In California, Republicans And Democrats Appear To Avoid Jungle Primary Nightmares

Updated on June 6 at 3:30 a.m. ET

Democratic hopes to take back the House may have gotten a major boost on Tuesday, with the party appearing likely to avoid their worst nightmare scenario in California’s top-two “jungle primary.”

Many of the decisive primaries had not been called heading into early Wednesday morning, but Democratic candidates held comfortable positions in several of the races where they feared being locked out. Republicans managed to get their top candidate into the race for California governor.

Democratic Party leaders had been worried that a surge in candidates could have an adverse affect — possibly keeping them out of several competitive contests if multiple Democrats split the vote in California’s unusual top-two primary system, where the top two finishers, regardless of party, advance to the general election. Instead, there’s a real likelihood they could compete in every single targeted race.

That was the biggest unknown heading into the “Super Tuesday” of the midterms, the biggest single primary day when voters went to the polls to pick nominees for key House, Senate and gubernatorial contests in eight states — California, Mississippi, Alabama, New Jersey, New Mexico, Iowa, Montana and South Dakota.

“Top two” drama overstated? Encouraging signs for Democratic House hopes

Democrats see their path to the House majority running through the two dozen districts that sent a Republican to Congress in 2016 but voted for Hillary Clinton over Donald Trump. Seven of these districts are in California, with the highest concentration in the traditional Republican outpost of Orange County.

Sensing a Democratic surge, Republican incumbents Ed Royce and Darrell Issa retired, raising Democratic hopes even higher in those races.

Democrats feared they had gotten too excited about these pickup opportunities for their own good, as many of these Southern California districts were crowded with candidates. That forced the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee and other national groups to spend millions of dollars trying to stave off a November shutout in the important 39th, 48th and 49th congressional districts.

While results aren’t final yet — and may not be for some time due to many mail-in ballots — early results indicate those costly investments paid off. In the open 39th, where Royce retired, Republican Young Kim is likely to face Democrat Gil Cisneros, in what will be an interesting battle for the area’s growing Hispanic and Asian-American populations.

In the open 49th, where Issa exited, Republican Diane Harkey led the pack, ahead of Democrat Mike Levin — with two other Democrats trailing behind.

The biggest worry heading into Election Day was in the 48th district, where Trump loyalist Dana Rohrabacher is considered highly vulnerable. Many Democrats thought former Orange Country GOP Chairman Scott Baugh might claim the second spot, but now it seems as though either Democrat Hans Keirstead or Harley Rouda could do so.

In the Modesto-based 10th District, Republican Rep. Jeff Denham still doesn’t know his challenger, but Democrat Josh Harder was edging out Republican Ted Howze for that second slot with about half the vote counted.

Member station KPCC reports that another complicating factor is a printing error that led to 118,522 voters’ names being left off the rolls in Los Angeles County, which “will boost the number of provisional ballots election officials need to sort through — and could leave some tight races up in the air for longer than is typical.” Actor Henry Winkler tweeted he was among those whose name was left off the voter rolls.

There was also good news for national Democrats out of New Jersey, another important state where the party is targeting at least three seats. All of the candidates the DCCC had endorsed won their nominations, including state Sen. Jeff Van Drew in the 2nd District, where GOP Rep. Frank LoBiondo is retiring, as well as former Navy pilot Mikie Sherrill in the 11th District, where House Appropriations Committee Chairman Rodney Frelinghuysen isn’t running for re-election. Those races are two of the best pickup opportunities for Democrats in the country.

New Jersey Assistant Secretary of State Tom Malinowski, another DCCC-backed candidate, won the Democratic nomination in the 7th District to take on GOP Rep. Leonard Lance, who is running for re-election in a district Clinton carried by about 1 point.

In addition to Sherrill, national Democrats got two more female nominees in top-targeted Iowa races, continuing another trend so far this primary season. State Rep. Abby Finkenauer will face GOP Rep. Rod Blum in the 1st District, while small-business owner Cindy Axne won the nomination to take on Republican Rep. David Young in the 3rd District.

Governors’ mansions up for grabs

Republicans avoided their own nightmare scenario in California, with GOP businessman John Cox claiming second place in the gubernatorial primary. He’ll face off against first-place finisher Gavin Newsom, the current Democratic lieutenant governor and former San Francisco mayor. Both edged out Antonio Villaraigosa, the former Democratic mayor of Los Angeles, who finished third.

While Republicans are likely to have a hard time winning either the governorship or a Senate seat in California this fall, party leaders had been worried all-Democratic ballots would depress GOP turnout, hurting more competitive down-ballot races.

In Iowa, businessman Fred Hubbell won the Democratic nomination to take on Republican Gov. Kim Reynolds. Iowa Democrats have seen their power and relevance wane in recent years and are hoping to claw their way back into power in 2018. The Democratic primary saw a major last-minute plot twist, when state Sen. Nate Boulton suspended his campaign after several women accused him of sexual misconduct. But the party got good news when Hubbell, who has put about $3 million of his own money into the campaign, won enough votes to avoid a messy and costly convention fight.

Alabama Gov. Kay Ivey, who succeeded Gov. Robert Bentley after he resigned, easily survived a challenge from several Republican challengers and won the nomination without a runoff. The GOP primary took a nasty and personal turn when another candidate raised unfounded rumors about Ivey’s personal life, which she aggressively denied. In November, she will face Tuscaloosa Mayor Walt Maddox, who won the Democratic nomination outright.

South Dakota Rep. Kristi Noem won the GOP nomination for governor, overcoming her primary opponent Attorney General Marty Jackley’s attempts to tar her as part of the D.C. establishment. Other Republican House incumbents have underperformed in their races so far this year, and Idaho Rep. Raul Labrador lost his primary bid for governor. But Noem ended up winning by about 15 points.

Senate seats

California Sen. Dianne Feinstein is one of the few moderate Democrats up for re-election this year to face a serious primary challenge from the left. Former state Senate President Pro Tem Kevin de Leon argues Feinstein isn’t doing enough to oppose the Trump administration. Feinstein has responded to the challenge by tacking to the left and led de Leon in most polls. Early returns showed Feinstein well ahead of the pack, with de Leon battling Republican James Bradley for second place.

New Jersey Democrat Robert Menendez survived a primary challenge, but he took only 60 percent of the vote over Lisa McCormick — who didn’t even raise enough money to file with the Federal Election Commission. This was the first time he was on the ballot after a lengthy corruption trial, which ended in a hung jury. In November, Menendez will face former pharmaceutical executive Bob Hugin, who won the GOP Senate nomination.

In Montana, state Auditor Matt Rosendale won the GOP nomination and will take on Democratic Sen. Jon Tester in November. President Trump has made Tester a top target, after the Democrat played a key role in tanking Trump nominee for secretary of veterans affairs Ronny Jackson.

GOP incumbent forced into runoff

In Alabama, Rep. Martha Roby could be on her way to becoming the second House incumbent to lose a primary this year — but she won’t know until July. Roby got only 38 percent of the vote in her primary and was forced into a runoff next month against former Democratic Rep. Bobby Bright — now running as a Republican and Trump loyalist.

Roby came under fire from conservatives after she said she wouldn’t vote for Trump following the release of the Access Hollywood video in October 2016, in which Trump made vulgar comments about women.

National Republican Congressional Committee Chairman Steve Stivers said in a statement Tuesday night that the committee will “continue to stand behind [Roby] and are confident she’ll emerge victorious in the coming runoff.”

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