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Expert: ‘Top Two’ System Could be Disastrous for Dems—Again

Recalls difficult LA Congressional race that felled four strong Democrats

By Evan Gahr

Democrats are hoping to oust longtime Republican incumbent Dana Rohrbacher in Orange County’s 48th district. (US House Office)

The Democrats’ road to taking back the House this November runs through California–but it could also implode there.

Dems need to regain 23 seats to take control of the House and were counting on flipping seven California seats held by Republicans in districts where Hillary Clinton topped Donald Trump in 2016.

However, the Golden State’s “top two” primary system is proving a huge roadblock, with Dems fearing their candidates will be shut out of the November ballot entirely if Republicans in each Tuesday primary are the top two vote getters. In other words, party primaries have been eliminated in California. Democrats and Republicans compete against each other on the same ballot in June; then the top two finishers advance to the November election.

So now Democrats are freaking out. In one race the state and national party support different candidates. In another, Dems are attacking a top Republican candidate as really a liberal, hoping GOP voters will turn against him so he won’t get enough votes to finish in the top two, the New York Times reports.

In an article titled “Democrats Go All Out to Avoid Disaster in House Races,” Jonathan Martin writes that, “With so many Democrats running, the party’s fear is that the vote will be splintered, allowing Republicans — who have fewer candidates — to dominate some primaries. The party and allied groups are spending more than $4 million on just three campaigns, intervening in one contest to prop up a favored candidate; attacking a Republican from the right in another; and even reminding people not to waste their votes on ‘ghost candidates’ who have dropped out yet remain on the ballot.”

In the 48th district, in Southern California’s Orange County, Democrats are hoping to oust longtime Republican incumbent Dana Rohrbacher. But they are bickering among themselves, recalling the expression a house divided cannot stand.

The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee earlier this month announced they were backing businessman Henry Rouda. But this support really irked state Democrats because they had already endorsed stem cell researcher Hans Keirstead in the hotly contested contest.

“Throughout our partnership, I have been consistently clear on one key point: when CDP delegates endorse a candidate, that candidate is the official candidate of the Party, and the DCCC should tread carefully in openly supporting a different candidate,”

When a candidate is the official candidate of the party “the DCCC should tread carefully in openly supporting a different candidate,” state party chairman Eric Bauman countered. “Decisions that undercut the independence of our endorsed candidates have the potential to be extraordinarily counterproductive.”

In the 49th district, which includes parts of San Diego and a little bit of Orange County, Dems had been hoping to re-take the seat held by longtime GOP incumbent Darrell Issa, who is retiring.

Hoping to turn conservative voters against one of the top Republican contenders, Assemblyman Rocky Chavez, the DCCC ran a cheeky television commercial depicting him as some kind of secret tax and spend liberal.

In another hotly contested race, the 39th district, where incumbent Ed Royce is retiring, Democratic pooh-bahs managed to negotiate a truce between the top two Dem candidates, Gil Cisneros and Andy Thorburn–the hope clearly being that if they don’t ferociously trash and discredit each other at least one will be able to get substantial votes in a crowded field.

Explaining the agreement, Bauman, the Dem chair, said, “competition in the primaries has become so heated and divisive it impedes our ability to unite behind the person chosen by the voters to represent our party in the fall campaign.”

Nevertheless, at least one prominent Democrat seems resigned to the fact that the California House races are going to end up in the Republican column. Congressman Raul Ruiz, who represents Palm Springs, told the Times that, “Winning back the House without California is not impossible but will be very, very difficult.”

University of Southern California political science professor Thad Kousser told California Globe that Dem fears about being shut out are well-founded.

“We’ve already seen this happen in the first running of the top two system in 2012.” In the 31st congressional district near Los Angeles, “there were four strong Democratic candidates and two Republicans and none of [the Democrats] made it to the November ballot.”

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