With the filing deadline behind them, congressional candidates in California are gearing up for contested primaries — and providing early indications of how they plan to define themselves on the ballot.
Democrats continue to have an issue with crowded fields in key pickup opportunities in the Golden State, and they’re still attempting to narrow some of the fields ahead of the June 5 primary.
Thanks to the state’s open primary, some Democrats are concerned they could be shut out of the November ballot. The top two vote-getters advance to the general election, regardless of party, which means a plethora of candidates could split the Democratic vote, letting two Republicans advance to the fall. Democrats have attempted to sway some candidates out of congested races, with some success.
But crowded fields on both sides remain in some of the most competitive contests. And Democrats are slightly altering their message to candidates even though many will still appear on the primary ballot.
“Now we’re trying to say to people: You don’t have to campaign,” said Eric Bauman, the California Democratic Party chairman. “[We’re] hoping that candidates will look at polling, look at the circumstances.”
“I’m hopeful that some folks will stand down. I don’t expect a lot of them to do so,” Bauman said in a Wednesday phone interview. “There are consequences if we end up blocked out of top two. People ran that had no chance of winning are going to own part of that. That’s just a reality.”
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Democrats have acknowledged it would’ve been ideal to thin some of the fields before last week’s filing deadline for open seats. Once a candidate is on the ballot, it is very difficult to remove his or her name.
Even if a candidate dies after the list of hopefuls has been certified, the name would still appear on the ballot, a California secretary of state spokesperson said. A candidate’s name could be removed by a court order.
The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee has not ruled out playing in the primaries to make sure a Democrat makes it through.
“In California, the DCCC is keeping all options on the table to work with our allies and ensure that there’s a Democrat on the ballot for voters to elect in November,” communications director Meredith Kelly said.
So far, Democratic involvement to address the problem has taken place behind the scenes, but more aggressive tactics are possible.
A source familiar with the DCCC’s efforts in California described the recent actions as the “diplomatic” approach. Those included four meetings with the California delegation from mid-January to mid-February to present polling and negative research on some Democratic hopefuls. The committee also presented some opposition research directly to candidates, the state party, and allies on the ground.
Some candidates have dropped out or moved to other races since then, most notably in the crowded primary to replace GOP Rep. Ed Royce in the 39th District. Inside Elections with Nathan L. Gonzales rates the contest a Toss-up.
Former school board member Jay Chen announced in an email to supporters last week that he would drop out of the race.
“The greatest contribution I can make right now is to help consolidate the field, by stepping away from it,” he said. “We cannot afford to let this seat slip away, and we must all put the greater good over personal ambition.”
Education consultant Phil Janowicz also announced last week that he would drop out of the race, saying in a statement that “the prospect existed that too many Democratic candidates could shut us out entirely from the ballot in November.”
But a number of Democrats remain. According to county registrar websites, eight have filed to run for the seat, along with eight Republicans and three who are not affiliated with a party.
Four Democrats have filed to run, along with six Republicans and three running on third-party lines. One Democratic candidate, lawyer Christina Prejean, announced in early March that she would drop out.
Democrats are also hopeful that crowded GOP fields in these open seats could split the Republican vote, allowing a Democrat to make the top two.
Still, the source familiar with the DCCC’s efforts said that while the committee has not reached the “military intervention” phase or openly playing in these primaries, time was “fast approaching.” Such tactics could include spending money or, as demonstrated in a recent primary in Texas, releasing opposition research on a Democratic candidate.
But such involvement from the DCCC could spark criticism from its members.
“If people want to run for office, they’re going to run and no one should tell them not too,” one California Democratic strategist said. “Democrats should focus on attacking Trump Republicans. Democrats shouldn’t attempt to eat their own.”
A handful of other races also shook up before the filing deadline, which was March 9 for races with incumbents seeking re-election.
In the 48th District, Scott Baugh, a former state assemblyman and Orange County GOP chairman, announced he would challenge Republican incumbent Dana Rohrabacher.
Democrat Michael Eggman announced he would launch another challenge against GOP Rep. Jeff Denham in the 10th District. Eggman lost to Denham in 2014 and narrowly in 2016.
Businessman TJ Cox had been running in the 10th District, but switched over to the 21st to challenge Rep. David Valadao, whose 2016 opponent, Emilio Huerta, dropped out of the race.
What’s in a name?
The filing deadline also provides an opportunity for candidates to define themselves on the ballot. In California, candidates have the option of using up to three words to characterize themselves on the ballot, in relation to their current profession.
Some candidates got creative, like Freeman Michaels, a software engineer not affiliated with a party, who is running in the 52nd District. His designation was “Retired Computer Geek.” Shastina Sandman, a pro-Trump Republican running in the 48th District, listed herself as “Mompreneur/CEO.”
However, it is not clear if these designations will be approved. According the the California secretary of state, a ballot designation should relate to one’s current profession or political office and cannot include statuses like “veteran” or “activist,” or volunteer work.
Lawmakers are typically identified as the incumbent or representative, but Denham opted to have his ballot designation read “Businessman/Farmer/Representative,” according to the candidate list from Stanislaus County.
Other ways candidates have chosen to identify could indicate how they will define themselves in their campaigns.
Republican Rocky Chavez, a state assemblyman running in the 49th District, opted to list “retired Marine colonel” as his ballot designation. The 49th is home to the large Camp Pendelton Marine Corps base. Democrat Mai Khanh Tran, a pediatrician who is running in the 39th District, listed herself as “Doctor, Mother, Teacher.”
The ballot designation also sparked some controversy in the 50th District, represented by GOP Rep. Duncan Hunter, who is under federal investigation for misuse of campaign funds.
Josh Butner, a Navy veteran and school board member, accused fellow Democratic candidate Ammar Campa-Najjar of misleading voters with his ballot designation of “local business owner.”
Butner’s campaign sent out a press release Monday noting that Campa-Najjar’s communications firm is not a registered corporation in California and instead was registered with a Washington, D.C., address.
“Voters deserve to know: Is Ammar Campa-Najjar just another politician who inflates his resume and changes his work experience to benefit his run for office?” asked Francis Nguyen, Butner’s campaign manager.
Campa-Najjar called the accusation “baseless.” He said he founded his company in D.C., and has scaled back his work since launching his congressional campaign. His company does not employ any other workers and he is currently working with two clients in the 50th District.
“It speaks volumes to the kind of campaign he’s running,” Campa-Najjar said of Butner’s accusation. “I think a lot of people who own businesses understand that where a business is founded is not necessarily just where they operate.”
Despite some heated primaries ahead, Democrats remain optimistic that California will be key to flipping the 24 GOP seats needed to win back the House (23 if Democrat Conor Lamb’s win in last week’s Pennsylvania special election becomes official).
“I have no doubt that California will contribute significantly towards Democrats move towards taking back the House this year,” said Bauman, the state’s Democratic Party chairman.
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