Crowded Primaries Could Dash Dems' California Dreams
Republicans would ordinarily dread an intra-party challenge to one of their most endangered incumbents in an already difficult election year. But in California’s 48th District, it's an oddly welcome scenario — one that could even help them maintain control of the U.S House of Representatives.
The coastal Orange County district, represented by 15-term Rep. Dana Rohrabacher, is one of seven Republican strongholds in California that Hillary Clinton carried in 2016, a group of seats seemingly primed for Democrats who see the Golden State as their gateway to taking over the lower chamber in this year's midterms. Rohrabacher's 30-year tenure, penchant for controversy, and a warmness to Russia that earned him the label "Putin's favorite congressman" made him among the most tantalizing targets -- so much so that seven Democrats signed up to challenge him. Not only that, but five Republicans also have thrown their hats into the ring.
In any other state, such an abundance of candidates might be a good problem to have. But for Democrats in California, it's turning out to be simply a problem.
The state's June 5 primary operates on the so-called jungle system, which means the top two finishers regardless of party affiliation advance to the general election. And in districts like CA-48, Democrats are growing increasingly concerned that their candidates could cut into one another's vote share, enabling two Republicans to advance to the November ballot. Therefore, Rohrabacher's challenge from within his own party could be a saving grace for the GOP.
"If you can take one vulnerable seat off the table or two or three in Orange County, you've virtually assured yourself of a Republican majority," asserts Scott Baugh, a former Orange County GOP chairman running against Rohrabacher in Tuesday's primary.
If Democrats' path to the majority runs through California, then Orange County is considered Ground Zero. In 2016, Clinton became the first Democrat in 80 years to win the once reliably Republican county. And even though voters split their tickets in a handful of the county's congressional districts, Democrats saw fertile ground in the shifting political climate. Their hopes were further boosted when two longtime Republican congressmen from the area — Darrell Issa in the 49th (which also encompasses parts of San Diego County) and Ed Royce in the 39th (which also includes parts of Los Angeles County) — announced they would retire rather than seek re-election. Rohrabacher decided to stick it out, even though doing so would only enlarge the target on the back.
But now, the three districts that once presented promising opportunities for Democratic takeover could shut the party candidates out altogether. Ironically, Republican retirements and the crowded primaries seem to have put the GOP in a stronger position.
In 2016, Issa won re-election by less than one percentage point against Democrat Doug Applegate, a Marine veteran, in a district Clinton carried by nearly eight points. Applegate is running again, but so are three other party members: Sara Jacobs, a former Clinton adviser and granddaughter of billionaire philanthropist and Qualcomm co-founder Irwin Jacobs; environmental attorney Mike Levin; and businessman Paul Kerr. The contest between the Democrats has turned divisive and expensive. Rather than picking a single strong candidate to back, national Democrats have focused their resources on taking town the Republican challengers, which include state Assemblyman Rocky Chavez and state Board of Equalization Chairwoman Diane Harkey.
Royce's retirement in CA-39, a district that voted for Clinton by nearly nine points, also opened the floodgates to a large field of candidates. The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee backed Navy veteran and millionaire philanthropist Gil Cisneros, but the endorsement didn't deter other Democrats from staying in. The battle between Cisneros and health insurance executive Andy Thorburn became so heated and nasty that the chairman of the California Democratic Party, Eric Bauman, had to intervene and broker a truce. Physician Mai Khanh Tran also stayed in the Democratic race, despite the party urging her to step aside.
While Democrats feel more confident about getting someone on the November ballot in the 39th, there are concerns. Among the many Republicans also running for the seat: Orange County Supervisor Shawn Nelson, former minority state Senate leader Bob Huff, and former state Assemblywoman Young Kim.
"The 'top two' problem is very acute," said one California Democratic operative, anticipating that the party could get shut out in two of the three Orange County races. "We have tried to tackle this problem every way we could and left everything out on the field."
