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California Democrats won't have a lot of cash after Tuesday's congressional primaries

‘Historic victory is within our grasp,’ Nancy Pelosi tells California Democratic Party convention

House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi speaks to the California Democratic party's annual convention on Feb. 24, 2018 in San Diego.
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House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi speaks to the California Democratic party's annual convention on Feb. 24, 2018 in San Diego.

The Democratic House candidates lucky enough to finish in the top two in California's primary won't have much time to celebrate on Tuesday night. The expensive battles among a large number of well-funded Democratic campaigns have forced them to spend most of their campaign cash just to get to the general election.

All told, Democrats running in the state's ten targeted Republican districts have spent more than $30 million in the primary, according to campaign finance reports through May 16. Some candidates were barely in the black.

And for the most part, the Republican incumbents who are waiting for them are flush with millions of dollars in their bank accounts.

Republican Rep. Devin Nunes of Visalia, for example, reported more than $5 million in the bank as of May 16. Turlock Republican Rep. Jeff Denham had $2.1 million, while Republican Reps. Steve Knight of Palmdale, Mimi Walters of Irvine and David Valadao of Hanford all had over $1 million.

Three Republicans aren't faring as well — Reps. Dana Rohrabacher, Tom McClintock and Duncan Hunter all reported less than $1 million in their accounts. But McClintock and Hunter represent much more Republican-leaning districts in the Sierra Nevada foothills and San Diego County.

"I suspect Republicans are going to be ready to pounce with negativity right from the get-go," said Democratic consultant Bill Burton. He is is advising a handful of California congressional candidates, including venture capitalist Josh Harder, who is running in Denham's district, and non-profit executive Katie Hill in Knight's district.

For some wealthy Democrats, fighting back against GOP attacks won't be much of a problem. A half dozen Democrats in three Republican-held Orange County districts have been pouring millions of dollars of their own money into their own campaigns, and probably won't hesitate to write themselves another check, should they advance to the general election.

For the rest, however, fundraising is more work. Some Democratic campaigns say they aren't worried.

"Denham has roughly the same cash on hand as he did at this point last cycle, and with a wave of Democratic enthusiasm focused on this race, we’re confident we’ll be able to significantly close the gap," said Jeff Feldman, spokesman for Democratic challenger Michael Eggman.

Eggman is looking to take on Denham for a third time, after narrowly losing in 2016. But the beekeeper will have to finish ahead of several other serious Democratic candidates on Tuesday to do so, including Harder, former Riverbank Mayor Virginia Madueno, and former Modesto School Board member Sue Zwahlen.

While Eggman is known in the district thanks to his two previous campaigns for the Modesto-area seat, he's well behind in fundraising after making a late decision to jumping into the race. He reported just over $55,000 in cash on hand as of May 16 (as well as nearly $27,000 debt),

But Feldman pointed out that many party donors and liberal activists sat out the California primary races rather than take sides among all the candidates. And they are ready and eager to give to the Democrats, once there is a consensus candidate. The group Swing Left, for example, has raised more than $230,000 for whichever Democrat emerges from the primary to challenge Denham.

Burton also highlighted the role Swing Left is poised to play in helping California Democrats pivot to the general election. In addition to Denham's 10th district opponent, the group has raised hundreds of thousands of dollars for Democratic challengers taking on the six other California Republicans who represent districts Democrat Hillary Clinton won in the 2016 presidential race.

Other outside groups could also be a factor. California Democrats have formed several Super PACs focused on those same seven House races, which have hundreds of thousands of dollars to spend. Republicans, of course, have plenty of well-funded outside groups that are prepared to get involved in California's congressional races, as well.

Democrats acknowledge they are likely to be outspent by Republican incumbents and their allies, but argue the energy among voters on their side will more than offset that.

Burton noted that when Democrats reclaimed the House majority in 2006, they did so despite many of their winning candidates being "outspent by Republicans and Republican groups."

Added Burton: "The power of the desire for change outweighed dollars spent." Democrats are hoping that holds true again.

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