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Democrats on edge in California congressional races

‘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.

For Democrats, the line between triumph and nightmare in California's primaries is shaping up to be very, very thin.

The party could conceivably send competitive, well-funded Democrats to the general election contests for all 10 Republican-held House seats it is targeting. But thanks to California's open primary system — in which the top two vote-getters advance to the general election, regardless of party — Democrats could end up shut out in three of the most competitive congressional districts, seriously denting the party's chances of taking back control of the House.

"We’re looking at a jump-ball scenario," said Dave Jacobson, a Los Angeles-based Democratic strategist who is advising candidates in two Southern California congressional races. "This is really going to be a razor-thin margin, and it’s largely going to come down to (get-out-the-vote operation) and who can mobilize their base vote while simultaneously peeling off those undecided, persuadable voters at the last minute."

The crowded fields of candidates, huge amount of money flowing into these contests and lack of recent polling all add up to a tremendous level of uncertainty — among both campaigns and voters — less than a week before primary day.

There are "just a lot of names and information for voters to look at," said Bill Whalen, a research fellow at Stanford University's Hoover Institution. "You look at the primary ballot and it's daunting. There are 27 names on the governor's side, 32 on the Senate side," Whalen noted, as well as a handful or more running in the most competitive congressional races.

One of the recurring features in the polling in all of these competitive primaries this spring has been the large number of undecided voters, which have been consistently in the double digits.

But most of those polls were done weeks ago, in April or early May. The campaigns have spent millions since then – much of it bashing one another – while outside groups have dumped more than $11 million into California's House races since May 1 to support their favored candidates or tear down their opponents. It's unclear how that spending may be shaping the race or voters' opinions, which are still being formed.

Luiz Aleman, campaign manager for House candidate Omar Siddiqui, estimated that as much as a third of the voters in Siddiqui's crowded Orange County race remain undecided. "You’re going to see a flood of vote-by-mail ballots coming in as people make up their minds," Aleman predicted.

Siddiqui is one of a handful of Democrats running against longtime Republican Rep. Dana Rohrabacher, a lightening rod in Congress who regularly defends Russia and its autocratic leader, Vladimir Putin. But the race also features another well-known Republican, former state Assemblyman and Orange County Republican Party Chair Scott Baugh, who jumped into the race right before the March filing deadline. And strategists on both sides of the aisle believe that's where Democrats run the biggest risk of failing to advance to the general election.

The party faces a similar scenario in two open House races in the 39th and 49th districts, where the retirement of Republican incumbents Ed Royce and Darrell Issa have attracted a crush of candidates from both parties. Several of the Republican candidates in the two races have held state office in the past, giving them a leg up in terms of name recognition and voter loyalty. But the sheer number of candidates has made it difficult to game out exactly how the vote will splinter.

In Issa's district, which features four competitive Democrats and three leading Republicans, GOP candidates could finish first and second, said Whalen, but "I could also make the case that two Democrats are going to advance."

In a memo sent to reporters Wednesday, Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee (DCCC) Communications Director Meredith Kelly acknowledged that "the historic number of qualified and well-funded Democratic candidates, the unexpected retirements of Reps. Royce and Issa, and the unique weakness of Rohrabacher’s candidacy" have created "a serious risk of being shut out of California’s top-two primary system."

In a bid to avoid that scenario, the DCCC has thrown their backing behind Navy veteran Gil Cisneros in Royce's district and real estate investor Harley Rouda in Rohrabacher's race -- going against the California Democratic party in the latter.  The state party endorsed stem cell researcher Dr. Hans Keirstead in the 48th district contest in February.

Through May 29, the party and its affiliated super PAC have spent more than $4 million trying to help avert a shut out in those three districts, both by promoting the two candidates and hitting Republicans like Baugh. They've also intensified their efforts to turn out voters in the three districts, as well as in Rep. Jeff Denham's Modesto-area district.

The Republican party has launched its own six-figure digital ad campaign last week in the three districts where they have a chance of shutting Democrats out of the general election.

In the 48th district, Republicans Rohrabacher and Baugh have also been circulating negative advertising and mailers criticizing one another. Aleman believes the negative attacks could end up saving Democrats in the district by dragging down Baugh. "We’re seeing his negatives going up," he said.

Whalen says the all the uncertainty in the California electorate raises questions for Democrats as they try to mobilize a so-called "blue wave" to vote out Republicans in November. "It’s not like the California electorate is necessarily burning with enthusiasm or decisiveness right now," he said.

Update: The story was updated to reflect the California Democratic Party's endorsement of Dr. Hans Keirstead in California's 48th congressional district.

Alex Roarty of the McClatchy Newspapers Washington bureau contributed to this story.

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