California votes today, with control of Congress in play

Andrew Romano
West Coast Correspondent
Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom, Democratic candidate for governor of California, during a campaign visit with Los Angeles County Supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas on May 31, 2018, in Los Angeles. (Photo: Patrick T. Fallon for Yahoo News)

LOS ANGELES — The polls are open. The voting has begun. And hordes of national political reporters have descended, Iowa style, upon the big cities, the sprawling suburbs, the dusty inland farm towns and the sparkling southern coastline of California.

As one of America’s most reliably Democratic redoubts, the Golden State rarely gets its day in the sun, politically speaking. But today — Primary Day 2018 — is different.

A former San Francisco mayor (Gavin Newsom) is battling a former Los Angeles mayor (Antonio Villaraigosa) for the chance to succeed Gov. Jerry Brown, 80 (a former mayor of Oakland), who is wrapping up his record fourth term in office. The first Latino president of the state Senate (Kevin de León) is gunning for the nation’s oldest U.S. senator (Dianne Feinstein), claiming his brash progressivism is a better fit for the state than her conscientious moderation. And throughout California, an unusual “jungle primary” system is upending expectations, scrambling strategies and, in several Republican-held congressional districts won by Hillary Clinton in 2016, threatening to derail the Democratic Party’s dreams of winning back the House of Representatives in November.

For the next 24 hours, California will be the center of the political universe — with repercussions that will almost certainly reshape this fall’s high-stakes midterm elections.

Here’s everything you need to know about Tuesday’s key Golden State primaries.


Welcome to the jungle

Every candidate competes in California’s primaries, regardless of party, and the top two finishers advance to a fall runoff, even if both are Democrats (or Republicans). In theory, this nonpartisan system was supposed to foster moderation; in practice, it has done little to lessen reflexive polarization or partisanship, instead putting Democrats at serious risk of boxing themselves out of some very winnable general election contests.

“Boxing themselves out” is the key phrase here. In total, Clinton carried seven Republican-held congressional districts in the state, some of which hadn’t voted for a Democratic presidential nominee in decades. All seven districts instantly became midterm targets — nearly a third of the 23 pickups that Democrats need to retake the House.

But now Dems are in danger of not having anyone represent their party on the fall ballot in three of these districts, and the reason is simple: Too many of them are running. Triggered by President Trump and eager to resist, a record number of Democrats have launched congressional campaigns this cycle  — more than 500 at last count, the most for any one party since Republicans flipped 63 House seats in 2010.

This is usually a good problem to have, and at first, the Democratic Party’s strategy seemed simple enough. Let all these enthusiastic new Democratic candidates duke it out for a chance to compete in the general against a wounded GOP incumbent. Tie said incumbent to Trump, who is enormously unpopular in California. Then sit back and watch as the Democratic survivor rides a “blue wave” to Washington.

Democratic congressional candidate Mike Levin with his wife, Chrissy, in front of supporters at the 2018 California Democratic State Convention, on Feb. 24 in San Diego. (Photo: Denis Poroy/AP)

But matters soon became much more complicated. In California’s 49th Congressional District, on the coast north of San Diego, Rep. Darrell Issa decided to retire; in the 39th Congressional District, Rep. Ed Royce did the same. A glut of new Republican candidates rushed to fill the void. Meanwhile, in the 48th Congressional District, a wealthy slice of the suburban Orange County shoreline, controversial Rep. Dana Rohrabacher — aka “Putin’s favorite congressman” — attracted a potent last-minute GOP opponent in former county GOP Chairman Scott Baugh.

The upshot was unsettling. Before, the GOP incumbent was guaranteed to secure one of the top two slots; the strongest Dem was a shoo-in for the other. But now that these Republican races were free-for-alls as well, the numbers stopped adding up. Divide the Democratic vote among four, five or six candidates, the thinking went, and the only two candidates on the November ballot could both wind up being Republicans. (California doesn’t allow write-ins.)

We’ll find out Tuesday whether this Democratic nightmare comes true.

In CA-49, two Republicans — state Board of Equalization representative Diane Harkey and state Assemblyman Rocky Chavez — have regularly finished at or near the top of the polls. Retired Marine Col. Doug Applegate was the early Democratic favorite, having surprised everyone by finishing with a mere 1,621 votes, or 0.6 percentage points, behind Issa in 2016. But Applegate has been fading amid chatter about a contentious divorce, and environmental lawyer Mike Levin has emerged as perhaps the party’s leading contender, with several key endorsements and a first-place finish in the most recent public survey.

