California Democrats are saying all the right things when it comes to unifying the party after a bruising 2018 primary season. But the effort to bring together activists aligned with competing campaigns remains a work in progress.
With dozens of candidates vying to finish in the top two in the state’s most competitive congressional districts in June, the contests between Democratic hopefuls and their supporters were fierce and, particularly in several Southern California races, harshly negative.
The mudslinging between Democrats Gil Cisneros and Andy Thorburn in the Orange County race to succeed Republican Rep. Ed Royce got so bad that the California Democratic party had to step in and broker a truce in late May.
Cisneros, a Navy veteran and lottery winner, ultimately advanced to the general election in the 39th District, besting Thorburn and several other Democrats. Despite their bad blood in the primary, Thorburn promptly endorsed Cisneros.
The same was true for one-time primary rivals across nine other GOP districts that Democrats are trying to flip in November. With just a few exceptions, the Democrats who did not finish in the top two have publicly voiced their support for the party’s general election candidate.
“I think we’ve seen an immense amount of good faith and unification,” said Mac Zilber, a Democratic strategist who advised Thorburn and another Orange County congressional candidate, real estate investor Harley Rouda. Rouda narrowly prevailed in a hard-fought primary to take on Republican Rep. Dana Rohrabacher in the fall.
Dave Wasserman, House editor for the Cook Political Report, said the nastiness of California’s primaries was about par for the course.
But for the influx of first-time Democratic activists, motivated by President Donald Trump’s 2016 election, some of the backbiting and party machinations proved disillusioning, they told The Bee. And some of those who backed losing candidates said they remain lukewarm about their party’s ultimate pick.
Irvine resident Tim Burns was an active campaign volunteer for Dave Min, who came in third in the primary for the 45th Congressional District, behind Republican Rep. Mimi Walters and fellow Democrat Katie Porter, a law professor at UC Irvine.
“All of the candidates have said the appropriate things” since the June 5 election, Burns said. The local party has also held a unity event. However, Burns said, “my anecdotal conversations with the people I’m closest to, Min supporters, there’s a lack of enthusiasm to rush in” to support Porter.
Burns acknowledged that he’s talking about a small segment of the overall electorate in the 45th District. But the lingering distrust within the activist class could prove problematic for Democrats.
The party is counting on the enthusiasm of its base to mobilize voters and drive up turnout in November. That’s particularly true in more Republican-leaning districts, where activist enthusiasm will be a key ingredient to pulling off an upset.
Grassroots outreach and one-on-one voter contact are “the only way we overcome this huge [voter] registration gap,” in California’s 4th Congressional District, said Democratic activist Susan Gutowsky, who lives in the Sacramento suburb of Roseville.
Republican Tom McClintock has represented the sprawling, mountainous district since 2008 and most prognosticators say he remains the heavy favorite. That didn’t stop a handful of Democrats from jumping into the race last year, leading to a contentious primary contest that spilled onto social media, dividing neighbors and local party clubs.
Until earlier this year, Gutowsky was chair of the Placer Women Democrats. Then the state party endorsed Jessica Morse in February, forcing Gutowsky to choose between resigning her post leading the local party organization or renouncing her support for another Democrat, MIT Professor Regina Bateson. She chose the former.
Morse, a former budget analyst with the State Department and the U.S. Agency for International Development, ended up finishing second to McClintock in the primary, with Bateson coming in third. Bateson immediately threw her support behind Morse, and the pair attended a unity event in Roseville on June 18.
Since the primary, Gutowsky said, “I have not spoken to anyone who said, ‘I am not voting for Jessica.’” But she remains unsure if there are enough Democrats in the district prepared to dedicate the kind of hours and shoe leather necessary to topple McClintock.
The real test for how strongly one-time Bateson supporters rally around the Morse campaign will come when the candidate holds a meeting with an influential group of Bateson backers later this month. Gutowsky said, “I think we’re all looking forward to that with an open mind.”
Strategist Andrew Feldman hopes California Democrats’ animosity towards President Trump and Republicans in Congress will overcome any lingering rancor from the congressional primaries. Feldman advised beekeeper Michael Eggman, a Democrat, who finished fourth in California’s 10th District, currently held by Republican Rep. Jeff Denham.
And Feldman noted that Republicans have had to grapple with their own divisions in some of the same congressional races, including the Modesto-area 10th district, where former City Councilman Ted Howze, a Republican, narrowly finished third, and the 48th District, where former GOP Assemblyman Scott Baugh tried to oust Rohrabacher.
The recent battle over the separation of immigrant families at the border and the nomination of a new Supreme Court justice has only reinforced the contrast between Democrats and Republicans running this fall.
“I really think Denham and Trump made the unification process easier,” said Feldman. And with a little less than four months to go before the election, “there is really no time to waste.”