LOS ANGELES — One day after Democrats claimed victory in a closely watched Pennsylvania special election, a potential disaster reared up in California.
In a state that’s central to the battle for control of the House, Democrats emerged from a filing deadline late Wednesday resigned to the possibility that no Democratic candidate will appear on the November ballot in several key House races.
California’s unusual, top-two primary system — in which the top two vote-getters advance to the general election regardless of party affiliation — had raised the prospect of a nightmare scenario in several seats where crowded fields of Democratic candidates might splinter their party’s share of the vote, enabling two Republicans to finish atop the field in the June primary.
In response, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee and state party leaders had spent weeks running up to the deadline working to cull large fields of Democrats in targeted contests.
By Wednesday, a handful of Democrats had abandoned their campaigns to replace retiring Republican Reps. Darrell Issa and Ed Royce in Southern California. But as the candidate filing period closed, the glut of Democrats remaining still threatened to split the primary vote — leaving open the possibility that two Republicans could advance to the general election, wiping Democrats off the ballot entirely in November.
Democrats face a similar quandary in Republican Rep. Dana Rohrabacher’s Orange County-based district, where the recent entry into the race of another prominent Republican, former state Assemblyman and Orange County Republican Party Chairman Scott Baugh, complicated the candidate math.
Darry Sragow and Rob Pyers of the California Target Book, which handicaps races in the state, wrote in an analysis for POLITICO that with “eight Democrats competing for between 40 and 45 percent of the district’s traditional Democratic vote, the odds of one of the eight consolidating enough of the vote to overcome Baugh’s popularity and name recognition are daunting, to say the least. A Republican-only top two runoff is possible here in November.”
Of California’s 14 Republican-held House seats, seven that Hillary Clinton carried in 2016 are widely considered critical to Democratic efforts to retake the House. The prospect of Democratic candidates cannibalizing each other in those races has weighed heavily on the party.
Asked if Democrats had done enough to ensure their candidates a place on the November ballot, Michael Trujillo, a Democratic strategist in California said, “The answer is a big, fat ‘No.’”
Democrat Phil Janowicz, a former chemistry professor who withdrew from the contest in Royce’s district Wednesday, citing concerns about a Democratic shut-out, said, “The math … it’s not looking good right now. It is certainly not looking good to get a Democrat into the Top 2.”
Janowicz’s announcement followed the withdrawal of two other Democrats, Jay Chen in Royce’s 39th District and Christina Prejean in Issa’s 49th District.
Eric Bauman, chairman of the California Democratic Party, said multiple Republicans running in those districts — especially in Issa’s, where GOP candidates outnumber Democrats — will likely fracture the Republican vote, as well.
Pointing to the handful of withdrawals, Bauman said, “I think we got a number of candidates to think about the seriousness of this year’s elections, and the incredible, incredibly important opportunity that we have this year. I think that as a result you saw some people step away … All in all, we had some good success.”
Still, Democrats have little room for error in California. The party in 2012 suffered a stunning defeat when two Republicans finished ahead of then-Redlands Mayor Pete Aguilar in an Inland Empire congressional district in which Democrats held a voter registration advantage.
Bauman said of the current House races, “There’s an overpopulation problem. The overpopulation problem is not as big a problem as it was.”
National Democrats said before the filing deadline that they would continue to monitor races in California to ensure that Democrats advance to the general election in competitive races, and the filing deadline, while significant, is unlikely to bring an end to efforts to shape contests here.
The DCCC acknowledged it could be forced to spend money in primary campaigns.
“Grassroots activists have put these races into play, and they deserve to have a Democrat on the ballot this November,” Drew Godinich, a spokesman for the DCCC, said in an email Wednesday. “As has been the case in the past in California, all options are on the table in order to ensure that happens.”
Trujillo said Democratic leaders could still work before the June election to dissuade Democrats on the ballot from running active campaigns, which he called a “second sort of bite at the apple.” But in a close contest, the mere presence of a candidate’s name on the ballot traditionally results in at least a small number of orphaned votes.
While political parties in California don’t wield as much influence as they do in many other states, efforts to winnow candidate fields faced resistance from well-funded candidates and some local activists.
“California has a more diverse and dynamic and dysfunctional and disruptive Democratic process, which I think is a good thing,” said Dave Jacobson, a Democratic strategist working in several Southern California congressional races.
House races here, Jacobson said, are likely to be shaped more by national winds favoring Democrats than by machinations of the state’s top-two primary. After Democrats claimed a likely victory in the Pennsylvania special election on Tuesday, with Democrat Conor Lamb narrowly leading Republican Rick Saccone, he said, “What we saw with the Conor Lamb triumphant performance … is going to be repeated all over the country.”
For Republicans, the prospect of Democrats stumbling in the primary presents a rare opportunity in heavily Democratic state. Jim Brulte, chairman of the California Republican Party, said GOP leaders in the state “think we have a shot to do it [shut out Democrats in the June primary] in a couple of races.”
But Rob Stutzman, a Sacramento-based Republican consultant, said the difficulty Democrats face also “highlights what is the biggest downside of Top 2.”
“As a Republican, obviously, it would be fantastic to have these seats locked up before November,” he said.
On the other hand, Stutzman added, “Who proceeds often comes down to the randomness of the size of these fields.”