How Democrats Beat the System in California

A crowd of excited young people smiling and look upward as if at a television screen
People react as results come in Tuesday after the California primaries at a post-election party held by the Los Angeles Democratic Party.
Mark Ralston/AFP/Getty Images

After Tuesday night’s primary, it appears that the Democratic Party has pulled it off: Democrats won’t be “locked out” of any critical November congressional races in California. Though ballots will continue arriving in the mail for days, and it’s not clear in one key district which Democrat will advance into the top two, Democrats are on track to avoid any embarrassments. This took a lot of work.

In California’s 39th District, a seat currently held by retiring GOP Rep. Ed Royce and covering parts of Orange, Los Angeles, and San Bernardino counties, Republican Young Kim, as of this writing, leads with 21.9 percent of the vote. Democrat Gil Cisneros, a wealthy lottery winner and the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee’s preferred candidate, trails with 19.4 percent, more than 5 percentage points ahead of the next candidate.

The results represent some of the Democratic Party’s most artful work. Though the 39th is nearly even in party registration, total Republican votes best Democratic votes right now by about 7 percentage points. (That disparity could tighten as mail-in ballots are counted.) This likely has to do with a separate state Senate election, in which Republicans tried—and appear to have easily succeeded—to recall Democratic state Sen. Josh Newman over a vote to increase the state’s gas tax. Democrats recognized that the recall election could draw out Republican voters, and so their outside groups boosted a pro-Trump Republican hard-liner, Phil Liberatore, to collect some of that surplus Republican turnout. It worked: Liberatore sits in a comfortable third place, with 14 percent of the vote, behind Kim and Cisneros but comfortably ahead of the other viable Republicans.

In the 48th District, covering much of the Orange County coast, incumbent Republican Rep. Dana Rohrabacher leads the pack with 30.3 percent of the vote. The DCCC’s preferred Democrat in the race, Harley Rouda, currently sits in second place with 17.3 percent of the vote—0.1 percentage points, and 73 total votes, above his main Democratic competitor, Hans Keirstead. Keirstead had held the second spot earlier Tuesday evening when the first dump of early votes was posted, but Rouda slowly picked up ground. This suggests that as more late ballots come in, Rouda’s position should improve. The two have a little breathing room over Republican Scott Baugh, who was Republicans’ best hope for a one-two finish but was beaten down by millions in spending from national Democrats. He now sits in fourth place with 16.1 percent.

Republicans won’t even come close to locking out Democrats in the 49th District, currently held by retiring Rep. Darrell Issa and covering parts of southern Orange and San Diego counties. Republican Diane Harkey has a safe lead in first place, at 25.5 percent, but Democrats hold the second, third, and fourth slots. Democrats also seemed to have secured the second place slot in California’s 10th district, held by GOP Rep. Jeff Denham, but it is surprisingly narrow.

If all of these results hold and Democrats avoid any lockouts in critical races, expect some discussion of how the threats were “overhyped.” But it took Democrats months of exhausting work to narrow candidate fields and consolidate around candidates, and the expenditure of many millions of dollars, to get here. The threats were real, and ably surmounted.