California Democrats Hope to Mitigate Primary Problem

Some lawmakers are concerned they have too many Democrats running

Sam Jammal is one of several Democrats running to replace Rep. Ed Royce in California’s 39th District. (D.A. Banks/CQ Roll Call file photo)

California Democrats know they have a primary problem. 

“Put it this way,” Rep. Raul Ruiz said. “It’s part of my prayers.”

The Golden State’s so-called jungle primary presents a unique issue for Democrats looking to flip several Republican-held seats. The top two vote-getters in the June 5 primary, regardless of party, will advance to the general election. And Democrats are increasingly concerned their many candidates will end up splitting the vote among themselves, leaving two Republicans to move on to November.

So they’re looking to do something about it.

New urgency

California Democrats at the federal, state and local levels have been engaged in conversations about the nightmare scenario in which no Democrat makes the ballot in November, especially in GOP districts they view as key to winning back the House.

Members of the California delegation gathered at the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee on Tuesday to discuss a “variety of strategies and political items,” according to a source familiar with the meeting.

And Democratic lawmakers are already having discussions with candidates about stepping aside.

“I know that one of the hardest things to do is to get someone to not run for Congress. The only thing harder than that is to get someone to not run for Congress who’s been running for a year,” California Rep. Ted Lieu said.

“And so you can’t really force someone to not run for Congress if they want to,” said Lieu, a DCCC vice chairman. “We’re just trying to get information to campaigns and urging the ones who have not received traction to do the right thing.”

Lieu said Democrats specifically worry about the prospect of no Democrats advancing in the contests for two recently open GOP-held seats in Southern California: the 39th District, represented by Rep. Ed Royce, and the 49th District, held by Rep. Darrell Issa. Both Issa and Royce are retiring.

Both districts are among the seven Democratic targets in California that are represented by Republicans but voted for Hillary Clinton in 2016.

Watch: How the Open Seats Are (or Aren’t) Creating Opportunities in the House

Five Democrats have filed with the Federal Election Commission to run in the 49th District, and seven have filed to run in the 39th District.

Sam Jammal, a candidate in the 39th District, lags behind four other Democrats in fundraising — though all of them have made significant personal loans to their campaigns. He said Wednesday that no one has asked him to drop out of the race.

A onetime chief of staff to California Rep. Tony Cárdenas, Jammal said his connections to the district make him a strong candidate, and he wants to make his case to voters.

“My focus has to be on giving them something compelling to vote for,” hel said.

But Lieu said the goal is for the Democratic fields to narrow before the March 9 filing deadline.

One Democratic official stressed that the 39th and 49th districts presented the greatest risk to Democrats. But others said crowded races in some of the other targeted districts also risk seeing the strongest candidate not making it through the primary.

The official noted that several Republicans are also running in these districts, so they could face a similar problem of splintering the GOP vote.

Some Democrats are worried there could be a backlash if politicians are seen as taking sides in some primaries.

“People don’t like, frankly, the D.C. establishment to pick their candidates,” said California freshman Rep. Nanette Barragán. “They want their local candidates. They want people they believe in and don’t like hearing about D.C. getting involved.”

Barragán won her race in 2016 against a Democrat who was backed by the state and local party establishment. She said any candidate who is willing to put in the time and effort should run for Congress, but conceded there are also candidates who may not be completely dedicated and could end up splitting the Democratic vote.

Lieu and other Democrats said grass-roots activists were just as concerned about the crowded fields, and they were all engaged in discussions about how to move forward.

“I am concerned about making sure that this process is done as inclusively as possible,” Eric Bauman, the chairman of the California Democratic Party, said in a phone interview when asked about potential backlash.

“I’m more concerned about electing Democrats who will restore us the majority in the House,” Bauman said.

Watch: Which Members of Congress Might Not Be Back in 2019?

Taking steps

Some Democrats have already begun discussions with campaigns that they believe do not have a chance of winning the primary.

Lieu said they have shared opposition research and polling numbers with campaigns to demonstrate they do not have a path to victory. He declined to identify the campaigns he has contacted.

Cárdenas, who chairs the political arm of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus, said he has also had discussions with candidates.

“It’s never telling anybody what to do,” he said. “But it’s just saying, ‘Look, I’ve been doing this for 20 years. I’ve won and lost races.’ And sometimes it’s either timing or sometimes things aren’t coming together. And maybe it’s an opportunity to think honestly, and say, ‘Am I in it for ego, or am I in it to be the representative?’”

Cárdenas, who also did not say which campaigns he spoke to, said the reaction from candidates has been “pretty resistant.”

Bauman said the congressional delegation has been very engaged in discussions about the crowded primaries. He also said he had been working with the DCCC and other stakeholders to make candidates aware of the impact of crowded fields.

No California hopefuls are in the DCCC’s Red to Blue program, which connects candidates to committee resources. But the committee has not ruled out playing in the California primaries.

“Grassroots activists have put these races into play, and they deserve to have a Democrat on the ballot this November,” said DCCC spokesman Drew Godinich. “As has been the case in the past in California’s open seats, all options are on the table in order to ensure that happens.”

Other Democrats are taking matters into their own hands.

Two operatives behind Democrat Doug Jones’ victory in the Alabama Senate special election last year launched a new super PAC on Tuesday called CA-BAM (merging the two states’ names). They hope to identify the Democrats who would have the best chance of winning in November, and potentially provide data to thin out some of the crowded fields.

“In that case, what groups like ours can do is not just gauge the best candidates for the fall, but more importantly try and figure out who the strongest candidates are for June,” said pollster Paul Maslin, who launched CA-BAM with media consultant Joe Trippi.

“And then frankly somebody has got to go to the ones who are down the list and see if they can be convinced to end their candidacy,” Maslin said.

Get breaking news alerts and more from Roll Call on your iPhone or your Android.