The muddle within Democratic ranks is a unique liability in California because of the state’s unusual primary system—which advances the top two finishers in each race, regardless of party. In several House districts, Democrats now face the risk of splintering the vote among several lesser-known candidates, while Republicans consolidate to a greater extent behind contenders with more local visibility and experience.
Democrats fear they could fail to crack the top two slots—and thus be excluded from the general election—in as many as three House seats now held by Republicans that Hillary Clinton carried in the 2016 presidential race. That would be a bitter disappointment to Democrats, who began the year brimming with optimism about their prospects against seven California House Republicans in seats that Clinton won, and more cautiously hopeful about their chances in three other districts that preferred Donald Trump. Compounding their frustration is the news that Republicans recently fell into third place in terms of total registered voters in California, far behind Democrats. They now also narrowly trail Independent voters, who don’t choose a party.
The Democratic risk next week is concentrated in Orange County, the huge, sun-splashed suburban region south of Los Angeles. Long a hotbed of hard-core conservatism, Orange County has grown more competitive in national elections under the same twin forces that have reshaped the politics of affluent suburbs elsewhere: growing racial diversity (whites are projected to fall below 40 percent of the county’s population by 2020) and improved Democratic performance among college-educated whites. Clinton in 2016 became the first Democrat to carry the OC since Franklin Roosevelt in 1936.
These trends fanned the party’s ambitions in the four Clinton-favoring districts located in the county: those that incumbents Mimi Walters and Dana Rohrabacher are defending, and the open seats being vacated by Ed Royce and Darrell Issa. (Issa’s seat extends into northern San Diego County.)
Democrats are guaranteed a spot against Walters, because no other serious Republican is running. But they face a genuine danger of being shut out against Rohrabacher (who is being challenged by another Republican, Scott Baugh) and in the vacated Royce seat, as well as a lesser risk in the Issa seat. Political Data Inc., a firm that tracks election statistics, reports that, as of Tuesday, Republicans led Democrats in returned mail-in ballots by almost identical double-digit margins in the Rohrabacher and Royce seats. The two parties are about tied in the Issa seat.
The prospect that several Clinton-won House seats might slip away in June—especially in a state where Trump remains deeply unpopular—has both horrified and infuriated California Democrats. Blame has been directed at the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee for not intervening more forcefully to winnow the fields; at second-tier contenders for remaining in their races and dividing the vote; and at Orange County Democratic voters, who, at least in the mailed ballots, have not yet matched the higher turnout Democrats have seen in most other states since Trump’s election. (Latino and youth turnout looks especially weak so far.)