The problem is that two other well-resourced Democrats are running as well: 29-year-old Sara Jacobs, who has benefited from $1 million in super-PAC donations from her grandfather, Qualcomm co-founder Irwin Jacobs, and Navy veteran and businessman Paul Kerr, who has so far spent more than $5 million of his personal fortune — in part on controversial ads attacking Levin and Jacobs. All these candidates, including Applegate, are still viable, as are both leading GOPers. Unless Democrats turn out in unprecedented numbers — and/or throw the lion’s share of their votes to one of their party’s four candidates (most likely Levin) — they could end up sending two Republicans to the November runoff.

CA-48 is a similar story. At first glance, Rohrabacher didn’t seem like one of the most vulnerable House Republicans. In 2016, he defeated his Democratic opponent by more than 16 percentage points, and registered Republicans outnumber registered Democrats by more than 10 points in his district, which stretches from Seal Beach to Laguna Beach and includes some of California’s whitest, wealthiest and most traditionally Republican towns. In fact, Orange County has long been known as the birthplace of the conservative movement.

Harley Rouda, a Democrat running for California’s 48th Congressional District, speaks during a campaign rally in Laguna Beach, Calif., on May 20, 2018. (Photo: Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call via Getty Images)

But this time around, changing demographics, local antipathy toward Trump and Rohrabacher’s own strange relationship to Russia lured seven Democratic challengers into the race. Since then, many have fizzled or dropped out, leaving two strong candidates — stem-cell pioneer Hans Keirstead and real-estate entrepreneur Harley Rouda — as the last men standing. Keirstead was initially considered one of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee’s top recruits nationwide, and he earned the state Democratic Party’s endorsement earlier this year. But Rouda seems to have gained late momentum — and the committee’s official support — amid questions surrounding Keirstead’s exit from a UC Irvine lab. Despite his vulnerability, Rohrabacher is still likely to finish first. The question is whether Rouda and Keirstead’s increasingly vicious infighting will help boost one of them past Baugh for second place — or whether it will keep both of them out of the runoff.

Whatever the Democratic Party’s worries in CA-49 and CA-48, however, they’re nothing compared with the situation in CA-39. With four viable Democrats and three viable Republicans (frontrunner Young Kim, a former state assemblywoman; former state Senate Minority Leader Bob Huff; and Orange County Supervisor Shawn Nelson), the top-two math in Rep. Ed Royce’s district, which stretches northeast from Fullerton, is more daunting for Dems than anywhere else.

By all accounts, Kim is a lock for first place. But no one has any clue who will join her in the general election. Both Huff and Nelson are well known and well liked in the district. The Democratic frontrunners, meanwhile, are a pair of largely self-funding, and less familiar, millionaires: Gil Cisneros, a former shipping and distribution manager at Frito-Lay who won a lottery jackpot of $266 million with his wife in 2010, and Andy Thorburn, a Villa Park health insurance executive and former teachers’ union leader who loaned his campaign $2 million right out of the gate. Cisneros has the Congressional Campaign Committee’s backing; Thorburn was endorsed by Our Revolution, the Bernie Sanders super-PAC.

Further dividing the Democratic vote field are a pair of political neophytes: pediatrician Mai-Khanh Tran, a Vietnamese-American immigrant who worked her way through college at Harvard as a janitor and later survived two bouts of breast cancer, and former Obama administration Commerce Department staffer Sam Jammal. Unlike several other lower-tier Dems, both Tran and Jammal refused to bow out when pressed by national party leaders.

And then there’s turnout to consider. As David Wasserman of the Cook Political Report noted Monday, “A big reason why Democrats are nervous [is that] 22 percent of 39th CD Republicans have returned ballots versus 17 percent of Democratic voters (unlike in the 48th and 49th CDs, where Democrats have [turned] out at higher rates).”

The result could be a Democratic shutout in one of the most flippable districts of 2018.


The governor’s mansion 

Unlike in House races, there’s no chance Democrats will get locked out of the gubernatorial runoff; former San Francisco mayor and current Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom has led in all but one poll released since March 2017.

The question is whether he’ll be running against a Republican or a Democrat in the fall.

At first, former state Assembly speaker and Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa seemed like the other favorite to advance. The thinking was that Villaraigosa’s potent base — more Latino and Southern Californian than Newsom’s — would propel him past whichever candidate California’s shrinking Republican Party eventually put forward.

