The Slatest

A Simple Guide to How California’s “Jungle” Primary Could Cost Democrats the House

Protesters, part of a 500,000 strong crowd, attend the Women's Rally on the one-year anniversary of the first Women's March in Los Angeles, California on January 20, 2018.
        Protestors took to the streets en masse across the United States Saturday, hoisting anti-Donald Trump placards, banging drums and donning pink hats for a second Women's March opposing the president -- one year to the day of his inauguration. Hundreds of thousands of marchers  assembled in Washington, New York, Chicago, Denver, Boston, Los Angeles and other cities nationwide, many donning the famous pink knit 'pussy hats' -- a reference to Trump's videotaped boasts of his license to grope women without repercussions.
         / AFP PHOTO / Mark RALSTON        (Photo credit should read MARK RALSTON/AFP/Getty Images)
Protesters attend the Women’s Rally, on the anniversary of the first Women’s March, in Los Angeles on Jan. 20.
MARK RALSTON/Getty Images

California voters went for Hillary Clinton by a whopping 30 percentage points in 2016, the largest defeat for Donald Trump in any state on the U.S. mainland. In the two years since, the Golden State has only cemented its status as a liberal foil for the president and as the spiritual home for the #resistance to his presidency.

But Democrats are now worried that the state’s quirky nominating system, in which all the candidates are thrown into a single “jungle” primary, could cost the party control of the House when Californians go to the polls next Tuesday. If Democrats can’t advance candidates to the general election in a few competitive House districts—in a state Trump lost by more than 4 million votes—it would seriously imperil their chances of flipping the 23 seats they need to retake the lower chamber.

What is a “jungle” primary?

Well, unlike pretty much everywhere else, California primaries are nonpartisan affairs. So instead of running in separate Democratic and Republican contests, the candidates in each race compete in a single “top-two” primary, which advances the top two finishers to the general election, regardless of party. It’s that quirk that is threatening to keep Democrats off the November ballot in a handful of key House districts. There are so many Democrats running in some of these districts that the crowded field could splinter the Democratic vote in such a way that Republicans finish first and second in the primary.

Why does California even pick nominees this way?

The state adopted the system in a statewide referendum in 2010, six years after Washington became the first to do so. The goal was to promote moderation over polarization, since a candidate with broad, bipartisan appeal should theoretically be more likely to emerge from this type of primary than one who simply plays to his or her base.

Shouldn’t this type of free-for-all help Democrats in a liberal state like California?

It does help Democrats in statewide elections, where they have a huge registration advantage—see the all-Democratic Senate race in 2016 or the soon-to-be all-Democratic Senate contest this year. But things are more complicated at the congressional level, where at least 10 districts in the state traditionally tilt in the GOP’s favor, including the only seven that are currently considered competitive by nonpartisan handicappers.

How come Republicans aren’t hurt by this system too?

They are, just not nearly as much as Democrats in the districts seen as midterm battlegrounds this year. Conservatives have for the most part had little trouble rallying around the incumbent or his heir apparent in the most important House races, making it all but certain at least one GOP candidate will survive the primary. Meanwhile, on the Democratic side, all that anti-Trump anger and grassroots-left energy has brought candidates out of the woodwork, crowding the field and increasing the chances that they’ll split the primary vote.

Can you give me a specific example where this is playing out?

Sure thing. Take the state’s 48th Congressional District, where GOP Rep. Dana Rohrabacher is up for re-election in a traditionally conservative district that Trump lost narrowly in 2016. Rohrabacher is seen as especially vulnerable this fall, but he’s probably a lock to make the general election on name recognition alone.

Meanwhile, a half-dozen or so Democrats are fighting to make it to the general election. The two leading Democrats are locked in a tight race for second place with the former chairman of the county GOP, who has his own deep ties to the district. If Democrats divide their vote too evenly among the challengers, then Republicans could end up with a lock on the November ballot. Rohrabacher may be beatable in November, but it won’t do Democrats any good if the candidate who beats him is also a Republican.

Just how big of a problem is this for Democrats?

Democrats are targeting a total of 10 GOP seats in California, including three where they appear to have even odds of upsetting an incumbent and another two where they have better-than-even odds of claiming a seat where a Republican congressman is retiring. But in more than half of those, there are at least four Democrats running, which means the party could cannibalize its vote on primary day. According to analysts at the political research firm California Target Book, there’s a very real possibility Democrats could get shut out in six of those races. That would prove costly to their quest to pick up two dozen total seats to take control of the House, particularly given that in other states, partisan gerrymandering and geographical quirks already make that task more difficult than it should be.

Where are Democrats most concerned?

The party is fretting over three flippable districts where Clinton won two years ago: the aforementioned 48th; the 39th, where Republican Rep. Ed Royce is retiring; and the 49th, where Republican Rep. Darrell Issa is also calling it quits at the end of this term.

OK, but why didn’t the Democratic Party just run fewer candidates?

National Democrats would have loved to have just one (or two) credible candidates in each race, but it wasn’t up to them. Anyone can petition to run on either party line, and in the end, there’s not much the national parties can do to dissuade them. In this case, many of the Democrats running are first-time candidates with little connection to the party establishment, making it more difficult to entice them to bow out for the good of the party. And the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee risks muddling theses races further—and helping their nonpreferred candidates—if they are seen as putting their thumb on the scale from Washington, as has happened in other parts of the country.

Still, national Democrats have intervened in a few places out of a sense of necessity. The DCCC has named favorites in both Rohrabacher’s and Royce’s districts, in the hopes of elevating one candidate above the crowded field. In Issa’s, meanwhile, the DCCC has gotten a little more creative. Instead of backing one of the four Democrats fighting amongst themselves there, the group paid for attack ads against two second-tier GOP candidates in that race—instead of the Republican out in front in the polls—in hopes of making room for a Democrat in the general election. With one week still to go, House Democrats may have no other choice but to attempt similar maneuvers.

Will any of that be enough to make sure a Democrat is on the ballot in November?

We’ll find out on Tuesday.