Democrats sweat nightmare scenario in California

congressDemocrats who cheered the retirement announcements of Reps. Darrell Issa and Ed Royce last week are sobering up to a new fear: A potential nightmare scenario in which no Democratic candidate ends up on the November ballot in either seat, dealing a blow to the party’s efforts to retake the House.

The problem is California’s unusual, top-two primary system, where the top two vote-getters regardless of party affiliation advance to the November general election.

Prior to the retirement announcements, Democrats had been pounding for months on Royce and Issa, yoking the two vulnerable Republicans to a president loathed in this heavily Democratic state. But with no GOP incumbent in either race — and with Democratic candidates threatening to splinter their party’s share of the vote — Democrats now face the prospect of getting scrubbed entirely from the November ballot.

In recent days, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee acknowledged it could be forced to spend money in one or both primaries to ensure that two Republican candidates do not finish atop the field in June. And Democratic candidates, mindful of a potential culling effort, have sped up their voter outreach, polling and opposition research operations.

The party is seeking to avoid an embarrassing repeat of 2012, when two Republicans finished ahead of then-Redlands Mayor Pete Aguilar in an Inland Empire congressional district in which Democrats held a voter registration edge.

The defeat was one of the party’s most stunning losses of the election cycle. And though Aguilar would go on to win a House seat two years later, his name has now taken on the quality of a verb.

Surveying the competitive House districts this year, Rep. Mark Takano (D-Calif.) said, “‘We don’t want to get Aguilar-ed.”

The fallout from California’s top-two primary could even go beyond districts where incumbents are retiring, in part due to the proliferation of Democratic candidates this year. On Tuesday, the number of Democratic candidates running in California’s 14 Republican-held districts reached 67, one more than in the past three election cycles combined, according to a count by Rob Pyers of the California Target Book, which handicaps races in the state.

He said Democrats appear most at risk of knocking themselves out in a nationally-targeted Orange County district held by Republican Rep. Mimi Walters, where a second Republican, Greg Raths, is considering challenging Walters.

“With something like 7 or 8 Democrats running,” Pyers said, “if [Raths] runs, then he stands a good chance of getting more of the vote than any of the Democrats,” advancing with Walters to an all-Republican contest she would likely be favored to win in November.

While Takano said finishing first and second in any competitive district it would be a “tricky thing to pull off” for Republicans, he acknowledged, “It is an outcome that is possible — we’ve seen it happen — where two members of the same party make it onto the ballot.”

The Royce and Issa contests are especially significant to national Democrats, who bolstered their operations in the area last year in an effort to take advantage of demographic changes working in the party’s favor in Southern California’s densely populated suburbs. The two seats, touching parts of Orange, Los Angeles and San Diego counties, are among seven Republican-held districts in California that Hillary Clinton carried in 2016.

Seven Democrats are already running in Royce’s district, including six candidates who have raised more than six figures. Four well-funded Democrats are campaigning in Issa’s district, including Doug Applegate, who nearly topped Issa in 2016.

“The political earthquake and phenomenon that is embodied by Donald Trump has created just so much vitriol and enthusiasm for Democrats that you’ve got multiple candidates, many of which are well-funded … and we haven’t seen that before,” said Dave Jacobson, a Democratic strategist advising businessman Andy Thorburn in the Royce district.

In such a large field, Jacobson said candidates are moving earlier to “break through all the clutter.”

Takano, Jacobson and other Democrats predict Republicans will have difficulty containing their own field of candidates, eliminating any mathematical advantage they might have by running only two candidates in each district.

“Frankly, I think you’re going to see a splintering of the GOP, in much the same way that you’re going to see a splintering of the Democratic field,” Jacobson said.

In the week since Royce and Issa announced their retirements, a rush of Republicans announced plans to seek those seats or said they are mulling entering the race. But Jim Brulte, chairman of the California Republican Party, said, “Just because people announce doesn’t mean they’re going to file.”

The Republican field has had little time to gel, and Brulte said, “At the end of the day, I don’t know that everybody’s going to run.”

Recalling Aguilar’s defeat, Brulte said of the possibility of a top-two repeat, “It’s already happened in a very competitive district.”

The Republican candidates bidding to succeed Royce and Issa include former lawmakers who have won previous elections in the area, in some cases with moderate profiles that Democrats fear could appeal to voters in swing districts.

Drew Godinich, a spokesman for the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, said Democrats are mindful of the Aguilar example and “we are watching these races very closely to make sure that a Democrat gets through.” While the DCCC has not yet intervened in the primary, he said, “The DCCC reserves the right to get involved in these races if necessary.”

California Assembly Speaker Anthony Rendon said state Democrats “worry a lot about the math problem” in the top-two primary, but he said “we can’t do much” to control the field. California Democrats historically “don’t have the strong types of party control” as exists in other states.

And any effort to elevate one Democrat over other candidates is risky. The party is still suffering from animosity from progressive Democrats furious about the treatment of Bernie Sanders in the last presidential primary.

“It’s a delicate dance, because we respect the fact that everybody’s individual right to run for office, that should be respected,” said Rep. Tony Cárdenas (D-Calif.). ““But at the same time, it’s just about having an honest dialogue and trying to see if people are being honest with themselves … If they’re honest with themselves, then they should stay in the race if they’ve got a real shot. And if they really don’t have a real shot, maybe it’s time to consolidate together.”

At a recent gathering of local Democrats in Royce’s district, activist Shana Charles said the possibility that two Republicans will advance in the primary is “certainly on the radar of many activists in Orange County.”

California’s top-two primary benefitted the Democratic Party in 2016, when two Democrats advanced in the U.S. Senate race. And it is possible two Democrats will face each other in the gubernatorial runoff this year, depriving Republicans of a stop on the top of the ticket.

But in some cases, Charles said, “it backfires.” The current election cycle, she said, has “made me rethink this top-two ballot.”

This article was originally published by Politico