Democrats Avert Disaster in California

 David Catanese

DEMOCRATS ARE BREATHING a sigh of relief after escaping California's unruly jungle primary without the calamity many were fearing.

The nightmare scenario of being blocked out of a handful of general election races due to the Golden State's quirky nonpartisan "top two" system looks to have gone largely unrealized.

While results remained unfinalized Wednesday, it appears a Democratic congressional candidate will place second in all seven of the most highly competitive U.S. House districts, giving the party a chance for a handful of pick-up opportunities when there's a binary choice in November.

And while Republican John Cox advanced in the open seat governor's race to face the heavily favored Democrat Gavin Newsom, it was Democrats who swept Republicans out of contention in both the race for U.S. Senate and lieutenant governor.

The "results serve as fresh evidence of the fact that a Democratic wave has continued to build across America as we head towards November," says Dave Jacobson, a California Democratic consultant, while adding, "It's clear that California's top two primary election conundrum is a headache that will continue to be cyclical until it's overhauled."

California's system forces all candidates – regardless of party – to run against each other on one ballot in the primary. The two candidates who earn first and second place then meet again in November.

In the three heavily targeted Orange County-area districts that Hillary Clinton carried in 2016, Democrats have appeared to survive the idiosyncratic process to fight another day.

In the 39th Congressional District of retiring GOP Rep. Ed Royce, Assemblywoman Young King, a Republican, took first. But Democrat Gil Cisneros, who won the backing of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, looks to have clinched second place due to his strength with Latino voters. National Democrats had studiously worked to get other candidates to drop out, with mixed results, and had feared their six contenders would divide their party's vote amongst each other.

Republican Diane Harkey easily outpaced 16 candidates in the open 49th Congressional District seat of retiring GOP Rep. Darrell Issa. But Democrats were in second, third and fourth place, with Mike Levin looking to have squeezed through the pack to qualify for the general election.

"Despite facing one of our nation's most unnecessary election circuses, Mike Levin won the jungle primary because he ran on a progressive agenda that prioritized Medicare for all, and other economic needs of his community – not corporate interests," said Stephanie Taylor, co-founder of the liberal Progressive Change Campaign Committee.

Democrats implemented a successful aggressive negative campaign against another GOP candidate, Assemblyman Rocky Chavez, in order to salvage their chances in a district that includes northern San Diego and runs up the coast to southern California.

And in the neighboring 48th Congressional District along the Pacific coast – where Democratic nerves were particularly strained – two Democratic candidates, Harley Rouda and Hans Keirstead were fighting for second place for the right to face Republican Rep. Dana Rohrabacher, who is thought to be one of the most vulnerable California incumbents.

Scott Baugh, a former GOP county party leader decided to challenge Rohrabacher, complicating Democratic prospects. Republicans turned in substantially more early mail-in ballots, but Democrats showed up on Election Day pushing Baugh into fourth place. With the results unofficial, Rouda, a wealthy business executive favored by the DCCC, declared victory.

"Seventy percent of voters in the 48th District rejected Dana Rohrabacher," Rouda said in a statement early Wednesday. "I look forward to defeating Dana Rohrabacher and restoring honesty and integrity to this office."

GOP Rep. Steve Knight, also seen as highly vulnerable in northern Los Angeles County's 25th Congressional District, will likely face Democrat Katie Hill in the fall, though the current third place candidate, Bryan Caforio, is also a Democrat.

In the state's Central Valley 10th Congressional District, Democrat Josh Harder was in 2nd place to Republican Rep. Jeff Denham. And in California's 45th Congressional District, progressive Democrat Katie Porter, a protege of Sen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts had a small lead over the state Democratic Party-endorsed Dave Min for the second slot. Ultimately one will face GOP Rep. Mimi Walters, who represents a wealthy district carried by Clinton.

With only two candidates, the 21st Congressional District lacked any of the intrigue or drama of the others. But Republican Rep. David Valadao could still be threatened by Democrat T.J. Cox if President Donald Trump is a drag on GOP candidates.

Sen. Dianne Feinstein finished more than 32 points ahead of her progressive challenger, Kevin de Leon, the former state senate leader who will now fight on as a distinct underdog. Republican candidate James Bradley finished third.

But perhaps the most significant victory for the California GOP was Cox's second place finish over former Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa in the governor's race.

"Cox probably won't even come close in his race, but he may help save some of those vulnerable Republican incumbents," by boosting turnout of GOP voters in the fall, says Dan Schnur, a former communications aide to Gov. Pete Wilson.

California's primary did not go off without a hitch. Nearly 120,000 voters were reportedly left off the voter rolls in Los Angeles, prompting potential legal challenges to results. And in the land of sunny skies and Hollywood dreams, voter enthusiasm appeared low, with only about a third of registered voters participating.

But Democrats could exhale for the moment.

They need to flip 24 seats to win back control of the U.S. House and almost a third of that chunk remains viable, despite all the misgivings surrounding California's "jungle."

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