Rohrabacher's district is where the crowded Democratic field is proving to be the most problematic, thus making it the toughest get of the three. For starters, the party is divided over whom to support. The DCCC is backing businessman Harley Rouda while the state party is supporting stem-cell researcher Hans Keirstead. Earlier in the campaign, the national party was on the same page in encouraging Keirstead to run. But after allegations of physical misconduct surfaced against him, the DCCC moved to officially endorse Rouda. The allegations were found to be unsubstantiated and Keirstead was cleared.
"It makes it tough because it means we're not working in that district hand-in-hand in the way we are everywhere else," says state party chairman Bauman.
The move encouraged some other Democrats to drop out, but not in enough time to have their names removed from the ballot. Meanwhile, another candidate, former FBI agent Omar Siddiqui, is refusing to step aside.
The conditions have created an opening for Baugh and the Republicans. Baugh is a former mentee of Rohrabacher's and is seen as having the best chance among the other GOP challengers of keeping Democrats off the general election ballot. But it's not as though the two are in cahoots. Rohrabacher has been running ads and mailers attacking Baugh, and Baugh has criticized the incumbent as being ineffective and having served too long in Congress. "He's preoccupied with Russia,” Baugh told RCP in an interview. "The community has issues it wants dealt with, local issues ... and Dana is somewhat of a self-appointed secretary of state."
While national Republicans are backing the congressman, they are more preoccupied at this point with keeping Democrats off the fall ballot in this district and others in the Orange County area. Democrats have been spending heavily in the 48th, with a portion targeting Baugh. The House Majority PAC spent $650,000 on ads painting him as a criminal.
The allegation is rooted in Baugh's relationship with Rohrabacher. Over two decades ago, the lawmaker recruited Baugh to run for a seat in the state assembly. After that race, Baugh and Rohrabacher’s wife, Rhonda Carmony, who was the congressman's campaign manager, were charged with felonies and a slew of misdemeanors related to Carmony's efforts to get a Democratic ally to run to split the vote on the opposing side and allow a path forward for the Republican. The charges against Baugh, related to campaign finance violations, were dropped, but Rohrabacher's wife pled guilty to election fraud.
Baugh says his internal tracking poll shows him edging out Democrat Rouda, even though Rouda leads the fundraising race with $1.9 million. In a sign of Democratic energy, both Rouda and Keirstead outraised Rohrabacher and Baugh. Even Siddiqui, whom Democrats were encouraging to leave the race, raised nearly $1 million, compared to Baugh's $600,000, according to the Center for Responsive Politics.
Democrats at the national and state level insist they’ve done all they can to get Democrats through the jungle primary system. “DCCC is proud to have invested in and opened up new territory for California Democrats ahead of next week’s primary,” said Meredith Kelly, the group’s communications director.
And they argue that they will be more competitive than before against GOP incumbents in districts that Clinton won, including Reps. Mimi Walters in the 45th, David Valadao in the 21st, Steve Knight in the 25th, and Jeff Denham in the 10th, as well as three others in traditional Republican territory.
"It's personalities," Bauman said about Democratic candidates in California refusing to drop out. "And there's an unusual energy and an essence in the air that people want to fight back."
Bauman said he met with the various candidates running in these congressional districts to urge them to see the bigger picture, stressing that if Democrats don’t make the November ballot, they can't fight back against the Trump administration and help the party win the majority. He encouraged them to think beyond their own candidacies and beyond California.
"Unfortunately, this is not like the days of yesterday when political leaders sat in back rooms and said you can't run. It's not right and we don't do that anymore," Bauman says. "You have so many people who are so passionate. ... I was not going to say to anybody, ‘It's not your time to run.’"
Clarification: An earlier version of this article stated that Baugh arranged for a Democratic ally to run in a state assembly race to split the vote on the opposing side and allow a path forward for the Republican. In fact, Rhonda Carmony recruited the decoy candidate.