out to vote.”

“The congressional delegation has led the effort to put repeal of the gas tax on the ballot for that very reason -- they believe that will drive turnout,” Brulte, the California party chairman, added.

Last month saw two positive developments for Republicans: Former GOP Rep. Doug Ose dropped out of the gubernatorial race, leaving just two Republican candidates, whereas former Hillary Clinton aide Amanda Renteria entered the fray, giving Democrats five candidates. Wayne Johnson, a GOP strategist working with Cox, expressed confidence in their position at this stage. He argued that with five Democrats in the primary and Newsom holding a significant lead, it would be difficult for a second Democrat to win enough support to top the leading Republican vote-getter.

“It’s crucial to the House races,” Johnson said. “Without someone on the top of the ticket, a Republican, it makes it very difficult to generate the kind of voter turnout that you need to help in the down-ballot races.

On the Democratic side, there is a sense of urgency to thin the field and also work to increase turnout for the June 5 primary. Though several candidates dropped out of multiple races before the ballots were set earlier this month, large fields of Democratic candidates remain for a number of House contests.

In GOP Rep. Dana Rohrabacher’s district, for example, there are eight Democrats on the ballot, raising the possibility that the incumbent and a Republican challenger could split the vote, leaving a fractured Democratic field behind. In a seat being vacated by retiring Rep. Ed Royce, two candidates recently dropped out, but six Democrats are on the ballot, including three who have been successful fundraisers and have major national and local endorsements; there are also seven Republicans running, creating a highly volatile mix.

In the open district of retiring Rep. Darrell Issa, which he won by just over 1,600 votes in 2016, there are four Democratic candidates, all of whom are relatively well funded and considered viable, leaving open the possibility of vote fracturing there as well.

National Democrats are watching the races carefully, and are expected to weigh in at some point ahead of the primary to help elevate whomever they view as the strongest candidates. The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee has not become involved yet, but has made clear its willingness to do so.

“Grassroots activists have put these races into play, and they deserve to have a Democrat on the ballot this November,” said DCCC spokesman Drew Godinich, adding that “all options are on the table” in terms of investment.

One Democratic strategist working on races in California said candidates are “hunkered down” ahead of the filing deadline, awaiting first-quarter fundraising numbers at the end of this month. The strategist said those numbers would indicate which candidates would have the most to spend on advertising in final two months of the primary, and could also be a key benchmark for their viability in the general election.

“You have to spend a lot of money to get people to recognize who you are,” the strategist said.

Flip the 49th, a grassroots super PAC aimed directly at helping a Democrat win that district, is also investing heavily in boosting primary turnout in hopes of not being shut out in the fall. In an email to supporters last week, activist Cipriano Vargas said that “expanding our voter turnout pool in the primary” would help ensure a Democrat makes the general election. The group has volunteers knocking on doors each weekend and phone-banking two nights a week, and hopes to contact 132,000 voters before primary day. At their recent meeting, members suggested creating literature explaining the jungle primary system to voters.

“All we can really do is try to expand the pie of democratic turnout,” said Terra Lawson-Remer, one of the organization’s leaders. “If we don’t expand the pie, we run a real risk of no Dem going beyond the primary. But if we expand the pie, we think we can make it through.”

James Arkin is a congressional reporter for RealClearPolitics. He can be reached at jarkin@realclearpolitics.com. Follow him on Twitter @JamesArkin.



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