Democrats appear to have avoided a nightmare scenario in California.
While a number of congressional races have yet to be called, Democratic candidates are well on their way to advancing to the general election in three Southern California Republican-held districts where the party most feared being "locked out," thanks to the state's unique "top two" primary system.
Democrats and their allies dumped millions of dollars into the three San Diego and Orange County races trying to avoid that scenario, but it's a fourth GOP district where that risk now appears the greatest: Rep. Jeff Denham's Modesto-area seat.
With thousands of late-arriving ballots to be counted in the coming days, Democrat Josh Harder was holding on to second place behind Denham, just 850 votes ahead of a second Republican, former Turlock City Councilman Ted Howze. The Associated Press still has not called the race. The two candidates who finish with the most votes in the primary will compete head-to-head in the general election.
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That election structure raises the possibility that two candidates of the same party will advance to the general election, which is exactly what Democrats feared would happen in the open seat races to succeed retiring Republicans Ed Royce and Darrell Issa, and the race against GOP Rep. Dana Rohrabacher, who drew a stiff challenge from a fellow Republican. Some Democratic officials were predicting as recently as this week that Democratic candidates would be locked out in at least one battleground district, worried that the party simply had too many candidates running and not enough Democratic voters to go around.
As of Wednesday morning, Republican Young Kim, a former state assemblywoman, had clinched first place in the 39th congressional district, Royce's seat, with Democrat Gil Cisneros, a navy veteran and lottery millionaire embraced by national Democrats, taking second. Rohrabacher advanced to defend his 48th district seat in the fall, but won only 30 percent of the vote, with two Democrats, businessman Harley Rouda and stem cell researcher Hans Kierstead, locked in a close battle for second. A Republican — California Board of Equalization Chairwoman Diane Harkey – also won in Issa's district, with Democrats Mike Levin, a clean energy executive, and Sara Jacobs, granddaughter of Qualcomm billionaire Irwin Jacobs, in second and third.
If the results hold, they will be a major victory for Democrats as the party tries to regain a majority in the House this fall. Democrats need to flip 23 Republican-held seats to wrest back control of the chamber, and with it, a significant check on President Trump's power. California could prove decisive.
Seven of the 25 GOP congressional districts that Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton won in the 2016 presidential election are in California, primarily affluent Southern California suburbs whose increasingly diverse electorates have recoiled from the sharp rhetoric and agenda of President Donald Trump. Two of the Republican districts, held by Denham of Turlock and Rep. David Valadao of Hanford, are in the Central Valley, where Latinos make up a high proportion of the population. Ousting all seven of these Republicans would put Democrats more than a quarter of the way to winning back the House. In addition to the districts Clinton won in 2016, Democrats are looking to mount competitive challenges in three districts Trump won – represented by Reps. Tom McClintock of Elk Grove, Devin Nunes of Tulare and Duncan Hunter of Alpine.
Democrats best shot at flipping seats, moreover, lie in the same districts they most feared being shut out of. The party's candidate is likely to be favored in the general election race for Issa's seat, with the race for Rohrabacher and Royce's seats seen as toss-ups.
With that in mind, the national Democratic party and allied groups spent millions of dollars on TV, radio, and digital ads trying to game the primary system in Democrats’ favor. Their effort included not only boosting favored Democratic candidates but criticizing weaker Republican candidates for being insufficiently conservative — an unusual attempt to drive GOP voters to a single candidate and make it easier for a Democrat to come in second.
While the primary results are poised to be a vindication for Democratic operatives in Washington, they are largely a defensive victory – giving the party opportunities in the fall that had once been assumed. And the preliminary data from California suggests many challenges remain for Democrats in the Republican-leaning districts they are targeting.
Several targeted Republican incumbents topped 50 percent in the primary vote, including Reps. Mimi Walters in Orange County and Steve Knight in Los Angeles County.
Voter turnout on Tuesday improved over the last midterm election, but did not appear to approach recent presidential year figures, despite big spending by Democrats and their allies to bring their voters to the polls. The party will have to mobilize young people and Latinos in far greater numbers in November to win many of these GOP-held congressional seats.
Republicans, meanwhile, got a boost with Republican businessman John Cox's second place finish in the California governor's race. The presence of a Republican in that marquee race (rather than two Democrats, as had once been assumed), as well as a ballot initiative to repeal the state's new gas tax increase, are likely to mobilize many GOP voters who otherwise would have been apathetic about the November election.
National Republican Congressional Committee Press Secretary Jesse Hunt hailed the successful recall of state Sen. Josh Newman, an Orange County Democrat who drew conservative ire over his vote in favor of raising the state's gas tax last year. "This is a harbinger of things to come this fall when a repeal of the gas tax is on the ballot," Hunt said Wednesday morning in an email to reporters.
Democrats maintain that Trump’s unpopularity with moderate voters will lift their candidates in the fall. They also plan to campaign on the GOP-backed tax law that Congress approved last year and congressional Republicans’ attempts to repeal Obamacare.
Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee spokesman Tyler Law said in a statement that the early results from California make "clear that Democrats are in a stronger position than ever to take back the House."
"For more than a year and a half, the DCCC has been on the ground in California organizing and investing, in order to register voters for the long-term, boost strong Democratic candidates with local support and ensure that we face the weakest possible Republican candidates in the general," Law said.