Democrats Avoid Lockouts in Key California Races

Democrats Avoid Lockouts in Key California Races
AP Photo/Krysta Fauria
Democrats Avoid Lockouts in Key California Races
AP Photo/Krysta Fauria
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Democrats are breathing a sigh of relief after California's “jungle” primary Tuesday, as their candidates made the ballot in competitive races that will help determine the balance of power in the next Congress.

Faced with the complex problem of too many candidates and an open primary system that allows the top two candidates to advance, regardless of party, Democrats feared they could be shut out of contests that are critical to their calculus of winning the House of Representatives in the midterm elections.

But with most of the results in, Democratic candidates have lived to fight another day.

The focus of concern centered on a handful of Republican-held districts in Southern California that Hillary Clinton carried in 2016. Since Clinton was the first Democrat in 80 years to win Orange County, the party saw the area as fertile ground for pickups. Dozens of candidates signed up to run, prompting the national party to make a mad and expensive dash to help ensure Democratic contenders didn’t splinter the vote and put two Republicans on the November ballot. The effort cost the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee and outside groups millions of dollars and weeks’ worth of headaches as the contests turned divisive and confusing for voters.

The most competitive race in terms of making the ballot came in California's 48th Congressional District, where GOP Rep. Dana Rohrabacher is seeking a 16th term. But with all precincts reporting, Democrats eked out a second-place finish.

Businessman Harley Rouda (pictured), who was endorsed by the DCCC, topped a fellow Democrat, scientist Hans Keirstead, by just 73 votes. Republican challenger Scott Baugh was fourth. Clinton won the district by just one percentage point in 2016, while Rohrabacher overwhelmingly won re-election. But Democrats see the incumbent as vulnerable, given his 30-year tenure and penchant for controversy, including a much-scrutinized embrace of Russia.

In California's 39th District, where GOP Rep. Ed Royce is retiring, millionaire philanthropist and DCCC-endorsed candidate Gil Cisneros will face off against Republican former state Assemblywoman Young Kim, who finished first. The race had grown so heated that the California Democratic Party chairman had to broker a truce between Cisneros and fellow Democrat Andy Thorburn, a health insurance executive. Thorburn finished in fourth place behind Republican Phil Liberatore.

And in California's 49th District, where Rep. Darrell Issa is retiring, Republican Board of Equalization member Diane Harkey leads the field with nearly 80 percent of the vote counted. Attorney Mike Levin appears to have edged out fellow Democrat and former Clinton adviser Sara Jacobs for the number two spot. Marine veteran Doug Applegate, who lost to Issa in 2016 by less than one percentage point, is in fourth place.

Meanwhile, with most of the vote counted, Democratic Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom leads the race to replace term-limited Jerry Brown and will face off against Republican John Cox, who has been endorsed by President Trump. Former Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa finished a distant third. While Democrats are expected to win the race in November, the primary results help them avoid what could have been a costly intra-party battle between Newsom and Villaraigosa. Republicans, on the other hand, argue that a competitive gubernatorial race could help drive voter turnout needed in down-ballot contests.

And Sen. Dianne Feinstein overwhelmingly finished first ahead of former state Senate leader Kevin De Leon, also a Democrat, in her quest for a fifth term.

Democrats were celebrating in New Jersey, where DCCC-backed candidates won primaries in a handful of competitive districts that could also affect the balance of power in the House due to Republican retirements and swing districts. In the 7th Congressional District, former Obama administration official Tom Malinowski won the Democratic primary and will take on Rep. Leonard Lance, who is considered among the most vulnerable Republican lawmakers up for re-election this year.

In the 11th District, where longtime Republican Rep. Rodney Frelinghuysen is retiring, Democrats nominated Navy veteran and prosecutor Mikie Sherrill to take on state Assemblyman Jay Webber. And in the 2nd District, where Republican Rep. Frank LoBiondo is also retiring, conservative Democrat Jeff Van Drew won the primary and will run against Republican state Sen. Seth Grossman.

Other highlights from Tuesday’s results include:

--In the Montana Senate race, state auditor (and the national GOP's top pick) Matt Rosendale won a four-way primary. He will challenge Democratic Sen. Jon Tester in November. Trump won the state overwhelmingly, but Montana voters are accustomed to splitting tickets, as evidenced by Democratic Gov. Steve Bullock's re-election in 2016. Still, Tester has vulnerabilities, and Trump has already been campaigning against him. 

--In Alabama's 2nd Congressional District, Republican Rep. Martha Roby was forced into a July runoff against former Rep. Bobby Bright, a Democrat turned Republican. The race is notable because Roby had drawn criticism from constituents over withdrawing support for Donald Trump after the “Access Hollywood” video in the 2016 campaign. The runoff winner will take on Democrat Tabitha Isner, an ordained Disciples of Christ minister.

Caitlin Huey-Burns is a national political reporter for RealClearPolitics. She can be reached at Follow her on Twitter @CHueyBurns.

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