With their solid showing in this week’s California primaries, Democrats cleared a major hurdle in their bid to take control of the House of Representatives in November.
The party avoided its worst-case scenario: Being shut out of several potentially competitive races because of California’s unusual primary system, which advances the top two vote-getters, regardless of party, to the general election. On occasion, this leads to races in which two candidates from the same party face off on Election Day.
Democratic leaders fretted about this possibility more and more as primary day drew nearer, envisioning a scenario in which their abundant candidate pool cannibalized itself to Republicans’ advantage. California Democratic Party Chairman Eric Bauman said he expected Democrats to be shut out of “at least a couple” of what should be competitive races in the fall.
Elevated Democratic turnout and machinations by party leaders to steer voters toward candidates they think had the best shot of winning, in some cases by badgering others to drop out of the race, allowed the party to avoid disaster.
The outcome ensures several vulnerable Republican-held seats are still in play, including seven that 2016 Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton won. Democrats need to gain at least 23 seats to win control of the House, which Republicans wrested from Democratic control after the 2010 midterms. They can’t flip the House without California.
But it was far from a victory for the party. Democrats burned through a lot of cash just guaranteeing their candidates slots on November’s ballot. The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee (DCCC) has spent at least $5.6 million in the Golden State this election cycle, at one point even giving money to Republican candidates in the hopes of splitting the GOP vote.
There was a silver lining for Republicans, who are not accustomed to good news in the state leading the “resistance” to Donald Trump’s presidency.
GOP candidates received a majority of the vote in all but one of the state’s key battleground districts. Granted, they underperformed compared to previous election years. Meanwhile, Democrats will likely do much better in the general election, when their voters are more likely to show up.
But Democrats have only proven they will be able to compete come November. They are targeting 10 seats, which Republicans will not give up easily. One vulnerable Republican, Rep. David Valadao, who represents an increasingly liberal district that voted for Clinton in 2016 and President Obama twice, already looks like a strong bet for re-election.
Furthermore, Republicans were not locked out of all major statewide races, which would have depressed their turnout in the general election. Republican John Cox stands little chance of becoming California’s next governor, but he will square off against Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom Nov. 6. Democratic Sen. Dianne Feinstein, by contrast, will have no GOP challenger since fellow Democrat Kevin De Leon came in second on Tuesday.
Democrats and Republicans are both spinning the results. In reality, the status quo won. Neither party gained a clear advantage, and the fundamentals of this midterm election did not shift: The House of Representatives is up for grabs; Democrats will gain seats but are not guaranteed enough for a majority; and Republicans will vigorously defend their turf.
Pay attention to the generic ballot, which is starting to swing back in the Democrats’ favor after months of improving numbers for Republicans. With Trump in the White House, the GOP is running on one of the strongest economies in years. If that doesn’t help vulnerable Republican incumbents win re-election, nothing will.