Live from California: Challenges Facing Democrats in Tuesday's Primary By Nicky Riordan
Voters will make key decisions in primaries across California on Tuesday, but Democrats in winnable districts may face disappointing options in November if turnout does not meet expectations.
Seven GOP-held Congressional seats are being targeted this year. Progressive enthusiasm and unexpected setbacks for Republican incumbents have created a unique problem for Democrats in those districts: too many options to choose from.
These districts have become a primary focus in part because California is a majority Democratic state and a leader in the resistance to the Trump Administration, but also because their voters went for Clinton in 2016 despite solid-red records and consistently sending Republicans to the House. In some cases, they are districts that Democratic Presidential candidates haven’t won in decades.
Many of these districts now have three or more Democrats on the primary ballot, and California is a “jungle” primary state - meaning the top two vote-getters will move on to the general election despite party affiliation. With more than two Democrats to choose from, there is a real chance that these races will end with two Republicans squaring off in November and one less opportunity for Democrats to win the 20+ seats needed to take back the House.
An illustrative example is District 49, covering northern areas of San Diego coastal and southern Orange County. This is a district that Clinton won in 2016, and that the popular Republican incumbent in Congress, Darrell Issa, won by only about 1600 votes. Considered one of the most promising of the districts up for grabs, there are now at least three viable Democratic candidates on the ballot who each have important endorsements and constituencies on their side, leaving the average voter with an incredibly challenging decision.
In contrast, Democrats in nearby District 50 are taking nothing for granted this year, consolidating support through an early endorsement process and coordinated work to bring party cohesion well ahead of Tuesday’s vote. The 50th is a very conservative district and not considered one of the seven, but saw its own progressive uprising after the 2016 election when at least seven Democrats began campaigning to take Duncan Hunter’s seat. All but two have dropped out and endorsed the leading candidate, with local progressive organizations following suit- signaling that perhaps overconfidence in the “blue wave” and a sense of hubris is the root of the problem in districts like the 49th.
Internal arguments over policy priorities and identity within the Democratic Party are being played out through these primaries as well, as local and national “establishment” Democratic leaders and organizations are taking sides against progressive groups and leaders. This split amid the party has led both sides to take on positions that speak to either a base of “winnable” Republican voters disillusioned by Trump, or progressive system transformers looking to rebuke current conservative policies altogether. This has resulted in more moderate candidates being pushed out of the race and leaving a large chasm for Democrats to fill on Tuesday.
In the end, success for Democrats will largely depend on turnout and coordination in the final days. Despite high expectations for the midterms this year, the constituencies needed for such turnout tend to be unreliable. Campaigns and political organizations are flooding registered voters with texts, calls, and emails in an aggressive GOTV effort, acknowledging the concern on the ground.
Not only will the outcome of Tuesday’s Democratic primaries have an outsized impact on the overall effort to win the House in November, it will serve as an important insight into the path forward for the party if internal divisions outweigh shared alarm over the current Administration’s policies and actions.
Nicky Riordan, Political Analyst, Utica College Center of Public Affairs and Election Research