POLITICS
06/04/2018 06:00 am ET Updated Jun 04, 2018

The California Primaries Are A Glorious Mess. They Could Determine Who Wins The House.

The state's jungle primary system could leave Democrats locked out of key races in November.
Democrats like Harley Rouda, a candidate in California's 48th Congressional District, are hoping for a blue wave in November.
Bill Clark via Getty Images
Democrats like Harley Rouda, a candidate in California's 48th Congressional District, are hoping for a blue wave in November. But they need to get through the June 5 primaries first.

In the past week, two major political groups have spent $100,000 on digital ads and phone banks promoting congressional candidate John Gabbard, who is running for the seat held by Republican U.S. Rep. Dana Rohrabacher in California’s 48th District.

The ads, captured by Facebook’s political ad archive, are unremarkable in their political rhetoric. They boast of Gabbard’s military experience. They say he’ll “go to Washington to fight for taxpayers… not the special interests” and that he “believes we need term limits for Congress because it’s time to drain the swamp.”

What’s remarkable is who is paying for the ads boosting Gabbard, a little-known Republican: the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee and a super PAC backed by the liberal Service Employees International Union.

Welcome to the California primaries, where a jungle primary is leading to previously unknown levels of gamesmanship, and where control of the U.S. House of Representatives might hang in the balance. The jungle primary means the top two vote-getters in each of the state’s 53 congressional districts, including 10 considered up for grabs, will advance to the general election in November ― regardless of party.

The unique system ― only Washington state and Louisiana have something similar ― worries Democrats, who fear they could fail to reach the general election in some districts. And that could hamstring their hopes to win back the House in November.

That’s led to a wave of spending ― at least $8 million from the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, Priorities USA, Patriot Majority and House Majority PAC ― and some unusual tactics.

“The top-two jungle primary revolutionized political campaigns,” said Dave Jacobson, a veteran Democratic consultant in California. “You have to think outside the box to capitalize on the system to help your candidate.”

Many Democrats in California and Washington, D.C., think the threat of their party being locked out of the general election has been overhyped, considering how Democrats have exceeded turnout expectations in election after election during Donald Trump’s presidency. But the spending shows how dire leading Democratic strategists think the consequences could be. 

“It’s a threat to be taken seriously,” said Zac McCrary, a Democratic pollster who has done work in California in the past. “At the same time, a big lesson from 2017 and 2018 is that Democratic turnout is up. And that could be a saving grace.”

Republicans, meanwhile, have spent money turning out their base in hopes of generating a Democratic lockout. But for the most part, they’re content to sit back and watch the finger-pointing.  

“The DCCC and Nancy Pelosi’s super PAC are lighting money on fire right now in hopes they can avert a catastrophe in their most-focused-on area of the country,” said NRCC spokesman Jesse Hunt. “Republicans are in an even stronger position today after Democratic candidates aired each other’s personal dirty laundry and battled over who is most progressive.”

The threat of a lockout is real in three districts targeted by Democrats: the 48th District, held by Rohrabacher; the 49th District, where GOP Rep. Darrell Issa is retiring; and the 39th District, where GOP Rep. Ed Royce is retiring. All three districts are centered in the Southern California suburbs in Orange and San Diego counties, former GOP strongholds where Trump cratered in 2016.  

In the 48th District, Democrats are boosting Gabbard to draw votes away from Scott Baugh, a former Orange County GOP chairman, with many of the ads telling voters he is “better than Baugh.” Democrats fear Baugh, a more traditional Republican than the Russia-friendly Rohrabacher, could win enough votes to finish second behind the incumbent.

Another layer to Democratic problems is the battle between businessman Harley Rouda and stem cell researcher Hans Keirstead. While Keirstead was the early favorite and won the endorsement of the California Democratic Party, the DCCC endorsed Rouda after a whistleblower complaint surfaced alleging Keirstead once punched a female student, among other misconduct. Keirstead denies the allegations.

In the 49th, the DCCC aired television ads attacking Assemblyman Rocky Chavez, a more moderate Republican, criticizing him for supporting cap-and-trade and for backing Democratic Gov. Jerry Brown’s budget. 

Recent polling shows the ads have successfully deflated support for Chavez, with the GOP coalescing behind state tax board member Diane Harkey. Harkey is now considered a lock to advance to the general, but there are four Democrats battling for the second spot alongside Chavez: businessman and veteran Paul Kerr, retired Col. Doug Applegate, environmental lawyer Mike Levin and Sara Jacobs, a former Hillary Clinton campaign aide. 

National operatives this weekend told HuffPost they would blame Kerr, who is polling fourth among Democrats and is spending big to attack Levin and Jacobs, for a potential lockout. 

But the messiest of all might be the 39th, where two free-spending Democrats  have clashed for months. Veteran and businessman Gil Cisneros, a lottery winner and former Republican with the backing of the DCCC, and Andy Thorburn, a billionaire running as a Bernie Sanders-inspired progressive, have been exchanging allegations of everything from tax fraud to threatening voicemails. The fighting eventually led the California Democratic Party to broker a truce between them. 

Sam Jammal and Mai Khanh Tran round out the list of viable Democrats. Assemblywoman Young Kim leads a similarly crowded GOP field. The race has seen $10 million in spending, the most of any district in the state. 

CORRECTION: An earlier version of this piece incorrectly stated that California has 52 congressional districts. There are 53.

CONVERSATIONS