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Cameron Joseph is Talking Points Memo's senior political correspondent based in Washington, D.C. He covers Capitol Hill, the White House and the permanent campaign. Previous publications include the New York Daily News, Mashable, The Hill and National Journal. He grew up near Chicago and is an irrationally passionate Cubs fan.
Quinnipiac University released its latest national polling on Wednesday, and according to their latest numbers, control of the House is all but a pure tossup with five months until Election Day.
In their survey, 47 percent of voters said they want to see Democrats win control of the House, compared to 40 percent who wanted Republicans to win. Those numbers are in line with the six- to seven-point edge in the overall popular vote that Democrats will need to recapture House control.
A new CBS model predicted Democrats would barely capture House control if the election were held today, and other generic ballot polls have found Democrats leading by a bit less than the amount they would need to retake House control. RealClearPolitics’ average of recent polls has Democrats leading by 4.8 points on the generic ballot, just under where they’ll likely need to be on election night.
That’s why last night’s primary results could prove so pivotal come November. Democrats were at risk of getting left without candidates in four different California districts Hillary Clinton won in 2016, districts that are pivotal to their hopes of retaking the House. After spending millions of dollars to avoid that fate, it appears they’ve dodged a bullet in all four — though many votes remain uncounted.
Generic ballot polls go up and down, so it’s not a good idea to give too much weight to what they say at any one moment. They also aren’t great at capturing lopsided voter enthusiasm in favor of Democrats, a phenomenon that seems to exists across the country, which suggests that national polls could be lowballing how well Democrats will do in the fall. That would extend to California, where primary voter turnout is on pace to be almost 50 percent higher in 2018 compared to the last midterm in all-important Orange County.
But right now, it looks like we’re in for trench warfare in the fight for House control, with the outcomes of individual races playing outsized importance in what could be a very closely divided chamber. And that’s why the primary outcomes, giving Democrats a candidate in each of those individual California House races, were so important.
Montana state Auditor Matt Rosendale (R) has won his crowded four-way primary to face Sen. Jon Tester (D-MT) in what could be a hotly contested race this fall.
Rosendale led the field with 34 percent of the vote to 29 percent for former judge Russell Fagg (R), with two other candidates hovering below 20 percent as of 1:38 a.m. EST. The Associated Press called the race.
Rosendale’s tight win comes in spite of a major edge in outside support in the race. He and Fagg both spent less than $1 million on the race, according to the latest candidate disclosures, but the big-spending conservative group Club for Growth dropped almost $2 million to help boost Rosendale. He also had endorsements from Sens. Ted Cruz (R-TX), Mike Lee (R-UT) and Rand Paul (R-KY).
Tester has never topped 50 percent of the vote in the GOP-leaning state, which President Trump carried by 20 percentage points in 2016. And he has done little to ingratiate himself with Trump voters, picking fights with the White House more often than most other red-state Democrats — moves that Republicans think have made him newly vulnerable.
“Not only is Matt Rosendale a staunch fiscal conservative, he is a proven winner who stands an excellent chance of defeating liberal Sen. Jon Tester in the fall. It’s time for Sen. Tester to be held accountable for his tax-and-spend record, and Matt Rosendale is the man for the job,”Club for Growth President David McIntosh said in a statement.
“The choice for Montanans this November couldn’t be more clear. Jon Tester is a third generation Montanan who still farms the land homesteaded by his grandparents,” Tester’s campaign said in a statement. “Matt Rosendale is an East Coast developer who looks out for himself. Maryland Matt uses Montana to boost the outside special interests that are funding his Senate campaign.”
After months of worry that they might blow some big chances in California due to the state’s unusual primary system — and millions of dollars spent to try to avoid that nightmare scenario — House Democrats appear to have dodged a bullet with most primary votes counted.
Party strategists have been concerned about getting locked out in five different districts they hope to flip, where two Republicans could emerge in first and second place and get to face one another in the state’s all-party “jungle” primary. Based on election results as of Wednesday morning it appears likely, though not certain, that Democrats have avoided that disaster in all five districts.
Democrats’ biggest worry for months has been the race against Rep. Dana Rohrabacher (R-CA), whose Russia-hugging and other unusual views have hurt him with GOP loyalists and gave another Republican an opportunity in the race. Their fears were well-founded, but based on results it appears Democrats will get a candidate through in that race.
With all precincts reporting, businessman Harley Rouda, national Democrats’ preferred candidate, clung to second place behind Rohrabacher with 17.3 percent of the vote, with scientist Hans Keirstead (D) behind him by just 73 votes (17.2 percent) and former Rohrabacher protege Scott Baugh nipping at their heels with 16.1 percent of the vote. A trio of Democrats who dropped out of the race when Baugh jumped in were pulling more than 5 percent of the vote, risking playing accidental spoilers in spite of their decisions to drop out for the good of the party.
