California was supposed to be a state of immense electoral opportunity for Democrats in 2018. But as pivotal congressional primaries approach, it now risks becoming the staging ground of a political nightmare, having already forced the party to funnel millions of dollars in varying directions and with differing purposes.
That’s because California has a top-two primary system, in which the two leading primary vote getters move on to the general election regardless of their party affiliation. With crowded Democratic fields in key districts—including those Hillary Clinton won in 2016—that may result in no party candidate moving on to the next round of voting at all.
Faced with this calamity, gamesmanship has prospered. National Democrats are targeting second-tier Republicans. Local Democrats are targeting each other. Other Democrats are trying to prop up specific Democrats. And now national Republicans are trying to both target leading Democrats and bolster second tier Republicans.
Confused? It’s fine to be. Let’s try and clear things up a bit.
California’s 48th District
Rep. Dana Rohrabacher (R-CA) holds the Orange County seat, which includes Huntington Beach. But he is being challenged by both Democrats and Republicans. The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee (DCCC) has backed real estate executive Harley Rouda and recently launched a $400,000 joint TV ad buy to help him. The committee’s ad spending has totalled nearly $1.7 million according to FEC filings. But not all of it is pro-Rouda content. The DCCC has also focused some of its attacks on knocking down Republican candidate Scott Baugh, a previous member of the California State Assembly. Baugh is also being hit with negative ads from Priorities USA and House Majority PAC, with the purpose to deny him a second place finish.
Rouda, alas, isn’t loved by all Democrats. While he is being aided by the DCCC he is also taking on fire from his left with the pro-science progressive group 314 Action targeting him in an ad. The spot, obtained by The Daily Beast, references an age discrimination case against Rouda’s company from a decade ago. The group is running those spots on behalf of their preferred Democratic candidate, neuroscientist Hans Kierstead.
Complicating things a bit further is that Baugh, while not the incumbent, is now getting some tangential support from the GOP establishment. Recently, the National Republican Congressional Committee has jumped in to the race, plotting a six-figure buy to turn out Trump voters in 48th district as well as two others. The beneficiary of the expenditure is, ostensibly, both Republican candidates.
California’s 39th District
Democrats are marginally less concerned about this district, which includes parts of Los Angeles and San Bernardino counties and is represented by retiring Republican Rep. Ed Royce. But with six Democrats and seven Republicans running to replace him, it’s still become a bit of a money pit. The DCCC has spent almost $2 million here, a great percentage of which is against two Republican candidates: Shawn Nelson and Bob Huff. They had previously added Navy veteran Gil Cisneros to their “Red to Blue” program, which provides additional resources to Democratic candidates, even as Cisneros was getting into a nasty primary fight with fellow Democrat Andy Thorburn. In April, Cisneros’ campaign threatened legal action against The Intercept for publishing a voicemail the campaign alleged he didn’t actually make. The story and Thorburn alleged that in a message left on Thorburn’s home phone, Cisneros said he was going to engage in a sharply negative campaign. It remains unclear who left the message.
Following a brokered agreement from the state party to avoid negative campaigning, the DCCC made another $285,000 investment for Cisneros including a Spanish language ad. The NRCC’s digital get-out-the-vote campaign is running here too.
California’s 49th District
This district, including parts of San Diego county and Oceanside, is represented by retiring Republican Darrell Issa and has seen an excessive amount of spending too. Four Democrats are duking it out to advance to the general election in November, including Doug Applegate, who previously lost to Issa in 2016 by less than one percent. But the the DCCC is not spending on behalf of Applegate—who had been accused of abusing his ex-wife, a claim she says is false—or any of the Democrats for that matter. Rather, the committee is targeting the Republicans in the race; specifically, state assemblyman Rocky Chavez, who has been hit with more than $480,000 in negative spending in the last week and half alone.
Chavez has recently polled as the top vote-getter with Applegate in second place. Close behind them were Democrat Mike Levin and Republican Diane Harkey.
But not all Democratic groups are staying out of their party’s primary. Sara Jacobs, the only woman running on the Democratic side, has received around $1.6 million in ads and mail campaigns over the last month from the Super PAC arm of Emily’s List. The nonpartisan Center for Responsive Politics estimates that it is the fourth most expensive House district race in the country based on outside spending.
California’s 45th District
There is nowhere near as much outside spending going on this Orange County district represented by Rep. Mimi Walters (R-CA). But a proxy fight is emerging in the Democratic primary. Professor Katie Porter, who studied under Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) at Harvard Law School, is being backed by the Emily’s List PAC. Additionally, the Progressive Change Campaign Committee launched a final-week ad campaign on Facebook, Instagram and Google targeting one of Porter’s opponents, Dave Min. The buy cost the group $20,000 and could increase pending on online fundraising, a spokesperson for the group said. While the battle here is exclusively on the Democratic side, with Walters facing no Republican challengers, it is another district where the Democratic party is feeling bullish. A recent poll, commissioned by the progressive End Citizens United group, found Porter narrowly leading Walters in a prospective general election matchup.