Unfortunately for Villaraigosa, that’s not how things have been playing out. Two single-digit Democratic hopefuls (state Treasurer John Chiang, who boasts more money than Villaraigosa, and former state schools chief Delaine Eastin) have been splitting the party’s non-Newsom vote and, as a result, the leading Republican candidate, millionaire businessman John Cox, has been inching ahead of Villaraigosa in the latest polls.

Democratic gubernatorial candidate Antonio Villaraigosa dances at Mariachi Plaza in his childhood Los Angeles neighborhood of Boyle Heights as he campaigns in the run-up to the primary election, on June 2, 2018. (Photo: David McNew/Getty Images)

The final days of the primary campaign have been dizzying. Newsom has been running ads that tout Cox’s conservative credentials — a backhanded way of trying to boost him into second place and ensure an easier path to victory come November. Supporters of Villaraigosa have been promoting the candidacy of Cox’s more conservative rival, state Assemblyman Travis Allen, in hopes of depressing Cox’s share of the primary vote and helping the former mayor advance. And charter-school advocates — including Netflix chief Reed Hastings, billionaire philanthropist Eli Broad and former New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg — spent $13.7 million on Villaraigosa’s behalf in less than a month, all but wiping out Newsom’s fundraising lead with the largest infusion of outside cash in California political history. Hastings alone donated a whopping $7 million.

Still, the outcome isn’t settled. After flirting with Allen, Republicans seem to be coalescing around Cox — Trump included. (Never mind that Cox refused to vote for the Manhattan mogul in 2016.) “California finally deserves a great Governor, one who understands borders, crime and lowering taxes,” the president tweeted Friday afternoon. “John Cox is the man — he’ll be the best Governor you’ve ever had.” But strong Latino turnout could help Villaraigosa squeak through.

If he does, the November election — a fight between two Democrats to lead the world’s fifth largest economy — would be one of the most fascinating and revealing in the country.

With an activist base that’s veering leftward in reaction to Trump and a Legislature that’s largely sympathetic and no longer requires Republican votes to pass laws, a like-minded governor could quickly transform the country’s most populous state into the negative image of Trump’s Washington: that is, a place where policy responses to America’s most pressing problems, from income inequality to education to health care, could be implemented.

As we’ve noted before, Newsom is the most progressive of the leading Democrats and the most detailed in his policy prescriptions. His platform includes a number of proposals that national progressives are pushing the party to adopt: a statewide “Medicare for All” single-payer health care system; universal preschool; full-service community schools, open every day; a vast expansion of affordable housing; and a state bank dedicated to financing infrastructure projects, small businesses and the growing marijuana industry. He frequently cites his early decision as San Francisco mayor to grant the nation’s first official same-sex marriage licenses as evidence that as governor he would have the “courage” to push for trailblazing reforms.

Long considered a moderate figure, Villaraigosa is running as Newsom’s more pragmatic, centrist foil. “Pie in the sky doesn’t put food on the table,” he likes to say of the frontrunner’s single-payer plan, which would require an unlikely waiver from the Trump administration. “It’s snake oil.” On education, Villaraigosa is advocating for more charter schools (hence, the independent expenditures) and stricter rules for teacher tenure; as mayor of Los Angeles, he tried to seize control of the city’s public schools, arguing a dramatic overhaul was needed.

The choice facing Californians, then, would be stark: How far to the left do they want the state to go? As far as it has gone in the past? Or further? As it happens, this is the same choice confronting national Democrats as they struggle to respond to Trump. In that sense, California’s gubernatorial contest could foreshadow the risks ahead for the party, and the possible rewards.

An attendee holds a hat that reads “Make America Sane Again” at a campaign event for Gavin Newsom on May 31, 2018, in Palm Springs, Calif. (Photo: Patrick T. Fallon for Yahoo News)

A GOP shutout could have down-ballot consequences as well. State Republicans fear that if Cox fails to advance — if there’s no Republican at the top of the ticket for the first time in California history — rank-and-file GOP voters won’t show up to vote for the party’s imperiled congressional candidates. According to the Sacramento Bee, an internal poll conducted by the Cox campaign showed that “barely more [than] half of likely GOP voters in California would turn out” in that scenario.

If Cox, on the other hand, makes the runoff, Newsom would be all but guaranteed to succeed Jerry Brown in the governor’s mansion. The Republican has gained some traction by railing against California’s recent gas-tax increase, which raised prices by 12 cents per gallon, and its so-called sanctuary state movement, which has seen various jurisdictions push back on Trump’s aggressive immigration agenda by directing state or local police not to assist federal enforcement efforts. But the president lost here in 2016 by 3 million votes, and a new poll shows that two-thirds of Golden Staters disapprove of his job performance; meanwhile, “decline to state,” or independent, voters just surpassed Republicans as the state’s second-largest bloc by registration.