California is notoriously slow at counting votes, and this year is even slower, because for the first time any ballots postmarked by Election Day will be accepted. Los Angeles County also had a major snafu that left more than 118,000 registered voters off voting rosters, meaning there will be many more provisional ballots (a sliver of retiring Rep. Ed Royce’s district is in L.A. County). It could be days before final results are known in all of these key races, as many ballots remain uncounted — but if a Democrat can hold on in Rohrabacher’s district they’ll avoid the shutout scenario party leaders have been so fearful of.
Democrats also look like they won’t get shut out in the race against Rep. Duncan Hunter (R-CA), whose ethics issues have made him potentially vulnerable. A Democrat and a Republican were in a close race with 95 percent of precincts reporting, but the Democrat had 16 percent of the vote to the Republican’s 13 percent.
Even better news for Democrats: They appear almost certain to get a candidate through in the Democratic-leaning seat held by retiring Rep. Darrell Issa (R-CA). While Republican Diane Harkey held a lead with 25 percent of the total vote, she was trailed by a trio of Democrats who had support in the teens — Mike Levin, Sara Jacobs and Doug Applegate — before the next-closest Republican, who was in the high single digits. With 99 percent of precincts reporting, Levin held 17 percent of the vote.
And Republican Young Kim and Democrat Gil Cisneros, their parties’ respected favorites, were in first and second in the race to succeed Royce in another hotly contested race. Kim had 22 percent to 19 percent for Cisneros, 14 percent for Republican Phil Liberatore and 9 percent for Democrat Andy Thorburn, giving Democrats the matchup they were hoping for.
It also appears they’ll also get a Democrat through against Rep. Jeff Denham (R-CA), with Democrat Josh Harder edging out a Republican sitting in third place.
National Democrats also picked their candidates in three districts Hillary Clinton won two years ago. Non-profit executive Katie Hill led her race to face Rep. Steve Knight (R-CA), while law professor Katie Porter (D) held a slim lead in her primary to face Rep. Mimi Walters (R-CA). Democrat TJ Cox was uncontested in his bid to face Rep. David Valadao (R-CA) in the fall.
In statewide contests, California Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom (D) and businessman John Cox (R) advanced to the general election for governor, all but guaranteeing Newsom will be California’s next governor in the heavily Democratic state. Cox easily bested former Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa (D) in the race, while Newsom cruised, as expected.
And Sen. Diane Feinstein (D-CA) will face progressive challenger Kevin De Leon (D) in the general election, though her substantial lead in the first round of voting indicates the race won’t be competitive.
A top staffer for Bernie Sanders’ presidential campaign has finished a distant third in his bid for a key swing House seat.
Pete D’Alessandro, who ran Sanders’ Iowa operation and a number of other states for the candidate, pulled just 16 percent of the primary vote on Tuesday, far behind newly minted nominee Cindy Axne’s 57 percent showing and trailing another Democrat in the contest. The Associated Press has called the race.
He’s one of the few Democratic candidates Sanders has gone all-in for this midterm cycle — and the latest to fall short in his bid for office, as many of Sanders’ endorsed candidates have lost their elections in the past few months.
Sanders held a February rally for D’Alessandro, cut a TV ad for him and helped him raise nearly half of his campaign funds in the race, but it wasn’t enough.
D’Alessandro told TPM on Monday that he wouldn’t have been competitive at all against Axne, who had most of the establishment support, and second-place finisher Eddie Mauro, who self-funded his campaign, without Sanders’ support. But it doesn’t appear that it ended up doing much for him in the end.
Rep. Martha Roby (R-AL) refused to back President Trump in 2016. Now his voters have exacted their revenge.
Roby was forced into a primary runoff election after failing to win 50 percent of the vote Tuesday night in her heavily Republican congressional district, and she appears to be in for a tough fight ahead of the July 17 runoff election.
Roby led former Rep. Bobby Bright with 39 percent to 29 percent, with three other GOP primary candidates, including Roy Moore’s former campaign manager, splitting the rest of the vote. The Associated Press called the race with 65 percent of precincts reporting at 10:36 p.m. EST.
Roby, a mainline conservative who first won her seat in 2010, had done little to buck her party leadership for most of her career. But she strongly condemned President Trump’s remarks bragging about sexual assault that surfaced during the 2016 campaign, calling them “unacceptable” and demanding he step aside to let running-mate Mike Pence take over at the top of the ticket, and refused to back down when pressure mounted from local GOP activists.
“I cannot look my children in the eye and justify a vote for a man who promotes and boasts about sexually assaulting women,” she said at the time.
