IRVINE, Calif. — National Democrats, confronting political chaos across Southern California, are pouring millions of dollars into congressional races to avert a self-inflicted disaster that could undermine their chances at taking control of the House.
After months of optimism that the state’s June 5 primary would position them to pick off seven Republican-held districts in November — a substantial down payment on reclaiming the House — Democrats are now trying to ensure that they do not hurt themselves because of their unusually crowded slates of candidates.
With so many Democrats running, the party’s fear is that the vote will be splintered, allowing Republicans — who have fewer candidates — to dominate some primaries.
The party and allied groups are spending more than $4 million on just three campaigns, intervening in one contest to prop up a favored candidate; attacking a Republican from the right in another; and even reminding people not to waste their votes on “ghost candidates” who have dropped out yet remain on the ballot.
As any progressive activist will explain through gnashed teeth, the head-snapping scramble is because of the state’s “top two” open primary system, which allows the two leading vote-getters — regardless of political parties — to advance to the general election.
The “top two” system was meant to create incentives for political moderation in a state where about a quarter of the voters are independents, but it has created immense stakes for Democrats.
They need to win 23 seats to take back the House, and party officials believe the path runs through the seven competitive California districts, all of which Hillary Clinton carried in 2016.
“It’s a disaster,” Gail Reisman, a retired gerontologist and Toronto native who lives in Representative Dana Rohrabacher’s district, said after attending a candidate forum Tuesday. “If we have two Republicans running I think I’m going back to Canada.”
After three of the Democrats opposing Rohrabacher had taken a turn speaking at the forum, held at a synagogue, the moderator briefly came back on stage to alert the audience that the parking lot was so crowded police intended to ticket those cars parked more creatively than legally.
The overflow of Priuses and Mercedes was a particularly vivid reminder of the California candidate logjam.
Confusion and frustration among Democrats here only seems to grow by the day, as the state and national party back different contenders and spending sprays forth like an out-of-control garden hose.
Some voters are not sure who to back to feel confident that a Democrat will advance past June 5, and they increasingly worry that Republicans will foil the party’s chances to stop President Trump’s agenda in the House next year.
The painful twist is that what seemed like the Democrats’ most valuable asset in the midterm campaign — the wave of liberal activism unleashed by Trump — has metastasized into a mortal threat because of the glut of candidates.
Nowhere is the danger more acute than in a pair of contiguous districts that extend from Orange County’s Seal Beach down the Pacific coastline to the cliffs of La Jolla.
It is here where national Democrats, deeply concerned their voters are scattered among little-known House candidates, are staging a rescue mission to ensure they are not locked out this fall in Rohrabacher’s district and the one farther south held by Representative Darrell Issa, a Republican who is retiring.
Opposition research and hard-edge direct mail pieces are flying between candidates, too, some of them tinged with accusations of MeToo impropriety. But surveys show many of the candidates bunched together in the teens and few operatives have a firm grasp for what will unfold.
Actual policy issues are largely secondary: The differences between the Democratic hopefuls are a matter of degree, with all of them vowing a progressive agenda on health care, the environment and gun control while taking aim at Trump.
The Republicans are focused on gains in the economy, a gas tax repeal measure, and warning the largely moderate and center-right voters in the districts that Democrats are turning sharply to the left.
The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, the party’s arm in House races, is most concerned that two Republicans might prevail in the primary for Rohrabacher’s seat. The committee has broken with the state Democratic Party to endorse a candidate, Harley Rouda.
Meanwhile, the main House Democratic super PAC is pouring over $600,000 into commercials in the Los Angeles market, which reaches 27 congressional districts, to try to drive down Republican candidate Scott Baugh’s share of the vote against Rohrabacher, in hopes that a Democrat can finish in the top two and face the incumbent in November.
And the national campaign committee is supplementing the air attacks with canvassers to warn voters about the ghost candidates.
The national party’s involvement has angered Hans Keirstead, a stem-cell scientist who has the support of the California Democratic Party and is now scorning the national campaign committee after a mutual flirtation for much of the last year.
Keirstead said the committee got “spooked” because of a 2009 investigation at the University of California Irvine into whether he had struck one of his female graduate students when he was a professor there.
He was cleared by the school, which found the “charges” to be unfounded, but he said national Democrats were unhappy that he would not urge some of his female former students to go on camera and defend him.