California's `Jungle Primary' Threatens Democratic Party Plans

(Bloomberg) -- Just a few months ago, Democrats in California were licking their chops over the possibility of unseating longtime Republican Congressman Dana Rohrabacher.

The 29-year incumbent is an ally of President Donald Trump’s, has called for closer relations with Vladimir Putin’s Russia and voted last year to repeal Obamacare, which is popular throughout the state. His district, a wealthy swath of Southern California coast that includes Newport Beach and Laguna Niguel, was carried by Hillary Clinton in the 2016 presidential election, making it a prime target for Democrats hoping to capitalize on anti-Trump sentiment.

But California’s June 5 “jungle primary,” which sends the top-two primary vote getters to November’s general election regardless of party affiliation, threatens to derail Democrats’ plans. There are no fewer than 16 candidates on the ballot in Rohrabacher’s 48th district, including a formidable Republican challenger, former state assemblyman and county GOP chairman Scott Baugh. That means there’s a good chance that two Republicans will garner the most votes and advance.

“When you have top-two and a lot of candidates, it splits the vote and you end up with some surprising results,” said Fred Smoller, an associate professor of political science at Chapman University in Orange, California.

The top-two primary system, which was opposed by the main political parties in California but approved by voters in a 2010 referendum, was designed to produce more moderate candidates. That’s because, generally speaking, the most ideological voters tend to turn out in primary elections, selecting finalists with more-extreme views. After the 2016 election, however, there’s been a surge in candidates, from political neophytes to seasoned campaigners, that may upset the balance.

Top-two primaries “have increased the number of people running, and that gives everybody the opportunity to hear about issues,” said John Allan Peschong, a Republican political consultant and county supervisor in Templeton, California. “I do think it has made a number of people who may been sitting on the fence jump in.”

The system can cut both ways; some races, such as the state’s gubernatorial and senate contests, may have only Democratic finalists. “I don’t know how this sorts out,” Smoller said.

Seven Key Districts

Fight Back California, a political action committee aiming to flip seven vulnerable Republican-controlled congressional districts in the state to the Democratic column, commissioned polls in three House races, including Rohrabacher’s, in the hope that Democratic candidates with the least support would drop out and clear the field.

“I’m still nervous,” said Katie Merrill, Fight Back California’s chief strategist. “You don’t want to get shut out in the primary.”

Two Democratic candidates did drop out in the 48th district -- architect Laura Oatman and technology executive Rachel Payne -- but it’s too late to remove their names from the ballot. Oatman threw her support behind Harley Rouda, a 56-year-old investor, as did the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee. State party officials endorsed scientist and entrepreneur Hans Keirstead.

“If it weren’t for too many candidates on the ballot, the race would be a slam dunk for Keirstead,” Corona del Mar resident Virginia Cassara wrote in a May 8 opinion piece in the local Daily Pilot newspaper. “God knows we need a scientist.” (A group backing Democratic scientists running for office, which calls itself 314 Action, is launching a $280,000 mail campaign to boost Keirstead ahead of the primary election.)

Greg Blair, a spokesman for Rohrabacher, said the top issue for Republicans in the district is immigration, and that the 70-year-old congressman is leading the fight against California’s sanctuary state law.

Poll Results

The top-two format may also be affecting poll results, in which would-be voters choosing among so many candidates change their minds frequently, according to Raphael Sonenshein, executive director at the Pat Brown Institute of Public Affairs at California State University in Los Angeles.

That volatility has carried over to the closely watched race for California governor, in which one of several high-profile candidates will replace Jerry Brown, a four-term Democrat.

For example, a February poll by the Public Policy Institute of California had Antonio Villaraigosa, a former Los Angeles mayor and California assembly speaker, with a strong second-place ranking, at 21 percent, to fellow Democrat Gavin Newsom’s 23 percent. By April, however, Villaraigosa’s support dropped to 9 percent, below John Cox and Travis Allen, two Republican rivals, in a poll conducted by the Institute of Governmental Studies at the University of California at Berkeley.

Villaraigosa’s support in that survey may have been lower, in part, because it listed him as a consultant rather than the former Los Angeles mayor, and for the first time included all 27 candidates for governor, said Mark DiCamillo, the poll’s director.

“The polling is all over the place,” Sonenshein said. “I never felt like I knew so little going into a mid-term.”

Money is pouring into an independent expenditure committee affiliated with the California Charter Schools Association, which is supporting Villaraigosa, closing a fundraising gap that gave an advantage to Newsom. Netflix Inc. Chief Executive Officer Reed Hastings donated $7 million to the committee, while Michael Bloomberg, majority owner of Bloomberg News parent Bloomberg LP, contributed $1.5 million.

Campaign Contributions

Candidates in the congressional races, meanwhile, continue to draw support from California’s technology, finance and entertainment industries. DreamWorks SKG co-founders Jeffrey Katzenberg and Steven Spielberg, Spielberg’s wife Kate Capshaw and director James L. Brooks each made $33,900 donations, the maximum allowed per calendar year, to the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee and Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee. Elliott Broidy, a top Republican donor and Trump fundraiser, gave Rohrabacher $5,400, as did Geoff Palmer of G.H. Palmer Associates, another big Trump donor.

Gregory Wendt, a portfolio manager at Los Angeles-based Capital Group Companies, gave $2,857 to Rohrabacher, while Brook Byers of venture capital firm Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers gave $5,400 to Rouda. Other entertainment figures such as Brooks have made donations to Democrats challenging Republicans in the seven key districts targeted by party leaders.

If Democrats are left out of general elections in these congressional races, “people are going to miss some of the old party primaries we demonized for so long,” Sonenshein said.

Merrill, the Democratic consultant, was more direct.

“If we get shut out, my guess is there will be ballot measure in 2020 to overturn this,” she said.

©2018 Bloomberg L.P.