That led to a last-minute, right-wing write-in challenge in 2016 that peeled away a good chunk of her support and held her to under 50 percent in her victory that year — a warning sign of things to come for the lawmaker.
Roby has never apologized for those remarks, but she has worked assiduously to make peace with Trump and win back her district’s primary voters. She worked closely with the White House on expanding the child tax credit and to repeal Obamacare, has popped up on numerous occasions at White House ceremonies, and her first campaign ad talked up building Trump’s proposed border wall with Mexico.
Roby clearly has a problem with Trump supporters in the district. But she may have lucked out with her opponent. Bright is a former Democrat who voted for President Obama and backed Nancy Pelosi for House speaker in his one term in Congress. The former Montgomery mayor is well-liked in his home town and is wealthy enough to self-fund, but his previous support for Democrats toxic in the Alabama district may prove to be even more problematic than her earlier criticism of Trump.
The runoff sets up a rematch — Roby defeated Bright in a less heavily Republican district in 2010 to secure her seat in Congress.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) has canceled the Senate’s normal month-long August recess, with a promise to push through the confirmations of more of President Trump’s nominees.
“Due to the historic obstruction by Senate Democrats of the president’s nominees, and the goal of passing appropriations bills prior to the end of the fiscal year, the August recess has been canceled. Senators should expect to remain in session in August to pass legislation, including appropriations bills, and to make additional progress on the president’s nominees,” McConnell said in a statement.
The move is a win-win for McConnell and most Senate Republicans. First, working through most of August (they’ll still head home for the first week) means they can ram through a number of President Trump’s nominations — specifically for open judicial slots, many of which they’d kept open for the final years of President Obama’s time in office.
Second, it means that none of the senators up for reelection will be able to be home campaigning during that time — a fact that disproportionately benefits Republicans. There are 10 Senate Democrats up for reelection from states Trump won, including five in deep-red territory, as well as Sen. Bill Nelson (D-FL), who face tough reelection fights. Only Sen. Dean Heller (R-NV) will suffer for being forced to stay in Washington for the sweaty month.
Many of those vulnerable Democrats cagily refused to admit any frustration that they’d be stuck doing their day job — Sen. Joe Donnelly (D-IN) said he’s “happy to be wherever I need to be to do what’s right for Indiana,” while Sen. Tammy Baldwin (D-WI) said “there’s a lot of work to do.”
But others were more candid — Sen. Tim Kaine (D-VA) called it a “game.”
“The question is, can Republicans do anything? I don’t think they’re going to make any meaningful progress if they cancel a summer recess,” he said.
But it does handicap Democrats’ ability to campaign, while allowing Republicans to continue to ram through judges at a historically rapid pace.
McConnell has threatened a reduction in August recess before to get Democrats to relent to a faster confirmation of judges. But he said he wasn’t bluffing this time — and even if Democrats acquiesced he planned to keep the Senate around for most of the month.
“I’m all for cooperation but if you look at the amount of work we have to do it’s inconceivable for me we can’t use these weeks even with cooperation,” he said during a Tuesday afternoon press conference. “We have enough work to do for the American people that we should be here through these weeks.”
Not every Republican was thrilled about the decision.
“I hope we have a purpose,” Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC) told reporters, after sarcastically saying he couldn’t “think of a better place to be.”
ANAHEIM, CALIF. — Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) strode to the stage to raucous applause in pivotal Orange County on Saturday, just days ahead of California’s crucial primaries — and lit into Big Mickey Mouse while ignoring the looming elections.
“If a corporation like Disney has enough money to pay its CEO over $400 million in a four year period, it damn well has enough money to pay its workers at least fifteen bucks,” thundered the once and likely future presidential candidate, using his significant soapbox to tear into the Walt Disney Company on worker compensation to the delight of the thousands of union members gathered at a megachurch a short jaunt from Disneyland.
The appearance was vintage Bernie. He raged against the machine and championed workers and small-d democracy while largely ignoring the big-D Democratic Party. It was just one of three events across the Los Angeles area that day where he focused on movement politics and ignored Tuesday’s big primaries in nearby districts while barely mentioning President Trump — even though groups like the Service Employees International Union used the events to corral volunteers to knock on doors for the primary immediately afterwards.
Sanders has stayed out of most Democratic primary races, doing little to support a number of candidates who’ve embraced his populist calls for Medicare for all, free college and a $15 national minimum wage. When he has gotten involved in competitive primaries, his candidates have lost more races than they’ve won.
Sanders has endorsed in just nine competitive federal or statewide primary campaigns so far this election cycle, even as hordes of candidates have rushed to paint themselves as mini-Bernies across the country. Of those, just one Sanders-backed candidate has won a competitive House primary this year – and that was former Chicago mayoral candidate Chuy Garcia, who has a solid political base of his own in the city’s Hispanic community following his 2015 run for mayor and would have won without Sanders’ help.
