LAGUNA BEACH, Calif. — As supporters for Democrat Harley Rouda chanted while cars drove by on the South Coast Highway on Sunday, Carol Nohra Crane could be heard sharing a concern with her friend: that two Republicans would advance past the June 5 primary in the 48th District.
“I think it’s all about getting the vote out, because there is a valid concern because it is a Republican district, typically,” said Crane, 54, a friend of Rouda’s who’s volunteering with the campaign. “So we just have to get out of the top two.”
California’s unique primary system is causing headaches for Democrats targeting several GOP-held seats that Hillary Clinton carried in 2016. All candidates run on a single primary ballot, with the top two vote-getters advancing to November, regardless of party affiliation. With Democratic hopefuls outnumbering Republicans in some of these races, Democrats are concerned the imbalance could split their vote, allowing Republicans to finish one-two and eliminating potential pickup opportunities.
Watch: California Primaries Packed With Democratic Candidates Hoping to Make the Cut
The 48th District, held by GOP Rep. Dana Rohrabacher, presents the greatest threat for a Democratic shutout because of its historical Republican lean, according to operatives in both parties watching the race.
Six Republicans and eight Democrats are on the primary ballot, including top contenders Rouda and stem cell researcher Hans Keirstead. The late entrance of Scott Baugh, a former Orange County GOP chairman, increased the likelihood that two Republicans could advance.
So Democrats are ramping up their efforts to avoid getting locked out here and in the nearby 39th and 49th districts, both open GOP seats with multiple candidates on both sides.
California is key to taking back the House, Democrats say, with seven Republican-held districts that backed Clinton. So the prospect of not even being able to compete in November in one or more of those seats is keeping some up at night.
“I think a lot of people are — I don’t mean to exaggerate — but [they] are kind of having nightmares over what’s going to happen,” said Marian Bodnar, who leads an Indivisible group in the 39th District.
So Democrats are hitting the streets, the phone lines and the airwaves. But the question is whether it will work.
Watch: Democrats Have At Least 20 House Takeover Opportunities in These 4 States
A new phase
Democratic shutout fears in the 39th District began in January when longtime Republican Rep. Ed Royce announced he would retire from his Orange County seat. Two days later, GOP Rep. Darrell Issa said he would not run for re-election in the 49th District. The open seats meant multiple Republican candidates were likely to run.
Democratic officials and members of Congress responded by taking sides in primaries and working behind the scenes to present candidates with polling and urge some to drop out before the filing deadline — with partial success. But many were adamant about remaining in the race.
“My response to them has been always, ‘Let’s let the voters of Orange County decide,’” Mai Khanh Tran, the only Democratic woman running in the 39th District, said at an event with her fellow Democrats in Rowland Heights on Saturday.
Other Democrats competing in the 39th include former congressional staffer Sam Jammal, health insurance executive Andy Thorburn, and Navy veteran and lottery winner Gil Cisneros, with the latter two considered top contenders. (Cisneros, along with Rouda, has already been added to the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee’s Red to Blue program for promising candidates.)
Congressional intervention did affect Laura Oatman, an architect who was running in the 48th District. She started rethinking her candidacy after Baugh jumped in. She ended up dropping out and back Rouda to prevent further splitting the vote, citing his support from lawmakers as sign he was the strongest contender.
“That was huge,” Oatman said. “That was them interjecting themselves into the process and saying, ‘You know what this CalDem convention process might not have worked out so well,’” she added, referring to the endorsement Keirstead received at the state party convention in February.
The problem for Oatman is she’s still on the ballot, so she might still split the Democratic vote.
“I’m polling at like 4, 5 percent, even trying not to run as best I can,” she said at Rouda’s beach rally on Sunday.
With the primary less than two weeks away, it’s too late to convince candidates to drop out, even though some are still facing pressure to do so.
Democrat Omar Siddiqui, who worked for the FBI, was challenged at a forum in Irvine on Tuesday night about remaining in the 48th District race despite not polling as a top candidate. He said once voters learned about him, they would support him.
“In a week?” yelled a skeptic from the crowd.
On the ground
The Democrats’ efforts to avoid a shutout has now entered a new phase: reaching as many voters as possible and making sure they vote.
“If Democrats do not vote, we will be locked out of the top two,” said Drew Godinich, a DCCC spokesman. “We are confident that we have a path into the general election in all three of those districts, the 39th, 48th and 49th. But that danger is real. And the Democrats have to take it seriously.”