Scramble for the Senate 

There’s zero doubt that incumbent Democrat Dianne Feinstein will finish first in Tuesday’s primary, bringing her one step closer to a sixth term in the U.S. Senate.

The real question is by how much.

Initially, Kevin de León, the former president pro tempore of the state Senate, was seen as a serious challenger — a pugnacious progressive who could capitalize on long-standing left-wing frustrations with Feinstein’s bipartisan instincts and relatively hawkish foreign-policy views and rally Democrats who had become especially eager to unseat her since last August, when she refused to call for Trump’s impeachment, arguing instead that he “can be a good president” if “he can learn and change.”

In the state Senate, de León had worked overtime since Trump’s election to transform California into ground zero for the resistance — and to cast de León, by extension, as one of the movement’s leaders. On Nov. 9, 2016, de León and his counterpart in the state Assembly, Anthony Rendon, released a letter proclaiming that California would “lead the resistance to any effort that would shred our social fabric or our Constitution”; in January 2017, they hired former Attorney General Eric Holder to shape their legal strategy. And de León in particular went on to push bill after bill designed to thwart Trump’s agenda.

On the trail, de León hasn’t pulled his punches. He frequently mentions “congressional seniority,” a thinly veiled reference to the fact that Feinstein, 84, is the oldest sitting U.S. senator and would be 91 when her next term concludes.

U.S. Senate candidate and state Senate President Pro Tem Kevin de León, at the California Democratic State Convention on Feb. 24, 2018. (Photo: Denis Poroy/AP)

For a time, de León’s flanking maneuver seemed to be working. He won the endorsements of many of the state’s top unions, and California Democrats voted in February not to endorse Feinstein, making her the first incumbent senator in decades to compete in a Golden State primary without the official backing of her party.

But the polls never budged. The earliest head-to-head surveys showed de León at around 15 to 20 percent, with Feinstein in the 40 to 50 percent range; the latest surveys, which include several additional progressive challengers and a handful of obscure Republicans, peg de León’s support around 10 percent — roughly 30 percentage points behind his chief rival. One even showed a Nazi with no real campaign infrastructure running ahead of de León (though his support has dissolved in more recent polling). Another Republican, businessman James P. Bradley, seems to be within striking distance.

In part Feinstein’s lead is because Feinstein has massively outspent de León, raising $10 million and chipping in an extra $5 million of her own money. (De León has rustled up a mere $1.3 million so far.) In part it is because she has tacked to the left on marijuana and the death penalty, seemingly in response to de León’s attacks and the larger leftward shift among Democrats they reflect. In part it is because Feinstein’s name recognition is sky-high — she won reelection in 2012 with more votes (7.75 million) than any other senator in U.S. history — which tends to help in an enormous state with several exorbitant media markets.

But mainly it is because the vast majority of Californians aren’t as unhappy with Feinstein as de León assumed. At a #MeToo moment, she is the first and only woman to have chaired the Senate Rules Committee and the Select Committee on Intelligence. Before joining the Senate, she was the first female mayor of San Francisco; before that, she was the first female president of the city’s Board of Supervisors. In 1994, Feinstein authored the federal assault weapons ban, and she has continued to fight for gun control amid the recent spate of school shootings; during President Barack Obama’s first term, she led a groundbreaking investigation into the CIA’s controversial post-9/11 interrogation program.

Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., and Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., hold a news conference in the Capitol on Oct. 4, 2017, to introduce legislation to ban the sale and possession of bump-stock equipment used to turn a semiautomatic weapon into an automatic one. (Photo: Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call via Getty Images)

De León’s supporters insist that the dynamic will different in the fall, should he advance. But unless he makes a surprisingly strong showing Tuesday, it’s unlikely that he will be able to gain much momentum. Ultimately, then, de León’s candidacy may prove to be a case study in the limitations of resistance politics, rather than its power. Feinstein may not be popular among self-styled resistance fighters, but how many resistance fighters are there, really — even in California? And how many are just as upset about moderate Democrats as they are about Trump Republicans?

Perhaps not enough to unseat a trailblazing woman who has been serving the state for decades.


Parts of this story were adapted from the author’s earlier coverage of California’s 2018 elections.


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