Many other Bernie-backed candidates have gone down. Former Rep. Tom Perriello (D-VA) lost his primary to now-Gov. Ralph Northam (D) last year after Sanders held a rally for him. Former Philadelphia Deputy Mayor Rich Lazer (D) finished in third place in his bid for an open congressional seat in the city’s inner suburbs a few weeks ago after Sanders endorsed him. So did pastor Greg Edwards in a nearby House race, even though Sanders came into the district to hold a rally for him. Democrat Heath Mello lost the general election for Omaha mayor in spite of Sanders’ support. Marie Newman lost her primary challenge to moderate Rep. Dan Lipinski (D-IL) after Sanders endorsed her as well, though her bigger boosters were groups like EMILY’s List, and Sanders wasn’t as involved.
Sanders can also count Georgia Democratic gubernatorial nominee Stacey Abrams (D) and Pennsylvania Lieutenant Governor nominee John Fetterman (D) as candidates he endorsed that won their contested primaries. But both of them had statewide name recognition beforehand, and Abrams especially had broad-based backing from much of the Democratic establishment and other big-name endorsers.
On Tuesday, the House candidate who is arguably the closest to Sanders both personally and ideologically is expected to lose his race. Pete D’Alessandro, who ran Sanders’ Iowa efforts in the 2016 presidential primaries and was a senior staffer on his presidential campaign, is running in competitive primary in a swing Iowa House district. He badly trailed two other better-funded candidates in a recent public survey from a respected pollster. That comes even though Sanders held a rally for him earlier this years and cut a TV commercial for him, a rarity for Sanders.
D’Alessandro argued that the mere fact that he’s even a factor in the race is due to Sanders, whose backing helped him raise nearly half the $300,000 he’s brought in for the campaign.
“People like me and a lot of people around the country like me wouldn’t even be in the race if not for Bernie Sanders, and if we’re not in the race there would never have been a discussion for Medicare for all or a $15 minimum wage,” he told TPM Monday, saying he would never have been able to compete with one self-funding candidate and another with heavy establishment backing.
Beyond that, D’Alessandro said Sanders’ focus on movement-building rather than focusing primarily on the races needed to seize congressional control would pay more dividends in the long run.
“It’s a long game to him, it’s about the process, it’s about people being involved in the process, and that might explain why he’d much rather be talking to 12 union organizers who are actually organizing than the 30,000 foot view of ‘how many seats do we need to flip the House,'” he said.
Sanders is also backing Randy Bryce in his bid to win House Speaker Paul Ryan’s (R-WI) seat, former NAACP Chairman Ben Jealous in his uphill bid for Maryland governor, and Colorado state Rep. Joe Salazar (D) in his bid to be the state’s attorney general, as well as some down-ticket candidates, and is expected to endorse some like-minded incumbents in tough races this year.
It’s undeniable that Sanders’ populist progressivism matches the mood of much of the party base — and that his 2016 campaign played a major role in mainstreaming ideas once considered fringe. His views on health care, taxes and the minimum wage have become positions of many candidates. He’s long had an uneasy relationship with a party he’s never officially joined. But while Sanders hasn’t moderated his positions, he’s done more in recent years to support broad party causes than in the past, including his barnstorming the country to defend Obamacare when Republicans tried to repeal it even though he was one of the Senate Democrats who was most vocal in criticizing the bill from the left during negotiations over its passage before he eventually backed it.
During his California trip, while he didn’t vocally push for Democrats to turn out, he did agree to record a video for California state Sen. Josh Newman (D), who is facing a recall effort from GOP groups that has major implications for whether Democrats will have a supermajority in the state legislature.
Sanders’ team argued that his win-loss record in these primaries is an overly simplistic way to look at his impact on politics — and it is.
“When you go to Southern California, where the biggest concern right now is animating Democratic voters so they turn out and we don’t have two Republicans on the ballot, when you go there and you talk issues like the fact that Disney workers are grossly underpaid … That’s the conversation you want to be in the political ether,” Jeff Weaver, Sanders’ top political strategist, told TPM on Monday. “Everybody in California knows there’s an election Tuesday. But I don’t think people know why it’s important to vote in that election.”
That may not be fully accurate — many average people not at political events seemed surprised when TPM mentioned there was a primary, and early turnout numbers show that while Democratic enthusiasm is up from recent midterm primaries, Republicans are still outvoting Democrats by comfortable margins in the state.
It also overlooks all the candidates who embraced his policies who he hasn’t endorsed, including a handful in those same crucial California House races just down the road from his Saturday stops.
