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California’s Jungle Primary Might Screw Over Both Parties

Have you heard the one about two Republicans and 5,000 Democrats who walk into a primary election? It’s not much of a joke to Democrats. In at least three U.S. House primaries in California on Tuesday, Democrats are in real danger of not advancing a candidate to the November general at all, thanks to the Golden State’s unusual “jungle primary” rules. That’s inspired panic among liberals and frantic — often counterintuitive — efforts to game the system. But there’s a greater chance than people realize that the jungle primary system will burn Republicans as well. In fact, if the GOP is locked out of the two biggest races on the ballot this year — for U.S. Senate and governor — the jungle primary could hurt them a lot more than it does Democrats.

Jungle primaries can be confusing even to locals, so let’s start with a refresher. In California,1 all candidates regardless of party run on the same ballot in the June primary. The top two vote-getters (again, regardless of party) advance to a head-to-head election in November. When this system went into effect in 2012, moderates were supposed to benefit because candidates would have to appeal to the whole electorate rather than just their partisan base. But three elections later, Californians disagree on whether it has succeeded.

What it has done is occasionally let two candidates of the same party slip through to the general election, which critics say deprives voters of a true choice in November.2 Let’s say you have a district that’s perfectly split — 50-50 — between Democratic and Republican voters, but 10 Democratic candidates run for the seat compared with only two Republicans. The two Republicans might get 25 percent of the vote apiece, while the Democrats each receive 5 percent. That would advance the two Republicans to the general election, locking up that district for the GOP.

That’s exactly what Democrats fear will happen in California’s 39th, 48th and 49th congressional districts — and perhaps in the 10th and 50th districts as well. Those districts’ swing status attracted a large number of credible challengers in what has been a great recruiting year for Democrats, but that high Democratic enthusiasm could backfire as a result of the jungle primary.

Crowded fields in California

Primary races by the total number of candidates on the ballot

Source: California secretary of state

The most clear and present danger for Team Blue seems to be in the 48th District. Rep. Dana Rohrabacher is a magnet for controversy, from his friendliness and contacts with Russia to his belief that homeowners should be able to refuse to sell their houses to gay people. It’s made him a Democratic target in this light red seat (R+4 going by FiveThirtyEight’s partisan lean),3 and even some fellow Republicans are fed up. Former Rohrabacher protégé Scott Baugh is running against his old mentor, providing a viable alternative to buttoned-down Orange County Republicans who may disapprove of the Trumpish incumbent.4 That’s motivated national Democrats to campaign hard against Baugh to secure a top-two finish for one of their eight candidates on the ballot. In an effort to improve that terrible math, three of those Democrats have withdrawn from consideration, and the party is handing out pamphlets reminding voters not to pick their names.

Two major Democratic candidates remain: Stem-cell researcher Hans Keirstead won the California Democratic Party’s endorsement, but the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee has sided with entrepreneur Harley Rouda. The DCCC’s move was intended to consolidate support around Rouda, but it may have only formalized the party’s schism. Why the preference? The DCCC no doubt appreciates Rouda’s ability to self-fund and was reportedly scared off by unsubstantiated allegations of Keirstead sleeping with female graduate students and punching one of his female students in the face. The two candidates share a solidly progressive platform, but Rouda may also hold more crossover appeal as a Hillary Clinton-supporting former Republican (like many voters in the district).

But in California’s two open House seats, both parties are at risk of a top-two lockout. In the 39th District (D+3), no fewer than four Democrats and three Republicans have realistic shots at a place on the November ballot. Former state Assemblywoman Young Kim, whom outgoing Rep. Ed Royce has endorsed, is considered the GOP front-runner, but that may be an overly hasty assumption. Two internal polls of the race put Kim in a virtual tie with fellow Republicans Bob Huff, a former state Senate minority leader, and Orange County Supervisor Shawn Nelson.

In turn, just a few points away sit the race’s two independently wealthy Democrats, who have far outspent the rest of the field. Gil Cisneros, a Navy veteran who won a $266 million lottery jackpot in 2010, has lent his campaign $3.5 million, while insurance executive Andy Thorburn has invested “only” $2.8 million. Worried that their high-dollar war of words was just pushing both of them down in the polls, Democratic leadership brokered a cease-fire between them last month. The DCCC initially campaigned here only to drag down Huff and Nelson (apparently ceding one runoff slot to Kim) but has lately started airing ads supporting Cisneros — despite a Democratic legislative candidate’s accusations that he made inappropriate sexual advances toward her. Finally, two other Democrats, Emily’s List-backed pediatrician Mai Khanh Tran and former Obama administration appointee Sam Jammal, could also be factors in the race. The bottom line is that any of the top seven candidates — and therefore any combination of parties — could finish in the top two.

And in California’s 49th District (D+1), national Republicans have been at least as active in trying to manipulate the field as national Democrats have been. The American Future Fund has spent more than $1 million propping up state Board of Equalization member Diane Harkey and Assemblyman Rocky Chávez and fending off a third GOP candidate, San Diego County Supervisor Kristin Gaspar. Meanwhile, the DCCC has spent $1.7 million against Chávez (who is the most moderate Republican and probably the most electable) without picking sides among the Democratic contestants. The strategies seem like they’ve been effective: According to a SurveyUSA poll taken at the end of May, Harkey led the race with 24 percent, followed by Democrats Doug Applegate and Sara Jacobs with 11 percent, Democrat Mike Levin with 10 percent and Chávez (who actually led in SurveyUSA’s previous poll of the race) with 8 percent.

