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5 Big Things to Know About the Critical California Primary

No state means more to the Democrats’ chances of taking control of Congress

5 Key Things To Know About the Critical California Primary

Andy Thorburn, a Democrat running for the California 39th Congressional district.

Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call/Getty

If Democrats want to regain control of Congress in the 2018 midterms, they’re going to need to pick up 24 seats that are currently controlled by Republicans. Nowhere can the party gain as much ground as in California, which holds its primary on Tuesday. The most populous state in America contains 53 congressional districts, 14 of which are represented by Republicans. The state has only moved farther to the left since Trump was elected, and California Democrats feel like several red districts are ripe for the taking. It’s not going to be easy, though, especially given the state’s unorthodox primary system, which could hamstring the left’s ability to pick off some of the more vulnerable Republican districts.

Here are five key things to know about Tuesday’s critical California primary.

1. California uses an unconventional “jungle primary” system

Most states have both a Democratic and Republican primary, with the winner of each facing off in the general election. Since 2010, California has used a “jungle primary,” or “open primary,” in which all of the candidates are placed into the same pool. The top two vote-getters move on to the general election, regardless of party. The system was instituted as a way to force candidates to appeal to all Californians, not just their party’s base. While this may sound like a good idea in theory, it’s not without its problems. If, for instance, one party were to have more candidates running in a particular race than the other party, it would be easier for the latter party’s candidates to finish first or second, as they would have less competition. The issue has been a concern for both parties, but for Democrats especially in 2018.

Democrats have generated so much momentum – and, in turn, candidates – in an effort to flip as many of California’s red districts as possible that they may have inadvertently shut themselves out of the general elections of certain races. If there are more Democratic candidates to split the liberal vote than there are Republican candidates to split the conservative vote, a scenario could arise in which no single Democratic candidate receives enough votes to finish in the top two, even if liberal turnout is greater than conservative turnout. The system could also work against Republicans in that they might be shut out of the races for the governorship and a Senate seat, but a Republican candidate would have little-to-no chance of defeating a Democrat in the general election anyway.

2. The system could shut Democrats out of three winnable districts

In most of the districts Democrats feel they can flip, the primary system isn’t an issue. When a Republican incumbent is running uncontested within their own party, as is usually the case, the other spot on the ballot is guaranteed to be filled by a Democratic challenger. But there are three districts Democrats have in their sights where this isn’t the case.

  • District 39: Republican Ed Royce isn’t seeking reelection, so this district is wide open, with candidates from both parties vying for one of the top two spots. Clinton won here in 2016 and Democrats feel it’s a great opportunity to gain a seat in the House, but, as the New York Times points out, a whopping seven Democratic candidates have raised at least $250,000, compared to only three Republicans. This means that despite the upswell of Democratic support, the liberal vote could be spread so thin that no single candidate is able to garner more votes than either of the top two Republican finishers. Philanthropist Gil Cisneros and former insurance executive Andy Thorburn are the top two Democratic candidates.
  • District 48: Incumbent Republican Dana Rohrbacher has been in Congress since 1989, but many feel his time could be up after Clinton won here in 2016. Normally, the top Democratic vote-getter would run against Rohrbacher in November, but a Republican former state representative named Scott Baugh is vying for the seat as well. Baugh has been getting a lot of support, due in part to Rohrbacher’s Russian ties that were revealed as part of Special Counsel Mueller’s investigation. It’s uncertain whether one of the two main Democratic challengers – scientist Hans Keirstead and businessman Harley Rouda, who have been at each other’s throats – can get enough votes to edge Baugh out for the second spot on the ballot.
  • District 49: Like District 39, this is a wide-open race as Republican incumbent Darrell Issa has decided not to run again. This should be a prime opportunity for Democrats to pick up a seat, as Clinton won here with over 50 percent of the vote in 2016 and Issa only won the seat by 1,700 votes. But again, there are more Democrats – 16, to be exact – competing for the seat than Republicans, and if one of them doesn’t emerge from the pack the party could be shut out entirely from November’s general election.

3. There are a handful of other districts the Democrats think they can flip

Outside of the three districts where the jungle primary system could rear its head, there are four other districts that voted for Clinton in 2016 but are represented in the House by Republicans.

In District 10, beekeeper Michael Eggman, venture capitalist Josh Harder and small business owner Virginia Madueño are the primary candidates competing to have a go at unseating Tea Party Republican Jeff Denham, who barely beat Eggman in 2016. In District 21, Democratic businessman TJ Cox will challenge Republican incumbent David Valadao. In District 29, liberals will vote on whether they believe lawyer Bryan Caforio, nonprofit executive Katie Hill or volcanologist Jess Phoenix has the best chance to take down Republican Steve Knight. In District 25, Republican Mimi Waters will likely take on consumer advocacy lawyer Katie Porter, professor Dave Min or Obama science adviser Brian Forde. Knight and Denham are viewed as the most vulnerable of the incumbents, while Valadao and Waters are considered relatively safe. A lot can happen between Tuesday and November, though.

Though they supported Trump in 2016, some Democrats also feel like Districts 4 and 10 could be in play. The former is represented by Tom McClintock, who is widely viewed as the state’s most conservative Congress member. McClintock won reelection by a sizable margin in 2016, but has a horrible record on the environment and the district sits in the foothills of the Sierras, containing both Yosemite National Park and Lake Tahoe. The race to take him on in November has been lively.

District 10 would normally be a lock for Republicans, but incumbent Duncan Hunter is currently under investigation for campaign fraud, which could be problematic.

4. The leading Democratic candidate for governor wants people to vote for a Republican

Democrat Jerry Brown is stepping down, which means Californians in November will elect their first new governor since 2010. Slick-haired lieutenant governor and former San Francisco mayor Gavin Newsom is the clear frontrunner, and the only question going into Tuesday’s primary is whether his opponent will be fellow former Democratic mayor of Los Angeles Antonio Villaraigosa, or pro-Trump Republican John Cox.

Because of the jungle primary system, Newsom oddly is hoping voters will heed Trump’s advice on Tuesday. Because of how blue California is, Cox would essentially have no chance against Newsom in the general election, but if a Hispanic Democrat popular in southern California like Villaraigosa is able to come in second in the voting, Newsom could be in for a battle leading up to November. The lieutenant governor is even running ads intended to inspire the state’s conservatives to vote Cox into the top two.

As The New York Times points out, this could wind up being problematic for Democrats, even if it secures Newsom a spot in the governor’s Mansion. If Cox makes his way onto the ballot, it will incentivize conservatives to head to the polls in November, even more so if Trump continues to tweet his support for the Republican businessman. Those conservatives will also vote for Republican congressional candidates, which would make it more difficult for the Democrats to win the seats they need to turn the House blue.

5. The Senate race appears to be decided, but November could be interesting

There likely aren’t going to be any surprises in the Senate race. Incumbent Dianne Feinstein has represented California in Washington since 1993, and Kevin de León, a former Democratic leader of the State Senate, looks to have the number two spot sewn up. Liberals will be curious to see by how many percentage points Feinstein is able to clear her closest competitor. At 84, she is the oldest member of the Senate, and also one of its most moderate Democrats. Many feel it’s time for a state that’s leaning more and more to the left to be represented in the Senate by a younger, more progressive voice like de León, who has been fiercely critical of Feinstein’s centrism. The incumbent will still be a heavy favorite in November, but how much noise de León is able to make could indicate where on the spectrum of liberalism California’s future lies.

In This Article: California

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