Many of those have been backed by Our Revolution, a group created by some top 2016 Sanders backers that has been much more eager to endorse but has struggled to push its candidates amidst ongoing internal turmoil. Our Revolution head Nina Turner did not return a call requesting comment on this story.
That includes candidates like Laura Moser, who is married to a top strategist from Sanders’ 2016 campaign. Sanders called it “outrageous” when the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee leveled attacks against her in her House primary, but never endorsed even after Our Revolution did. Moser badly lost her primary runoff a few weeks ago to a more moderate candidate.
Nor did he endorse some others who have won — like Kara Eastman, a progressive who beat moderate former Rep. Brad Ashford (D-NE) in a primary upset last month. Sanders’ allies argue that shows how much his presence is felt even in races he hasn’t endorsed, which may be true — but ignores other close races where he might have made a difference.
Others who’ve embraced Bernie and gotten Our Revolution’s backing but not Sanders’ say while they’d love his support, they’re not surprised he’s avoided some messy competitive primaries.
“If you try to put yourself in his shoes there’s not a lot for him to gain by supporting someone in this primary,” Andy Thorburn, one of two self-funding Democrats running to replace retiring Rep. Ed Royce (D-CA), told TPM on Wednesday at an event in nearby Fullerton. “If he starts endorsing a lot of people, how far do you go? I didn’t expect him to be particularly active in the primary season.”
Weaver said Sanders’ limited endorsements are partly a result of a political team that’s shrunk from his 2016 campaign — and promised he’ll continue to ramp up his 2018 efforts as the election hits full swing a few months down the line.
“He does care about the issues. You do have to vet the people you endorse, and the people who’ve asked for endorsements is way longer than we could accommodate,” he said. “You’re going to see him all over the place in the general elections.”
After hearing heartbreaking stories from Disney workers who’d been left homeless and had to skip meals because of meager pay, Sanders offered a positive note on Saturday.
“They’ve got the money and they’ve got the power. But there is something we have that they don’t have. We have morality on our side and we have the people on our side,” he said. “When you have people in Washington, Trump and others, who are trying to divide us up… we know when we stand together we’re going to win here in Anaheim, we’re going to win all over the country.”
FULLERTON, CALIF. — Speaking to a gathering of Orange County Democratic activists last week, Rep. Adam Schiff (D-CA) described the upcoming California elections in dire terms.
“The very idea of America is at stake” in the next elections, he warned.
President Trump is an existential threat to American democracy, and the GOP-controlled Congress is “utterly complicit.” The only solution is “to throw the bums out, to restore some semblance of our system of checks and balances,” and “the road to flipping the House may very well run through California and in particular Orange County.”
Then the man who hopes become the House Intelligence Committee’s next chairman — and get subpoena power in the majority to go after Trump — admitted how nerve-wracking that made this Tuesday’s all-party primaries in his backyard, which Democrats fear could leave them without candidates in as many as four competitive seats.
“We are all pulling our hair out, obviously, with this cockamamie jungle primary we have,” he said to nervous laughs from the dozens in attendance.
Schiff’s comments encapsulate the gnawing anxiety Democrats across the Golden State feel as the June 5 primary looms. They see huge opportunities in California, viewing the state as central of their battle plan to take back the House, with five crucial pickup opportunities and four more seats that could be competitive. But to get there they first have to avoid getting shut out in the state’s top-two primary — and in four of the nine seats that’s a real possibility.
His speech was meant as a rallying cry. But his audience included a number of the candidates divvying up the Democratic vote in one of those key races: Navy veteran and lottery winner Gil Cisneros, businessman Andy Thorburn and former Obama administration official Sam Jammal were all in attendance, hoping to woo any late-breaking voters milling about the Fullerton Arboretum in their quest to replace retiring Rep. Ed Royce (R-CA).
Royce’s seat and Rep. Dana Rohrabacher’s (R-CA), both Orange County-centered districts that Hillary Clinton carried in 2016, are the ones where most Democrats are the most concerned about getting locked out. They’re also keeping a close eye on the race to replace retiring Rep. Darrell Issa (R-CA) in another Democratic-trending district that stretches from the county’s southern reaches along the coast to San Diego’s northern suburbs.
The trio of seats are top pickup opportunities for the party, Democratic-trending suburban districts in what was once was one of the most solidly Republican corners of the country. Orange County launched the careers of both Ronald Reagan and Richard Nixon — Nixon’s presidential museum is in Royce’s district — and its politics have long been dominated by Republicans. But the county is fast-growing and fast-changing, with a burgeoning Latino population and numerous younger Asian Americans, especially Vietnamese- and Korean-Americans, who are breaking with their Republican parents and voting Democratic, as well as college-educated voters repelled by President Trump. Hillary Clinton was the first Democratic presidential nominee to win the county since Franklin Delano Roosevelt in 1936.
