How Democrats' California dream got twisted

If California Democratic Party Chair Eric Bauman had his way, his leading statewide candidates would have spent much ...

Posted: Jun 5, 2018 1:57 PM
Updated: Jun 5, 2018 1:57 PM

If California Democratic Party Chair Eric Bauman had his way, his leading statewide candidates would have spent much of the final days before Tuesday's high-stakes state primary camped out in Orange County, trying to energize Democratic turnout in three key US House districts the two parties are fiercely contesting.

But because today's vote is technically a primary, where neither party has yet settled on its nominees, neither Bauman nor anyone else had much leverage to nudge top Democrats such as gubernatorial candidates Gavin Newsom and Antonio Villaraigosa or Senate contenders Dianne Feinstein and Kevin de Leon to devote extra time to Orange County. Yet the rules of California's unusual top-two primary system mean the voting today could decide which party controls an array of statewide, state legislative and US House seats after November.

It's that last category of contests that is unsettling Democrats, not only locally but also across the country. Under California's system, which was approved by voters in a 2010 ballot proposition, the top two finishers for each office advance to the general election regardless of party. In as many as three Republican-held US House districts across Orange County that Hillary Clinton carried over Donald Trump in 2016, Democrats today face the risk that GOP candidates will finish one-two in the voting -- and thus guarantee the party holds the seat in November.

"There are two or three seats where we have reasons to really be holding our breath and watching and really turn out our base," Bauman acknowledges.

California, where Trump has been deeply unpopular, has been central to Democratic hopes of recapturing the US House. Democrats began the year with high hopes of contesting seven Republican-held House seats in California districts that voted for Clinton in 2016; they are also on track to mount much more spirited opposition than usual in at least three other Republican-held districts that voted for Trump, though the GOP prospects are stronger there.

Democrats are certain to make the final two and advance to November in most of those seats today because they feature Republican incumbents who are not facing serious primary challengers. But Democrats face a real risk of being excluded in three seats in Orange County that Clinton carried: the open seats being vacated by retiring Republicans Ed Royce and Darrell Issa, and the seat being defended by Rep. Dana Rohrabacher (whose challengers include another prominent Republican, Scott Baugh, the former GOP leader in the state Assembly).

Polls show Republicans could finish first and second Tuesday in each of those races -- especially the Royce and Rohrabacher seats -- effectively securing those contests for the GOP five months before the general election. (On the other hand, the field in the Issa seat is so splintered in both parties that some analysts see an outside possibility that Democrats there could finish one-two and pocket the seat.)

It's beyond ironic that California, the state that styles itself the capital of the resistance to Trump, could now provide Republicans their most tangible step since his election toward holding their House majority by allowing the GOP to lock down one or more swing seats that Democrats have coveted. If that occurs, there will be plenty of blame to go around.

Parties have not yet adapted to California system

A major part of the problem is conceptual: Candidates and the parties still mostly behaved as they do in a typical primary, while the California system has revealed itself this year to be something very different -- especially when subjected to the blast-force pressure of the modern electoral struggle between the parties.

In fact, with its unusual combination of features, the California system isn't accurately described as a primary at all. It is a hybrid that has combined the usual chaos of a primary with the concrete consequences of a general election. Though the parties have much less ability to influence the results in June than in November, they face the risk that high-profile races will be decided Tuesday.

"It's like everybody's worst job: responsibility without authority," said John J. Pitney, a political scientist at Claremont McKenna College in Claremont, California. "They get stuck with the outcome but they have only limited ability to influence it."

In other states, party leaders sometimes intervene in primaries when they believe one candidate would be a more competitive general election candidate than another; the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee has taken heat from progressive activists, for instance, for several such efforts, most recently in a suburban Houston House seat where the committee supported a more centrist alternative to a favorite of the Bernie Sanders forces.

But such interventions are fairly rare, and usually come late in the process when they occur. For the most part, the party organizations don't really care how many candidates run in a primary, or even how many people vote in a primary, because they know that whoever emerges from the contest -- no matter how many or few votes they attract -- will advance to the general election ballot. That's where they focus their efforts.

Too many candidates

Democrats and Republicans started the year treating California's system much the same way. Though the DCCC made efforts to recruit certain candidates it favored into the key Orange County House contests, neither it nor state leaders acted to discourage the flood of contenders who emerged from the backlash against Trump.

"Because of this phenomenon where there's so much excitement and so much energy among Democrats ... a lot of people came out and said, 'I can make a difference. I can stop his agenda by running for the House and state legislature,' " said Bauman. "Because of that ... we don't have a candidate quality problem, we have a candidate overpopulation problem."

Republicans also faced a glut of candidates in Orange County, but with a critical difference. Because Democrats there have failed to invest in building a strong bench of local elected officials, their candidates in all three of the key districts are first-time contenders with scant name identification or political roots. In the Royce and Rohrabacher seats, the two leading Democratic contenders are self-funding their campaigns; in the Issa seat, two more self-funders are competing against two other Democrats relying on donations. The lack of previous connection to the district has made it more difficult for any of them to emerge from the pack. By contrast, Republicans in the three key seats are choosing among candidates with extensive elective experience and greater name identification, which may make it easier for them to coalesce a solid base of support.

