House Party

What You Need to Know About California's Chaotic Democratic Primaries

Democrats are convinced they can take several Republican-held congressional seats, but first they have to survive some bloody primary fights.

by Robert Wheel
Feb 27 2018, 5:37pm

Image by Lia Kantrowitz

Welcome back to House Party, our column looking at the 2018 House of Representative races as midterms approach.

As you know if you read this series, California is critical to Democrats’ hopes to retake the House. There are seven seats in the state held by Republicans but where Hillary Clinton won the presidential vote; Democrats might have a puncher’s chance in another two or three more traditionally Republican seats. The state party held its convention over the weekend—where delegates controversially declined to endorse Senator Dianne Feinstein for another term—so now is as good a time as any to catch up on all those races.

A bit of background: The state party convention does not actually nominate candidates. Instead, California has a blanket primary in June where the top two vote getters in each race advance to a general election runoff, regardless of party. Rather, the convention allows the state party to officially endorse candidates heading into that primary, with voters receiving a notice regarding which candidates are officially endorsed prior to voting. These endorsements help win over lower-information voters, so they matter, and campaigns compete fiercely to get them (or at least deny them to their opponents).

There are a lot of Democrats running for Congress in California, which could be a problem for the party—under the top two primary system, if a couple credible Republicans are running in a race alongside several Democrats who split the vote, the Republicans might be the two candidates to advance to the general, even if more voters overall backed Democrats. This happened once before and California Democrats are agonizing over how to avoid a repeat of that mistake.

Without any further ado, here’s an update on some key California Congress races:

49th District

Right before the convention a group polled the 49th and found that Democrats could get shut out of the general election if some of its candidates didn’t drop out. Mike Levin, who appears to be running the most disciplined campaign, fell just short of getting the party endorsement endorsement. He still might get DCCC help though, as his biggest rivals aren’t painting themselves in glory these days:

Doug Applegate, the 2016 nominee, has been running a left-wing insurgent campaign. A former Marine, he has the right profile for the seat containing Camp Pendelton. But he spent more money than he took in the last quarter and started exploring a drop down to run for county board of supervisors. So he moved to a targeted board district a month before the deadline, the minimum residency requirement under California law. The problem is that the law actually required Applegate to live in the district for 30 days, there are only 28 in February. So it’s Congress or bust unless the state party can get him to stand down.

Sara Jacobs is a wunderkind, but as the granddaughter of the billionaire founder of Qualcomm she needs to show she’s not an out-of-touch rich kid. So she sat down with Cosmo for what she might’ve thought would be a soft-touch profile but was anything but. While most of the blowback from the article came from when she called Applegate a “crusty old Marine” (for which she gave an “apologies if you were offended” apology), I thought the following exchange was more telling:

According to emails released from Wikileaks, Jacobs nabbed her position on Clinton’s presidential campaign in 2015 after prodding from a major Democratic donor who happens to be a family friend. (“Well, first of all,” Jacobs says, “I think you as a fellow young person can attest that most people get jobs through connections.” Her boss at the State Department, she says, also vouched for her work. )

Ah yes, that normal young person method of asking one of your family’s many wealthy friends to get you a job. (If you want to elect a millennial woman to Congress, Abby Finkenauer is the frontrunner for the nomination in Iowa’s First District and she’s running against a Republican who failed to disclose that he’s a director in a marketing firm that helps companies avoid publicity for FDA violations.)

39th District

Democrats are at risk of missing the top two here as well after the retirement of Republican incumbent Ed Royce, but with a GOP field that’s just as disorganized there’s actually a chance that the top two candidates will be Democrats. The endorsement wasn’t up for grabs at the convention but philanthropist Gil Cisneros appears to be setting himself up as the insider-backed candidate, having nabbed numerous endorsements from the California congressional delegation. Fellow philanthropist Andy Thorburn appears to be getting left-wing backing, while women’s groups are flocking to Dr. Mai-Khanh Tran. And 2012 nominee Jay Chen is getting support from the LA County portion of the district, where about a quarter of the voters live. We might get more clarity on this race by the March 9 filing deadline, but for now it’s among the most volatile in the country.