But polls of U.S. House races and primaries are notoriously error-prone, and there’s been plenty of upheaval among the Democrats. Applegate, a retired Marine colonel, was Democrats’ November candidate for this seat in 2016 but has been dogged by 14-year-old allegations that he stalked and threatened his ex-wife, although she has defended and endorsed him in 2018. Meanwhile, Jacobs, whose grandfather is the billionaire co-founder of Qualcomm, has benefited from Emily’s List’s largest-ever independent-expenditure campaign ($2.3 million), but the 29-year-old has been dinged for exaggerating her work experience. And the race’s leading fundraiser is a fourth Democrat, real estate investor Paul Kerr.

In two final districts with vulnerable GOP incumbents, it’s also possible (but less likely) that either party will be shut out of the top two. In the heavily Latino 10th District (D+1), Rep. Jeff Denham has cultivated a moderate reputation, especially on immigration. His lone Republican challenger, Ted Howze, hopes to rally the district’s hard-core conservatives with cries of “amnesty.” Among Democrats, venture capitalist Josh Harder has raised a strong $1.5 million, beekeeper Michael Eggman has plenty of name recognition from his failed 2014 and 2016 campaigns, and former Riverbank Mayor Virginia Madueño enjoys the support of Emily’s List.

Finally, the R+19 50th District wouldn’t be competitive under normal circumstances, but Rep. Duncan Hunter is under FBI investigation for personal use of campaign funds. Democrats Ammar Campa-Najjar and Josh Butner have gone nuclear on each other, potentially paving the way for Republicans Bill Wells or Shamus Sayed to finish second to Hunter. Wells is mayor of El Cajon, a city of more than 100,000 people on the district’s western edge, but businessman Sayed has raised five times as much money. In mid-May, a SurveyUSA poll found all the non-Hunter candidates within the margin of error of one another.

But here’s the thing: If Democrats (or Republicans) miss out on the general election in any of those races, the most either party could lose is one House seat.5 That’s bad, of course, but the damage would be limited. Not so, however, if a party is locked out of the general election in a high-profile statewide race. Unfortunately for conservatives, it’s Republicans who are likely to miss out in November on California’s U.S. Senate race and possibly also the gubernatorial election. And that could have bigger consequences than just one race.

As FiveThirtyEight’s Clare Malone writes, California’s general election for the U.S. Senate is likely to come down to two Democrats representing two different visions for the party: more moderate Sen. Dianne Feinstein and progressive upstart Kevin de León, the former state Senate president. Even worse, Republicans could also be shut out of California’s other major statewide race this year: governor. Everyone else is basically just trying to make the runoff with Democratic Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom, who has raised the incredible sum of $36 million. Not to be outdone, former Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa has raised $34 million and also gotten a $20 million assist from a pro-charter-schools outside group. State Treasurer John Chiang has raised “only” $14 million and hopes to win over Democrats turned off by Newsom’s and Villaraigosa’s past scandals.

Meanwhile, President Trump has urged Republicans via tweet to consolidate behind businessman John Cox instead of state Assemblyman Travis Allen. Newsom has also subtly tried to lift Cox in an effort to face a Republican in the fall. The trend in polling (which, weirdly for this primary season, has been ample) suggests these developments may have made a difference, but Cox — and the GOP — could easily still lose that second runoff spot.

Latest polls of the California governor’s race
Democrats Republicans
Dates Pollster Newsom Villaraigosa Chiang Cox Allen
May 29-30 Competitive Edge 31% 13% 4% 23% 10%
May 22-28 UC Berkeley 33 13 7 20 12
May 21-24 Emerson College 24 12 10 16 11
May 12-24 YouGov 33 9 8 17 10
May 21 SurveyUSA 33 8 10 17 12
May 11-20 PPIC 25 15 9 19 11
Apr. 18-May 18 USC Dornsife/LAT 21 11 6 10 5
Average 29 12 8 17 10

Both California’s senatorial and gubernatorial races were always going to be safely Democratic in this D+26 state, so it may seem like no big deal if Republicans fail to advance in them. It’s even happened before: Democrats Kamala Harris and Loretta Sanchez were the top two vote-getters in the 2016 Senate primary before facing off in the general election. But this year, without a presidential race on the ballot, the races for Senate and governor matter more than just for their own sake. As the two races headlining California’s 2018 ballot, they have the power to drive turnout across this state of 40 million — and all 53 of its congressional races.

A Republican shutout at the top of the ticket could depress conservative turnout statewide, perhaps nudging districts where the Republican is currently favored, like the 4th and 21st, more toward the toss-up column. That could damage the party’s chances in a dozen swing districts, not just in one, like a shutout in an individual House race would. In 2014, poor turnout in “orphan states” — those without competitive races for governor or Senate — cost Democrats House seats that they didn’t even know were in danger. The biggest consequence of the jungle primary could be that California becomes 2018’s version of an orphan state — for Republicans.


  1. As well as Louisiana and Washington, with slight variations.

  2. Write-in candidacies aren’t even allowed.

  3. The average difference between how a state or district voted in the past two presidential elections and how the country voted overall, with 2016 results weighted 75 percent and 2012 results weighted 25 percent.

  4. The 48th District gave President Trump just 46 percent of the vote four years after supporting Mitt Romney with 55 percent.

  5. California’s 25th (D+2) and 45th (R+1) congressional districts also feature competitive primaries this week, but Republican Reps. Steve Knight and Mimi Walters are virtually certain to face Democrats in November. Read up on these more conventional Democratic brouhahas here and here.

Nathaniel Rakich is a senior editor and senior elections analyst at FiveThirtyEight.