California's Messy Primaries Could Foretell Disaster for Democrats Trying to Win Back the House

One of the country's bluest states could cost Democrats their chance at reclaiming control of the House in November—and this Tuesday's primaries could be an indicator of just how worried the party should be.

National Democrats are targeting seven Republican-held House seats in California, all of them in districts that went to Hillary Clinton in 2016. But even in a climate favorable to Democratic challengers, a crowded field of candidates, a "top two" open primary system and divisions within the party threaten their chances of pulling off critical wins in races that have already cost millions of dollars.

According to a New York Times report, local Democrats are growing uneasy as Democratic candidates head into the June 5 primary elections with the hopes of making it into the state's runoff and, eventually, flipping their district's seat.

"I get anxious just thinking about it," Tara Steele, a member of Newport Beach Democratic Women's Club, told the outlet of the possibility of Republican incumbent Dana Rohrabacher winning in November. "If the disorganization of the Democratic Party is the reason he gets reelected, it will be incredibly disheartening." (Just this week, Rohrabacher said it was OK for people to refuse to sell houses to members of the LGBTQ community.)

Because of the high stakes in this year's midterms, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee (DCCC) has been heavily involved in California's—and the nation's—House primaries, which, some argue, is the cause of the party's disorganization and splintering.

The committee has had a big influence on California's 39th congressional district, where a crowded field of Democrats are clamoring for a seat left open after Republican Ed Royce announced he wouldn't be seeking reelection. The DCCC named veteran, first-timer and former Republican Gil Cisneros to its Red to Blue program, in a snub to, among others, Mai Khanh Tran, a Vietnamese refugee and first-time female candidate backed by EMILY's List, during a cycle forecasted to bring about another "Year of the Woman."

"I said to them, frankly, let the voters decide," Tran told national Democrats when they reportedly showed her polling that suggested she couldn't win the seat. She called herself "the only qualified woman, the only immigrant and the only physician in the race."

Interesting. DCCC is putting its finger on the scale for a man in a race where Mai Khanh Tran, a Vietnamese refugee who worked her way though Harvard has been endorsed by EMILY's List.

— sean (@SeanMcElwee) April 18, 2018

Meanwhile, in California's 48th district, where Democrats are vying for the opportunity to unseat Rohrabacher, the Democratic establishment is divided against itself: The DCCC announced it would be backing Harley Rouda, going against state Democratic officials' decision to support Hans Keirstad, a stem cell researcher and CEO.

"The DCCC should tread carefully in openly supporting a different candidate," Eric Bauman, the state party chairman, told the San Francisco Chronicle earlier this month of the committee's decision to pit itself against California Democrats. "Decisions that undercut the independence of our endorsed candidates have the potential to be extraordinarily counterproductive."

If Democrats put their money, resources and institutional support behind the wrong candidate, they risk getting shut out of the general election entirely. Under the state's "top two" system, the two candidates who receive the most votes make it to the general, and they can be members of the same party. In races with several Democratic candidates, it's possible no one candidate would earn enough votes to make it to the next round, thereby handing the seat to Republicans.

Democrats need to flip 23 seats to win back the House, and some say they are rightfully worried about making it much harder for themselves by blowing it in California.

"Winning back the House without California is not impossible but will be very, very difficult," California Representative Raul Ruiz, a Democrat, told The New York Times.