45th District

Until this weekend I thought the 45th was the tamest of California’s high-profile races, with few public sparks between the campaigns. But the convention put that notion to rest. Law professor Dave Min narrowly got enough votes to be officially endorsed by the state party, after which bedlam broke loose. You see, once a campaign is officially endorsed by delegates from their district their opponents can try to gather signatures to override that endorsement with a full floor vote. This confusing and complex process that has to occur within a brief period can lead to a wild scene—in this case, that included Min’s rival campaigns accusing him of intimidating signature gatherers and a foot chase through the convention center. His opponents got enough signatures to challenge the endorsement, but the full convention refused to override it. Anyway, in a race where it was tough to differentiate among the campaigns, Min has become the frontrunner for the nomination.

48th District

Scientist Hans Keirstead got the endorsement over businessman Harley Rouda. Both candidates have their upsides: Keirstead has a better story to tell but Rouda’s a more engaging candidate (both are superior to self-described “Reagan Democrat” Omar Siddiqui). After Keirstead got the endorsement Rouda tried to petition to override it at the full convention, but either narrowly missed the deadline or was shut out in contravention of party rules. Rouda’s team is crying foul, but as the Min episode showed it was unlikely he could override an endorsement with a floor vote anyway.

25th District

The convention declined to endorse either of the leading candidates in this race to take on Representative Steve Knight. Earlier in the month Dave Wasserman had a great piece on why Katie Hill would probably be a stronger candidate than Bryan Caforio (I agree, though I think either could win). All I’ll add to it is that my discussions with people on the ground indicate that Hill is an absolute rock star of a candidate.

21st District

Sadly, nobody would call Emilio Huerta a rock star of a candidate. In fact, his somnambulant campaign has led to lots of DCCC hand-wringing, as he’s been mostly silent on social media, barely raised any money, and even failed to mention that he was running for Congress when he met with local party members (saying you’re running for office when you meet someone is candidate 101 shit). Yet he’s the only notable Democrat running for this seat and now has the party endorsement. This is the only district where Trump got less than 40 percent and a Republican is running for re-election—why don’t Democrats have a better candidate? Largely it’s because Huerta’s legendary activist mother, Dolores, has told other candidates to butt out. And that represents a catch-22 for Democrats, as it’ll be impossible to win in the general here without Dolores Huerta’s support, but the only candidate she’ll support is her apparently feckless son. The party is going to need to rely on a blue wave to wash Emilio into Congress, because unless he turns things around he won’t get there on his own.

Tenth District

The late entrance of 2014 and 2016 nominee Michael Eggman has scrambled this race a bit. Eggman got 48 percent in 2016 so I see no reason why he couldn’t improve on that in what’s shaping up to be a much better year for Democrats, even if he used to look like a member of Smash Mouth. (Let he who has never rocked a puka shell necklace cast the first stone.) But he’s facing an amorphous field of other candidates and EMILY’s List just weighed in by backing former Riverbank Mayor Virginia Madueno. Eggman’s probably the favorite based off his residual name recognition, but this race is truly in flux.

And that’s where we stand in the Golden State. Filing closes on March 9 so there’s a chance that some of these fields get upended by last-minute surprises, but right now the Democratic nomination is anyone’s game in six of the seven Clinton seats.

Now for some updates on other races:

