Capitol Alert

Democrats consider attacking their own California candidates to win back Congress

What do California Democrats stand for?

Delegates to the California Democratic Party convention in San Diego have varied views on what the party stands for in 2018.
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Delegates to the California Democratic Party convention in San Diego have varied views on what the party stands for in 2018.

The filing deadline for California’s June primary has passed, but Democrats and their affiliated groups aren’t done trying to shape the field of candidates running to unseat Republican members of Congress.

Facing the risk that the party could get shut out of the general election race for one or more competitive Republican-held seats, liberal groups formed to attack Republicans now say they are at least considering spending money to support particular Democratic candidates in the primaries. National Democratic officials say all options are on the table in the lead-up to June – including launching negative attacks on members of their own party, a tactic that stirred controversy in the Texas primary.

Democrats’ efforts in California could determine whether the party wins back control of the House of Representatives this fall.

Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton won seven Republican-held congressional districts in the state 2016, which has raised hopes that Democrats could win seats in traditional GOP strongholds like Orange County and the Central Valley in 2018. Six of the seven Clinton-won districts now have four or more Democratic candidates bidding for the seat. That’s prompted spirited, and sometimes downright nasty, Democrat-versus-Democrat campaigning.

But the real problem for the party stems from the fact that many of these races have also drawn more than one well-funded Republican. Thanks to state’s top-two primary system, that could produce a scenario where the Democratic vote is splintered and two Republicans finish atop the field, advancing to the general election. Democrats acknowledge the risk, and say they’re determined to keep it from happening.

In the weeks leading up to the filing deadline for the June ballot, “Many of us in the delegation talked to potential candidates, recognizing that they had every right to run but also recognizing there was a top-two problem,” said San Jose-area Rep. Zoe Lofgren, chair of the California Democratic Congressional Delegation.

In the end, two well-funded Democrats ended their campaigns for retiring Republican Rep. Ed Royce’s Orange County seat. Two Democrats also dropped out of the race against Republican Rep. Jeff Denham in the Central Valley. One, T.J. Cox, is now taking on Republican Rep. David Valadao in a district a little further to the south.

Party officials and lawmakers say they’ll continue to have conversations with other candidates they think could play a spoiler role, even though it’s virtually impossible for a candidate to get his or her name off the primary ballot once they’ve filed to run. But they and other strategists believe that the party’s best chance to influence the California races is to get involved directly in the campaign.

There is disagreement, however, about what that involvement should look like.

Rep. Maxine Waters, D-Los Angeles, and California Democratic Party Vice Chair Alex Gallardo-Rooker used their time at the podium at the California Democratic Convention on Feb. 24 to call to impeach Donald Trump.

Katie Merrill, advisor to the Democratic Super PAC Fight Back California, still intends to target Republican incumbents in key California congressional races – its original purpose. “But if it looks like we’re in danger of a Democrat not advancing to a general election as we get closer to June, we might have to – and other groups might have to –focus on supporting a particular Democratic candidate.”

Billionaire activist Tom Steyer also told The Bee earlier this month that his advocacy group, NextGen America, was now considering intervening in some of California’s crowded congressional races if they determine it could help prevent two Republicans from advancing to the general election. Steyer’s group is planning to pour $3.5 million into voter outreach in the state in 2018, targeted at millennial voters. Groups like EMILY’s List and Democracy for America also plan to support their endorsed candidates in several of the seven Republican-held districts.

An aide at the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee (DCCC) confirmed that the party committee hasn’t ruled out supporting or even attacking a particular Democratic candidate in California, despite the backlash that produced in Texas last month. The DCCC sparked outrage from liberals after it publicized negative research on Laura Moser, one of a handful of candidates running in the Democratic primary for a Houston-area congressional seat. Their rationale was she was not a good fit for the moderate district.

Many in California, however, are against similar moves in the state. “If any outside groups gets involved in these races on behalf of a particular candidate, it’s got to be positive,” Merrill warned. Negative campaigning turns people off, she said, which could further fragment the Democratic vote. In Texas, for example, it seemed to gin up more liberal support for Moser, helping her advance to the Democratic run-off in May.

“I think people don’t like that, I don’t like it,” agreed Lofgren. And as the chair of the state’s Democratic delegation, “ I would expect to at least be consulted,” she said.

Positive support for a specific candidate could, however, help consolidate the party vote, says Darry Sragow, publisher of the nonpartisan California Target Book covering state politics. Candidates in Los Angeles and Orange County, in particular, have a tough time breaking through in the crowded media markets, and voters know little about them. So having a “seal of approval” from a party committee or respected advocacy group is significant. “If I found someone who was demonstrably ... more appealing to the voters of that district, sure I’d go in whole hog.”

That’s most likely to happen in a handful of Southern California races. Democrats are particularly worried about the open seat races to replace Royce and San Diego-area Republican Rep. Darrell Issa. Two local Republican officials have emerged as favorites in Royce’s district, while Democrats are currently split between four main Democrats. Issa’s seat also features two and possibly three strong Republican candidates.

In Republican Rep. Dana Rohrabacher’s Orange County seat, the late entry of former state Assemblyman Scott Baugh has raised Democrats’ alarms there, as well. Recent polling done by Merrill’s group shows a risk of two Republicans advancing in each of those races. If that holds, it would prompt Fight Back California to intervene, she confirmed.

Republicans are gleefully predicting the Democratic infighting will spin out of control. “While they spend their resources tearing one another to shreds, Republicans are well-positioned in every competitive race this November,” said Jack Pandol, the spokesman for the National Republican Congressional Committee.

The vagaries of the top-two system, combined with the sheer number of candidates and potential for record turnout in this mid-term election make it hard to predict how the June elections will play out, however.

It’s not just Democrats, moreover, that risk of getting shut out of some general election races. In Issa’s seat, in particular, Sragow said, “You could argue that they could wind up with a double ‘D’ or a double ‘R’” heading into November.

His advice for the Democratic Party and others trying to steer the direction of California’s House primaries: heed the famous Christian Serenity Prayer. Written by theologian Reinhold Niebuhr, it asks for God’s help accepting what one can and cannot control – “and wisdom to know the difference.”

Emily Cadei: 202-383-6153, @emilycadei