Republicans note that initial ballot returns show GOP voters are turning out. According to Political Data Inc., Republicans account for 46 percent of ballot returns in both the 48th and 39th districts through Tuesday, while Democratic returns were at 35 percent and 34 percent respectively. In the 49th District, 37 percent of the ballot returns are from Republicans, while 36 percent are from Democrats.
“We have to fight, fight, fight in order to give Harley a chance to win a November because we could be locked out with just Baugh and Rohrabacher, and we don’t want that,” Aaron McCall of Indivisible OC 48 said at the rally Sunday. The crowd responded, “No!”
McCall directed supporters to field staff armed with manila envelopes and canvassing materials. He said this grass-roots efforts to reach Democratic voters and remind them to vote on June 5 would be key to surviving the primary.
Other grass-roots groups such as Swing Left are active on the ground, contacting voters. And some groups have made endorsements. On Wednesday, leaders who have organized regular protests at Issa’s office in the 49th District announced they were backing environmental lawyer Mike Levin.
The DCCC is also teaming up with the state party on get-out-the-vote efforts, and running digital ads encouraging to voters in the 48th and 49th districts to turn out. According to the committee, an average of 175 canvassing shifts are being filled per week in the three key districts.
Outside groups are also working on mobilizing turnout. Planned Parenthood has a $100,000 GOTV operation, including digital ads in four of Southern California districts and phone banking in the 39th and 48th aimed at Democrats and voters with no party preference.
NextGen America, a group backed by billionaire Tom Steyer, launched a $350,000 effort including digital ads, mailers and grass-roots organizing to bolster the efforts to avoid a shutout. That campaign is aimed at 200,000 young voters in these three districts and in the 10th District in the Central Valley.
The campaigns are also pitching in. But some were not overly concerned about Democrats getting locked out.
“I think it’s a concern, but you know that’s out of my control,” Cisneros said before a community meeting in Hacienda Heights on Monday night. “We know we’re working hard to do everything that I think we can to be successful. And that’s what I worry about.”
“Although there’s still a threat that the No. 2 vote-getter could be a Republican, I think it’s less likely than it was a few months ago,” said Thorburn, noting that some candidates in the 39th District dropped out of the race before the filing deadline.
Still, getting shut out remains a concern for some Democratic voters — at least those who are aware of the top-two dilemma.
Sylvia Schwartz, a 32 year-old engineer from Costa Mesa, wasn’t sure which of the 48th District candidates she would support after Tuesday’s forum in Irvine. But she was definitely going to vote.
She’s been hearing about the prospect of getting locked out of the general election for the last few months at local Orange County party meetings. But she was concerned about friends who weren’t as engaged or aware of the Democrats’ primary problem.
“We must vote,” she said. “This is so important.”
While efforts continue on the ground, the DCCC and other groups have taken to the airwaves and launched mail campaigns. By running negative ads against some of the Republicans, it appears the strategy is to knock down lower-tier GOP candidates, making it easier for a Democrat to secure the second-place spot.
The DCCC’s independent expenditure arm has spent nearly $1.9 million on television ads and mailers against Republicans in these three districts, according to Federal Election Commission documents. The committee has targeted Baugh in the 48th District; Orange County Supervisor Shawn Nelson and former state Sen. Bob Huff in the 39th District; and state Assemblyman and Marine veteran Rocky Chavez in the 49th District.
The committee has also launched ads backing its preferred candidates, including a hybrid television ad for Rouda and a TV spot supporting Cisneros — the DCCC’s first Spanish-language ad of the cycle.
House Majority PAC, which backs Democratic House candidates, has spent $327,000 on ads and mailers aimed at the same GOP candidates. Priorities USA Action has spent $143,000 on digital ads against the Republicans as well.
Republicans say the spending by Democrats just to make it past the primary shows the party is not in a strong position in several of these races.
But Democrats remember 2012, when a glut of candidates caused a shutout in the 31st District, which President Barack Obama carried by 16 points.
That’s why Democratic lawmakers has been active in trying to avoid a repeat scenario. Rep. Zoe Lofgren, who chairs the state’s congressional Democratic delegation, recently endorsed Rouda and Cisneros, citing the need to consolidate around one candidate in those races.
But have Democrats done enough to avoid the shutout nightmare?
“We’ll find out,” Lofgren said last week.