That’s created great promise — and great peril — for Democrats as they seek to navigate the state’s unusual “jungle primary” system and make major inroads into a county that was once so uniformly upscale and heavily white and conservative that locals referred to it “Orange Curtain” for its GOP dominance, but in recent years has become a polyglot mix of diverse suburbs.
Those machinations led to an unusual truce between Thorburn and Cisneros, orchestrated by the California Democratic Party, to stop attacking one another and stay positive. Both candidates told TPM has been helpful in averting a skirmish that had grown increasingly nasty in the race’s closing weeks.
“It was kind of getting out of hand … it was the right thing to do,” Cisneros said.
“It’s in everybody’s best interest that we reached that agreement,’ Thorburn said.
But party elders weren’t able to accomplish the same thing between businessman Harley Rouda and scientist Hans Keirstead, who have been ripping into one another in Rohrabacher’s district — the place where Democrats are most worried about getting locked out. The controversial Rohrabacher is bleeding votes to his former protege, heightening the risk that both Republicans will finish at the top in Tuesday’s primary and cost Democrats a golden opportunity.
Democrats managed to convince a number of second-tier Democratic candidates to drop out, helping the rest of their candidates consolidate the field in both the Rohrabacher and Royce districts.
“My decision to drop out of the race happened immediately after Scott Baugh entered the race hours before the filing deadline. Suddenly, it was a completely different race,” former candidate Laura Oatman, who now backs Rouda, told TPM at a protest hosted by the liberal group Indivisible outside Rohrabacher’s office last Tuesday. “Obviously I wouldn’t be doing what I’m doing now if this was about ego or personality or anything else. This has to do with flipping the seat.”
But for every Oatman, there are plenty of others who refused, like Jammal and Dr. Mai Khan Tran in Royce’s seat, who are likely to peel away votes from the front-runners. And that’s not to mention the impossibility of convincing a self-funding candidate to bow out for the good of the party. In all three races, there are at least two wealthy Democrats that are at least partly funding their campaigns and are mostly impervious to pressure from local and national Democrats — Keirstead, Rouda and Omar Siddiqui, another spoiler candidate, in Rohrabacher’s district, Cisneros, Thorburn and Tran in the Royce seat, and businessman Paul Kerr and Sara Jacobs, a former Hillary Clinton campaign staffer and a heir to the Qualcomm fortune, in the Issa seat.
“In this set of races, where you have these people who one way or the other have all made millions of dollars … these guys have a type of arrogance that overrides that we see from any other type of candidate,” one top California Democrat told TPM.
Issa’s district is particularly crowded, with a number of Republicans, 2016 Democratic nominee Doug Applegate and businessman Mike Levin all pulling chunks of the vote and all four Democrats bunched closely in most public and private polling. Most Democrats think they’ll end up with one of their own against California State Board of Equalization member Diane Harkey (R), a hardline conservative, in the November runoff.
At least in Royce’s district, the GOP side doesn’t look much more settled: former Royce staffer and state assemblywoman Young Kim is the GOP frontrunner, while Shawn Nelson and Bob Huff are serious enough threats to make the runoff with her that national Democrats have spent millions trying to knock the pair down and boost a fourth Republican, hardliner Phil Liberatore (R), to help him siphon votes from them.
Democrats are hopeful their voters’ hair-on-fire enthusiasm as well as a competitive gubernatorial primary with two Democrats spending heavily will help them boost turnout significantly in a state where Democratic voters typically vote at much worse rates than Republicans, especially in midterms and primaries and most especially in midterm primaries.
And there were signs of enthusiasm all over the county. The Indivisible rally at Rohrabacher’s office, a weekly tradition, drew roughly 50 people in the middle of the day, as cars rolled by honking their approval. An Indivisible candidate forum in Rep. Mimi Walters’ (R-CA) nearby district, one of the races in which Democrats are sure to get a candidate in the general election, packed in several hundred activists at Portola High School in Irvine that same night.
But it’s unclear how much that enthusiasm will translate. Based on the early vote, Democrats appear to be in the best shape in Issa’s district based on excitement alone, where Democrats have been out-voting Republicans. But the opposite is true in Royce’s district, where many more Republicans have returned their ballots by mail as of Friday, and in Rohrabacher’s seat, where the two are about at parity in the GOP-leaning district.
Democratic activists are clearly fired up to help whoever is the nominee in most of these districts.
Jon Bauman, an actor and longtime Democratic activist best known as Bowzer from Sha Na Na, made a point of promising Orange County Democratic Chairwoman Fran Sdao he’d do events to help whoever emerges as the nominee — “as long as we have a candidate.”