  • Back in December I told you that Laura Moser, one of several Democrat's running in Texas's Seventh District, was a bad candidate. I figured that would become self-evident over time. (Moser responded to being called an out-of-touch coastal elite by hosting a spin class fundraiser with Alyssa Milano.) What I wasn’t counting on was the DCCC telling everyone that she was terrible in a controversial broadside against her campaign—a highly unusual move by the national party to target a primary candidate. My friends at Daily Kos Elections have a great rundown of why, even though Moser would likely cost Democrats this seat, this was still a huge fuckup by the DCCC because it alienates so many people.
  • Along with California’s 21st, New York’s 24th stands out as a recruiting failure. Syracuse professor Dana Balter was recently endorsed by all the local Democratic parties even though she’s raised little money and “liberal college professor” isn’t the ideal candidate profile. But looking to history, in 2006 there was a Republican in an Iowa district that had voted for Al Gore and John Kerry who lost to a liberal college professor whom the national party didn’t consider a top-tier challenger. Considering the 24th voted for both Obama and Clinton, Democrats may hope history repeats itself further east.
  • No Republican congressperson is trying harder to lose than Claudia Tenney. Her latest unforced error? Stating that many spree shooters were Democrats and refusing to back down when confronted with the enormity of her ignorance. This came just weeks after she said that beating your wife is not a crime of character. The 22nd voted for Trump 55-39 but it supported Mitt Romney and John McCain by a percentage point or less, and her Democratic opponent Anthony Brindisi has won a similarly conservative Assembly district.
  • In New York’s North Country, former MSNBC host Dylan Ratigan is now running for Congress in a seat that went for Barack Obama twice before flipping to Trump. Ratigan’s family has deep roots in the district and he’s been living there at least part-time since 2012, but he did just switch his voter registration to Lake Placid from New York City. The cable TV firebrand will also be running an unapologetically left-wing campaign, leaving former county legislator Tedra Cobb and attorney Don Boyajian as the more establishment-minded candidates.
  • New Mexico’s Second District lacked an establishment candidate until Xochitl Torres Small announced her candidacy. In a low-turnout, heavily Latinx district she might be able to goose turnout better than current fundraising leader Mads Hildebrandt.
  • Obama won Wisconsin’s Seventh District in 2008 but heading into the new year not a single Democrat had filed to run against Republican Sean Duffy. But now Bon Iver manager Kyle Frenette and attorney Margaret Engebretson have declared, and former NATO staffer Dave Beeksma announced he was considering a run but still hasn’t officially filed. Duffy’s still a heavy favorite, but as Frenette pointed out in an interview with P4K (natch) Democrats just won a special election in one of the district’s most Republican areas.
  • Earlier I said that Representative Mike Turner might retire because he was going through an ugly divorce. Well, he filed to run for re-election but it appears his personal life may yet interfere with his future plans. He's going through a messy divorce and attempting to get $1.5 million from his second wife, who is a lobbyist. Which begs the question, do the people of Ohio’s Tenth Congressional District want a congressman who’s going to own a chunk of his lobbyist wife’s assets?*
  • Representative Rick Nolan’s retirement from Minnesota's Eighth District means Democrats have to defend an open seat that trended sharply against their party in 2016. But they appear to have lined up an ideal candidate in former State Representative Joe Radinovich, who previously held a heavily Republican seat (he lost it after backing gay marriage) and led Nolan’s difficult 2016 re-election campaign.
  • In West Virginia’s open Third District, State Senator Richard Ojeda is becoming one of the most vocal proponents for the state’s teachers, who are striking to improve their near-poverty wages. His campaign shared a poll with me that shows a very fluid electorate—the seat is in play.
  • In some unfortunate news, Virginia Democrats have decided to nominate their Fifth District nominee at a convention instead of a primary. If you think the DCCC weighing in against a candidate in Texas was bad for party unity, imagine what will happen when a bunch of party insiders choose a nominee without any voter input.
  • And finally there’s a special primary on Tuesday for Arizona’s Eighth District, vacated by Trent Franks when he resigned over a bizarre scandal involving him asking staffers if they would carry a child for him and his wife. Anyway, if you’re following returns tonight, Democrats should root for for State Senator Steve Montenegro to with the GOP nomination because the married senator got caught with a staffer’s nudes on his phone. The scandal broke after 75 percent of the votes in this normally Republican seat were cast, and Democrats have a candidate in Hiral Tipirneni who could make a race of this against a damaged nominee. And even if Montenegro’s rival Debbie Lesko wins, she has some ethics issues of her own.

Correction: An earlier version of this piece incorrectly stated that Mike Turner alleged his ex-wife had secret assets. While he is trying to get alimony from her and she has attempted not to disclose some financial details, he is not alleging she has secret assets.

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Robert Wheel (a pseudonym) is an attorney who lives in New York. He tweets here, and his DMs are open.