IRVINE, Calif. — Omar Siddiqui, a long-shot Democrat running for Congress in Southern California, was guaranteed two questions at a crowded candidate forum last week. But instead of probing his positions or qualifications, the moderators questioned his very presence in the race: “Shouldn’t you consider dropping out?”
The 200-person crowd gathered at a local synagogue broke into applause at the suggestion.
Siddiqui has become a symbol of Orange County Democrats’ worst fear: that they will split votes among too many candidates in his race to take on GOP Rep. Dana Rohrabacher. That could allow a pair of Republicans to vault through California’s unusual top-two primary system and lock Democrats out of the general election.
Three battleground districts in Orange County — a one-time conservative bastion that backed Hillary Clinton in 2016 — all pose the same risk in next Tuesday’s primaries, which could cost Democrats some of their most promising opportunities to flip seats in their bid to retake the House of Representatives this fall.
The trouble in the districts represented by Rohrabacher and retiring Republican Reps. Darrell Issa and Ed Royce prompted the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee and other groups to anoint certain candidates and spend millions of dollars to prevent a Democratic “lockout.” But worried and confused Democratic voters are the only ones with the power to avoid a lockout — and even the most hardened pragmatists in their ranks are struggling to decide what to do.
“This is not the year to fall in love. This is the year to vote with your head for whoever has the best chance of winning, based on polling,” said Jesse Bry, a 42-year-old business owner in Issa’s district who declined to say for whom she plans to vote on June 5. “The hard part is figuring out who has the best shot, and that’s been in flux and confusing and agonizing to figure out in this primary.”
“I’m waiting for last-minute data,” said Bry’s husband, Dylan, who is also undecided. “This has to be the most practical vote of my life.”
Public and internal polls show a significant risk of at least one lockout. A top congressional staffer involved in California races said that it’s “time to break the emergency glass on California,” adding that if Democrats “don’t have a candidate on the ballot in all three districts, then that’s a huge failure for the DCCC and the party.”
Seeing the risk, the DCCC has intervened — to varying degrees — in all three races, though it has never been more difficult for political parties to steer the outcome of primaries. The committee has come under fire from some activists for supporting candidates in competitive nominating contests elsewhere this year.
But, in a twist to the usual script, some Democrats in Issa’s district are frustrated that the party hasn’t helped “guide us to the best candidate,” said Mindy Martin, a 40-year-old business owner from Oceanside, adding: “Isn’t that the role of the party?”
The DCCC has not endorsed a Democrat there, focusing instead on attacking Republican candidates, hoping to drive down their support before the primary and help at least one of four Democrats finish among the top two.
Eight Republicans are also running, putting the GOP at risk of a lockout there, too. But the stakes are higher for Democrats, whose last nominee, Doug Applegate, lost to Issa by just over 1,600 votes in 2016. Applegate is running again, and Democrats have seen the seat as one of their best pickup opportunities in the country since then.
“You don’t want to throw your vote away on somebody who can’t win, who can’t get into of those top two slots, so you have to think about that in your choice,” said Jessica Demian, a 41-year-old voter who lives in Encinitas and is deciding between former State Department official Sara Jacobs and attorney Mike Levin on the Democratic side. “Two Republicans would be worst-case scenario.”
The DCCC and allied groups have played a more active role in Rohrabacher and Royce’s districts, highlighting specific Democrats and working to drive voters toward their campaigns.
The committee initially recruited Hans Keirstead, a stem-cell researcher, to take on Rohrabacher on the Orange County coast. But the DCCC soured on him and ultimately backed Harley Rouda, a real estate investor, earlier this month. Yet Keirstead, Rouda and Scott Baugh, a former GOP state legislator, are all polling close together in the race for second place behind Rohrabacher, intensifying fears that the DCCC’s endorsement arrived too late.
The California Democratic Party endorsed Keirstead in February, but the former University of California Irvine professor has been dogged by a 2009 investigation into whether he struck one of his female graduate students. Keirstead was cleared by the university, but the investigation was a deal-breaker for California’s congressional delegation when the DCCC told them about it earlier this month, according to two sources familiar with the meeting.
Keirstead, who categorically denies the incident occurred, said the delegation didn’t hear that he was cleared, but it “may well have been” part of the reason the DCCC opted not to support him.
“The DCCC hasn’t exactly been known for making great primary decisions,” Keirstead said. “They have a history of coming in uninformed, and following the money and thinking that’s the only thing that runs a race.”
Rouda supporters see the DCCC as “righting the ship” by backing their candidate, said Jennifer Gibbs, 48, who rallied with Rouda at a get-out-the-vote event in Laguna Beach this month. But “I’m worried that it came too late,” Gibbs continued. “If we don’t get a candidate through, I don’t know who to blame.”
Further inland, the DCCC endorsed millionaire philanthropist Gil Cisneros in the 39th District, where he is one of four Democrats running to replace Royce. But Cisneros isn’t the only self-funding millionaire in the race: Andy Thorburn, a Bernie Sanders-style Democrat running on free college and single-payer health care, has dropped more than $2.7 million of his own money on the race. Two other Democrats are also running: Mai Khanh Tran, a pediatrician, and Sam Jammal, a former Obama administration official.
Cisneros insisted he isn’t worried that a Democrat won’t emerge from the race. “In Texas or Alabama or Pennsylvania, people came out to vote” at higher rates than usual in recent months, Cisneros said in an interview. “I don’t see why that trend would end here in California.”
But if spending hard-won campaign cash is a measure of worry, the DCCC is much more concerned than Cisneros. The committee has spent more than $1.4 million to boost Cisneros and attack two Republican candidates — Bob Huff and Shawn Nelson — while leaving alone the presumed GOP front-runner, Young Kim, an assemblywoman who could consolidate Republican support and make it easier for Cisneros to qualify for the general election.
Democratic operatives have thrown up their hands at the chaos, which they describe as a perfect storm. Orange County’s changing demographics, and Hillary Clinton’s wins in the three districts in 2016, stirred up a huge number of potential House candidates in 2017. But the local political infrastructure was “untested” after so many years without competitive campaigns, said Doug Herman, a California-based consultant.
“When the wave of enthusiastic and viable candidates was building, the candidate field got ahead of the party’s ability to help shape that field,” Herman added.
The candidates crowding the ballot have just shrugged — and tried to hang on for the ride.
“It’s the wild, wild West out here,” Rouda said.