Or as his nephew, California Democratic Party Chairman Eric Bauman, told TPM: “There’s definitely a serious potential change [in seats long held by Republicans] that happens here — assuming the perfect storm doesn’t happen.”
California has arguably the most important primaries in the country this year — races that will play a crucial role in determining control of the House this November.
But the candidates and strategists who have lost countless hours of sleep over the fights for these seats aren’t likely to get much of a respite on June 5.
California is notoriously slow at counting ballots, and has changed its laws for this election in some ways that may be good for voting access, but will be rough on those who are waiting to find out what candidates will survive the state’s convoluted all-party primaries.
The state relies heavily on vote-by-mail, an option that more than 70 percent of voters are expected to choose. And this year, California for the first time will count any ballots that are postmarked by election day, rather than requiring all ballots to be received by election day.
That means that ballots are likely to be trickling in as late as Friday, making close contests even more difficult to call — and forcing candidates in tight places to brace for a long process.
“We’re going to have a long week,” California Democratic Party Chairman Eric Bauman told TPM on Friday.
On top of that, the obvious fact that California is on the West Coast and its final ballots will be counted at 1:30 a.m. PST, 4:30 a.m. EST, means that even if the election-day returns are enough to determine a winner, they won’t be released until late into the night.
California also tends to have a higher number of provisional ballots than other states, partly to ensure people who voted by mail don’t vote again on election day — a tedious process to check.
That’s led to a number of long, drawn out election counts, even in races that ended up not being that close. In 2014, Rep. Scott Peters (D-CA) had to wait almost a week to know he’d won reelection. It took weeks before now-Rep. Pete Aguilar (D-CA) was officially declared a runoff candidate that same year. And it took almost a month for now-Sen. Kamala Harris (D-CA) to be declared the winner of her 2010 race for Attorney General.
All that has California politicos bracing for a rough stretch.
“I’d be very happy if we know that night. I think it might drag on a little bit… it could be a long count,” Democratic congressional candidate Andy Thorburn told TPM with a rueful laugh Wednesday. “We should probably start a [betting] pool!”
FOUNTAIN VALLEY, CALIF. — As Rep. Dana Rohrabacher (R-CA) delivered a somber tribute to fallen soldiers at a local Memorial Day event Monday, his old political ally turned primary foe fidgeted in his seat just 20 feet away, applauding as appropriate for the troops. Rohrabacher and former Orange County Chairman Scott Baugh (R), a onetime Rohrabacher acolyte, failed to greet one another at the small gathering, ignoring each other like estranged brothers at a family funeral.
Baugh’s late entrance into the “jungle primary,” where the top two primary candidates face off in the general election regardless of party, upended both Rohrabacher’s reelection plans and Democrats’ hopes to take Rohrabacher down. If Baugh makes it to the general election runoff against Rohrabacher, that ends Democrats’ hopes of flipping a seat that’s key to seizing a House majority — and puts Rohrabacher in even more danger of losing reelection. Both sides are pulling out all the stops to block Baugh, and things have grown steadily more acrimonious ahead of next week’s June 5 primary.
“Ambition beat out gratitude in terms of Scott Baugh’s decision-making,” Rohrabacher groused to TPM as he exited the VFW event, attacking Baugh as a lobbyist who holds “skewed values where gratitude means nothing.”
The bad blood comes after decades of coziness between the two men. Rohrabacher, a former speechwriter for Ronald Reagan and surfing-loving right-wing hardliner, played a role in helping Baugh win his state assembly seat in the mid-1990s. They also worked closely together for the decade that Baugh spent as the Orange County GOP chairman.
Baugh downplays their friendship. “It’s probably more accurate to say Dana and I were political allies in the same political family … we were never close friends,” he told TPM during a Wednesday interview at his Newport Beach law office.
But others who know the two men well say that’s an understatement.
“They were very, very close friends,” former Huntington Beach Mayor Joe Carchio (R), who’s backing Baugh, told TPM at Huntington Beach’s Memorial Day ceremony.
Baugh insists that Rohrabacher told him in early 2016 that he wouldn’t run in 2018 in a meeting at that same office to hash out both of their future plans — claims that two other local Republicans who attended and now back Baugh corroborate, including one who published an account of that meeting long before the two men came into conflict. Rohrabacher said he was much less definitive during the meeting and told Baugh soon after that he had plans to run again, something Baugh denies.
Whatever the case may be, Baugh’s last-minute entrance into the race in early March scrambled both Rohrabacher’s and Democrats’ plans. A number of Democrats were already months into campaigns for the seat, seeing an opening in a historically conservative upscale district of beach communities that Hillary Clinton narrowly carried in 2016 given Rohrabacher’s ties to Russia (they run so deep that House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-CA) famously joked behind closed doors that “There’s two people I think Putin pays: Rohrabacher and Trump”).
