ORANGE COUNTY, CALIFORNIA — Rep. Ed Royce (R-CA) likely knew the odds were against him when he announced his retirement in early January.
The 13-term Orange County congressman was re-elected with 57 percent of the vote in 2016, but his largely Republican constituency also voted for Hillary Clinton over Donald Trump by 9 percentage points. When Royce indicated that he would not be running for another term, the Cook Political Report re-categorized the race in California’s 39th district as “lean Democratic” from “lean Republican,” suggesting the possibility of a Democratic victory come November.
But it may not come so easy.
While Republican candidates like former State Senate Minority Leader Bob Huff, Orange County Supervisor Shawn Nelson, and former State Assemblywoman Young Kim pose notable threats in Tuesday’s primary election, California’s open primary system is the biggest elephant in the room for Democrats.
Under an open primary election, the two candidates garnering the most votes will make their way to the November general election ballot — even if the top two are from the same party. Dilution of the vote among a bevy of inexperienced progressive and Democratic candidates could thwart the party’s plan to add one more seat in the House.
“When you remove the incumbent, it makes it such a wide-open race, it’s hard to figure out who really emerges with an advantage,” said Lori Cox Han, a professor of political science at Chapman University, in Orange.
Further complicating matters is the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee’s (DCCC) endorsement of Gil Cisneros, a former self-described “Reagan Republican” and millionaire lottery-winner. The move has ruffled the feathers of many local progressive activists, causing dissension among longtime party stalwarts.
“I’m not happy the DCCC endorsed him. My feeling is that they did it for the wrong reasons. The DCCC is playing to the center rather than embracing a more progressive viewpoint,” Marian Bodnar, of the district’s local Indivisible group, told ThinkProgress.
Cisneros has self-funded his campaign to the tune of nearly $3.6 million and that investment may well have paid off. According to a recent poll by Tulchin Research, he now leads the large herd of Democrat and Republican candidates, garnering a projected 20 percent of the total primary vote.
But despite this success, many progressives feel betrayed, lamenting the DCCC’s actions as a missed opportunity.
“They’re not listening to some of the voices that are being expressed in the current political environment,” said Mai Khanh Tran, one of the Democratic Party candidates in Tuesday’s race. Tran was airlifted to the United States when she was a nine-year-old during the fall of Saigon in 1975. She and Republican candidate Young Kim are the only two immigrants in the race, a reflection of the changing demographics of the district.
“This is a time when we want people who don’t have the machinery or the financial might that have traditionally fueled campaigns. It can’t be politics as usual,” she told ThinkProgress.
In races like that of the 39th district — one of seven historically red districts which voted for Clinton in 2016 — the desire to field a more centrist candidate is part of a Democratic party strategy to attract Republican and independent voters in historically red districts. While that may not sit well with many progressives, their dissatisfaction with the party’s more traditional wing doesn’t appear to faze those at its helm, including House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, who is determined to recapture the House – and the Speaker’s gavel – come November.
“I’d rather be criticized for winning than criticized for losing,” Pelosi said several weeks before the primary.
“One of the things happening in the 39th District for first-time progressive and Democrat activists is that they’re taking things seriously,” said Jim Case, co-leader of FAIR39, a local grassroots organization. “We’re making sure that we’re looking not just at this race, but the longer term as well.”
Republicans, too, sense the changing tides. Fearing a loss of control in of one of its last bastions in the state, the GOP has committed resources and people power to Orange County, a place where they’d never imagined it would be necessary. In April, party leaders opened a 10,000 square foot war room, in Irvine, from which to launch what they hoped would be an overwhelming counter-offensive against their rivals.
To counter these efforts, SwingLeft and progressive groups like FAIR39, Progressive 39th, and Indivisible CA-39 have chosen to remain “candidate agnostic” despite the DCCC’s endorsement of Cisneros. These local activist groups have told ThinkProgress that they are committed to backing whoever emerges victorious among Democrats. While Cisneros is ahead in the Tulchin poll, there are three other progressive candidates who have emerged in the race for the Democratic mantel as solid contenders: Sam Jammal, Andy Thorburn, and Tran.
“We can’t get people in the area to coalesce behind one candidate,” said Indivisible’s Bodnar. “If that were possible and everybody voted for that one Democratic candidate that would guarantee someone on the ballot in November.”
Matthew G. Jarvis, acting chair of Cal State University Fullerton’s Division of Politics, Administration, and Justice, views the DCCC’s endorsement of Cisneros as nothing more than realpolitik.
“If you’re a highly progressive Democrat – elected Democrat – you’re okay with your party doing this because you can’t begin to make policy until you’re in the majority. They’ll need to make common purpose with some moderate Democrats in order to get that Speaker’s gavel. That’s how parties work. Parties are trade-offs between various factions,” said Jarvis.
“I think that what was made clear is that there’s a pathway to victory in these districts. Orange County has been taken for granted by both parties for decades, but what we’ve seen since the 2016 cycle is an outpouring of grassroots support and momentum,” Drew Godinich, the DCCC’s western regional spokesperson, told ThinkProgress.
And yet, DCCC tactics haven’t always been successful in California. In 2006, under the leadership of then Rep. Rahm Emanuel (D-IL), the DCCC touted a conservative for the state’s 11th Congressional District over Jerry McNerney, who Emanuel reportedly believed was too liberal a candidate to win. After McNerney defeated the candidate backed by the DCCC in the primary, they refused to help him in the general election. McNerney went on to defeat his Republican opponent anyway (subsequent to redistricting, McNerney now represents California’s 9th Congressional District).
Karen Lawson, a marketing outreach specialist in the data technology industry and local community activist, said she supports the party’s efforts in the district, telling ThinkProgress that the Democratic party has had a full-time field director in place focusing on voter registration and outreach since early 2017. “Groups like SwingLeft are amplifying what the Democratic Party is doing. Canvassing, phone banks. We’ve never had that before,” she said.
That’s an opinion echoed by Steve Pierson, the Southern California Field Director for SwingLeft. Still, he told ThinkProgress, he understands both sides, especially when many progressive groups have been building their own bench.
“It stings when a candidate who may not be a grassroots favorite needs to be on the ballot. They don’t like national mandates,” said Pierson. “On the flip side, the party is throwing their weight behind polling, fundraising, and voter registration.”
Lawson said Tuesday’s primary may ultimately be a referendum among Democrats in the district, providing a clearer picture as to what message resonates with voters there.
“While it’s very clear to people who follow these candidates closely and have strong opinions about seeing a more progressive Democratic movement, the much larger group of people who decide the election have a more moderate viewpoint,” said Lawson. “I think many who call themselves progressives really just desire political reform.”