Democrat Jessica Morse has advanced to a general election clash with Republican Rep. Tom McClintock this fall, edging fellow Democrat Regina Bateson for second place in California's top two primary.
McClintock finished first with 52 percent of the primary vote, Morse at nearly 20 percent and Bateson just under 13 percent. A final result could take weeks to determine as thousands of late-arriving ballots are tallied.
The contest between Morse, an energetic 36-year-old first time candidate, and the 61-year-old McClintock, who's held elected office off-and-on since 1982, will offer voters in the 4th congressional district a sharp contrast in both experience and style. The district runs along the Sierra Nevada mountains from Lake Tahoe south to Yosemite, with the majority of its population concentrated in Placer County.
McClintock's margin of victory in the primary, however, underscores the uphill climb Democrats face in the Republican-leaning district, which Donald Trump won by 54 percent in the 2016 presidential election. Between McClintock and a a second GOP candidate, Mitchell White, Republicans garnered 59 percent of the total vote. Morse, Bateson and two other Democrats combined for 41 percent of the vote.
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The race has crept onto the national radar, however, thanks to the local backlash to McClintock's 2017 vote to unravel Obamacare and a flood of donations to his Democratic challengers. Liberal protesters mobbed McClintock town halls in the early months of 2017, urging him to protect Democrats' signature 2010 healthcare law. The veteran lawmaker voted for the Republican "repeal and replace" plan that passed to House, but failed to advance in the Senate.
Healthcare, along with environmental policies, the federal tax overhaul (which McClintock voted for) and a general resistance to President Trump mobilized a large field of Democrats to launch bids for the seat, but by early 2018, the race for second place in the primary had effectively narrowed to a contest between two 30-something women making their first run for office: Morse, a former U.S. Agency for International Development and State Department staff member, and Bateson, a political science professor on unpaid leave from MIT.
Both drew intense local support from pockets of party activists and raised hundreds of thousands of dollars for their campaigns. That prompted National Democrats to add the 4th district to their list of targeted House races in California last fall. In recent months, all three major national political handicappers have all downgraded McClintock's chances of holding the seat from "safe" to "likely Republican."
Morse, however, outpaced both Bateson and McClintock in fundraising over the last seven-plus months, thanks in part to an influx of cash from well-heeled donors in Silicon Valley and the Bay Area. As of May 16, she'd raised over $1 million. That enabled her to run television ads in the month leading up to the primary vote, a crucial advantage in the sprawling, ten-county district.
Morse also won the backing of the Democratic establishment – she nabbed the California Democratic party endorsement in February, and has been endorsed by a number of congressional Democrats. Combined with her ad campaign, that was enough to give her an edge over Bateson among primary voters.
Ousting McClintock, however, will be a much stiffer challenge. The veteran lawmaker and staunch conservative has comfortably won reelection with more than 60 percent of the vote in recent years. And while his fundraising has not been as robust as Democrats' combined haul, McClintock has plenty of allies among fiscally conservative groups like the Club for Growth that could come to his aid in the race, if needed.
Morse also faces the challenge of uniting Democrats in the district after a fractious primary season that saw bitter divisions between local groups, raised issues with both leading Democrats' professional claims and ballotdescriptions and drew accusations of foul play via fake ads on Facebook.
Liberal activists in the district, however, maintain the anti-Trump energy in the California gives them a shot at an upset, even in a district the president won. And, certainly, Morse represents the toughest challenge McClintock has faced in a decade.
In a statement issued Wednesday morning, Morse acknowledged that "Taking on Tom McClintock and his special-interest backers will not be easy. But as I have learned over the past year traveling across all ten counties in the 4th district, nothing can erase the enthusiasm and passion awakened by our campaign. I look forward to the challenge ahead."