The paucity of established candidates wasn't the only structural problem facing Democrats in Orange County; they also confronted the history that some of their best voting groups are much less likely to turn out for a June primary than a November election, especially in the midterm election, when a presidential race isn't on the ballot. Mark Baldassare, president and CEO of the nonpartisan Public Policy Institute of California, says that while about half of California registered voters may turn out for a typical midterm general election, that number slides to just under one-third for a primary. Latinos and younger voters, two strong Democratic constituencies, are particularly less likely to participate in primaries. True to that form, tracking of the returned absentee ballots in the three key Orange County races all show lagging rates of participation for both groups, according to Political Data Inc., which is following the results.

While the voting Tuesday may carry the consequences of a general election, the Democrats' problem is that "behaviorally, it's a primary," notes longtime GOP strategist Rob Stutzman. "I talk to Democratic colleagues and Republican colleagues who all think it's going to be a low turnout [Tuesday]. Totally different from the rest of the country. Totally normal for California primaries."

Democrats trying to make up for a slow start

More candidates competing for fewer votes has left Democrats grappling with both a numerator and denominator problem in Orange County. After a slow start, they have moved aggressively to tackle both sides of the equation. Taken all together, they have undertaken what may be an unprecedented effort to shape a primary contest.

DCCC and state leaders effectively pressured several second-tier candidates to drop out of the races (though, as Bauman admits, "maybe a little bit later than we should have begun this process.") As concerns about a shutout grew, the DCCC endorsed candidates in both the Royce and Rohrabacher seats and has spent heavily on television and radio ads to promote them -- while also advertising to knock down leading Republicans in each race. In the Royce seat, Democratic leaders negotiated an unusual ceasefire between the DCCC's endorsed candidate, Gil Cisneros, and his lead Democratic rival, Andy Thornburn, amid fears that their attacks on each other would reduce the chances that either survives to the final two.

Simultaneously, the DCCC has worked to expand the pool of voters by investing heavily in registration and get-out-the-vote programs.

"Traditionally in a primary, you turn out the highest likely-to-vote voters, because nobody else votes," says Bauman. "But a lot of the effort that is going on right now moves beyond that and says, 'Let's work hard to turn out the voters who are occasional voters ... because that's how we increase our number.' "

These are all activities parties usually undertake only in general elections. And yet their effectiveness has been diluted because Democrats are trying to execute them in what is still technically a primary. Unlike a general election, where only one candidate can obtain the party designation, multiple Democratic candidates are still competing in each contested Orange County race, even after the party's winnowing. That's left many Democratic voters confused and almost despairing over which candidate to support to avoid losing the seat to Republicans on Tuesday.

Meanwhile, the effort to mobilize greater Democratic turnout faces not only the usual problem of focusing attention on a June primary, but also the hurdle Bauman lamented: the inability to direct candidates to the areas of the party's greatest need.

Candidates helping themselves, not the party

While some of them passed through Orange County in the past few days, Newsom, Villaraigosa, Feinstein, de Leon and all the others spent the campaign's final days where they thought they could most benefit their own candidacies -- rather than trying to save the House races that are, unquestionably, the top California priority for Democrats nationally.

"Every politician thinks about themselves: If I'm [Newsom] I'm staying in northern California, amplify your vote. Northern California always turns out in a higher clip [during a primary] than in southern California," says Democratic consultant Dave Jacobson, who is working with Thornburn in the Royce seat. "If I'm Villaraigosa, I'm going to be in LA in the inland empire and the Central Valley," where there are many Latino voters.

Sensing opportunity, national Republicans, who had largely kept their distance, announced last week a six-figure digital spend to encourage more Republican turnout in the Orange County races. The message in the ads is that Republicans must vote to prevent Democratic Rep. Nancy Pelosi from becoming House speaker -- exactly the pitch the party usually delivers in a general election.

"It's similar to what you would use to motivate base voters," says Jesse Hunt, press secretary for the National Republican Congressional Committee.

Bauman and some other Democrats, such as Jacobson, say the gloom about Orange County may be overstated: While registered Republicans have returned substantially more mail ballots so far in the Royce and Rohrabacher seats (the two sides are roughly tied in the Issa seat), Democrats rely more on voters who cast their ballots on Election Day itself.

Brewing backlash

Still, if Democrats are excluded Tuesday from one, two or conceivably three House seats that Clinton carried, a strong backlash against the top-two system is inevitable. Democrats are already discussing a ballot effort to repeal it in 2020. Whether or not that idea succeeds, the chaos and consternation of 2018 will likely force party leaders on both sides to treat these primaries more like a general election and to move more aggressively from the outset to winnow their fields of candidates. In that way, a primary system sold as increasing choices for voters might very soon serve to narrow them.

That wouldn't even come close, though, to the biggest irony if Republicans lock down one or more contested House seats Tuesday -- especially if those gains ultimately help the GOP defend the House majority that has formed a protective phalanx around Trump.

"The lack of organization, and I think what will even be a lack of turnout, from the 'state of resistance,' its failure to perform, could very well be the reason Donald Trump never gets impeached," says Stutzman, the GOP strategist. "That's Shakespearean irony."

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