Because of California’s unusual jungle primary system, Baugh is a real threat to push past the crowded field of Democrats and face Rohrabacher in the fall.
If he does so, Democrats are already down one district in their fight for 218 House seats — and Rohrabacher likely faces an even stiffer uphill battle for reelection since Baugh likely has more appeal to independents than the idiosyncratic three-decade incumbent. The district is one of four potentially winnable California seats where Democrats have serious fears they won’t get a single candidate in the general election — and the one they’re most worried about heading into Tuesday.
“It is a concern. The jungle primary here has so many machinations that go into the calculus,” Harley Rouda, one of the three Democrats in the race and the one most strategists think has the best chance of getting through to the general election, told TPM. “The challenge is, the more Baugh takes from Rohrabacher the more we need to consolidate the Democratic vote behind us.”
Polling from the campaigns show Baugh and Rouda are neck-and-neck, with medical scientist Hans Keirstead (D) not too far behind. Rohrabacher is well ahead of the field — but bleeding significant support from Republicans, a rarity for an incumbent that shows potential weakness for the general election.
Democrats know how much of a threat a Rohrabacher-Baugh matchup is. Two candidates dropped out shortly after Baugh jumped in and threw their support to Rouda to try to avoid that exact scenario. The local Indivisible group and the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee have backed him as well, though Keirstead got the California Democratic Party’s endorsement early on in the race.
Republicans would obviously love to see Democrats get shut out in the key district. But they worry that the nasty ongoing fight between the two men could hurt Rohrabacher this fall if a Democrat does get through.
“Baugh’s challenge to a Republican Party-endorsed candidate … has damaged the incumbent, and I’m very disappointed,” California state Assemblyman Matthew Harper (R), a Rohrabacher supporter, told TPM.
Baugh and Rohrabacher have been closely linked ever since Baugh’s first foray into politics, which Rohrabacher strongly encouraged. Baugh was accused of recruiting a dummy Democratic candidate to split the Democratic vote with a better-liked opponent in that 1995 race. Top local GOP activist Rhonda Carmony pleaded guilty to two felony counts in relation to that scandal (they were immediately downgraded to misdemeanors) — shortly after marrying Rohrabacher (she’s currently her husband’s campaign manager as well). Baugh eventually agreed to pay a civil fine of almost $50,000 for nine violations of the state Political Reform Act, after a four-year investigation into a political misconduct case (earlier perjury and campaign finance reporting charges against him were dismissed).
Democrats have jumped on that scandal. The House Majority PAC and Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee have made a huge investment in the race’s closing weeks. Panicked about being shut out in the general election, they have spent nearly $3 million combined against Baugh, including TV ads and mailers using the scandal to paint him as a crook.
Baugh pushed back against those ads, calling them “smear attacks that lack any kind of context” and saying he’d been the victim of a “witch hunt.”
Rohrabacher’s team has also gone hard after Baugh in campaign mailers, painting him as soft on immigration and slamming his work advising a chain of sober living facilities, potentially effective attacks in a district where anti-immigration sentiment and NIMBYism are potent forces with GOP voters (the types parodied in Arrested Development — the original banana stands are in the district on Balboa Island, not far from a statue of Ronald Reagan that sits on private property).
Baugh has responded with attacks on Rohrabacher, painting him as an absentee congressman. And while he’s questioned Rohrabacher’s focus on Russia, he argued it’s more because Rohrabacher has chosen to focus on those issues than those important to the district.
“It’s not so much his views of Russia, it’s his preoccupation of it to the exclusion of the issues that matter in the district. He’s taken 172 trips in his 30 years, that’s 5-6 trips a year for each year in office,” he said. “The people may or may not care about Russia. They do care about the airplane noise, they do care about the sober living homes.”
For his part, Rohrabacher dismissed questions about his Russia views as “fake news.”
“Even my detractors in this race don’t mention Russia too much. Scott said ‘Moscow and marijuana’ in one of his ads. But my people know I’m a patriot and they know everything I do is based on what’s good for the United States of America and while we face radical Islam my advocacy that we could cooperate with Russia to defeat radical Islam is very well understood by these people,” he said.
Democrats are hopeful they can get through a candidate. But they admit they’re worried it might not happen.
“In regards to the jungle primary, I’m absolutely concerned,” Dennis Bress, a local Indivisible activist and early Rouda backer, told TPM. “I’m scared shitless.”
Correction: Rhonda Carmony was not Baugh’s campaign manager during his 1995 campaign, as the original version of this story mistakenly reported.