By Alana Abramson
Updated: June 6, 2018 2:11 PM ET

Democrats appeared to have avoided a nightmare scenario of getting shut out of several winnable congressional elections in California Tuesday night, but the party’s problems are far from over.

In the days leading up to the primary, Democratic strategists had worried that the state’s “top two” primary system — in which the top candidates advance to the general election regardless of party affiliation — could end up hurting them this far in several races that could potentially be key in recapturing the House.

The fear was especially acute in three districts the party has targeted to flip in November: the state’s 39th and 49th districts, where Reps. Ed Royce and Darrell Issa are retiring, respectively and the 48th district, where Rep. Dana Rohrbacher is running for a 16 term but is plagued by controversial ties to Russia.

Much to the party’s relief, this probably didn’t happen. Due largely to the fact that so many California residents use mail-in ballots, the Associated Press had only made complete projections for the 39th district as of Wednesday afternoon eastern time; Republican Young Kim will face off against Democrat Gil Cisneros. While the prospects of the Democrats in the other two districts are still too close to officially call, one Democratic strategist, speaking anonymously because no races had been called, expressed confidence shut-outs had been avoided in all three races.

“The signs are clearly good,” said the strategist.

In the 48th district, with all precincts reporting, the Associated Press projected that Rohrbacher would advance to the general election in November. But two Democratic candidates, Harley Rouda, who had the backing of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, and Hans Keirstead, followed in second and third place, respectively, nearly splitting their share of the votes, according to unofficial data from the country. Rouda had declared victory, but Keirstead has not yet conceded.

In the 39th district, where Royce is retiring and six Democrats were on the ballot, Kim, the leading Republican candidate, was decisively in first place, garnering 25 percent of the vote, and was followed by Gil Cisneros, who had the backing of the DCCC, and had amassed 18 percent of the vote.

In the 49th district, the Democrats’ entry into the general election also appeared inevitable. Although Republican Diane Harkey led the pack with 32 percent of the vote, she was followed by three Democrats: Mike Levin, Sara Jacobs, and Doug Applegate. No matter what happens with the mail-in and absentee ballots, it appears doubtful that Republican Brian Maryott, will be able to surpass all three of these candidates.

“Nothing is for certain but if I had to guess, I had to say the speculation about Democratic self-immolation was slightly overhyped,” said Brian Brokaw, a Democratic strategist in California. “There would have to be some pretty drastic anomalies [in the ballots yet to be counted] to sway the tally of the vote.”

The DCCC was careful not to declare victory, but expressed cautious optimism, arguing that Republicans had blown an opportunity.

“As we await final results in multiple districts, is clear that Democrats are in a stronger position than ever to take back the House, and winning districts in California will be central to that path,” DCCC spokesman Tyler Law said in a statement. “The DCCC’s data driven investments to California will continue to pay dividends in November and beyond, and Republicans once again mismanaged their investments and missed the opportunity to have a real impact.”

The probability that Democrats will advance to the general election in these three districts is undoubtedly good for the party’s prospects of taking back the House of Representatives in November. The Democrats need 23 seats to fulfill this objective. The DCCC has targeted 10 it wants to pick up in California alone, based largely on the fact that half of the 14 districts currently controlled by Republican Congressman voted for Hillary Clinton in 2016.

But the DCCC’s optimism ignores the underlying currents of discontent running through the party. The road to these California results was anything but smooth. The DCC found itself forcing candidates out of races in order to avoid a shut-out scenario in which two Republicans faced off in November, and split with the California Democratic Party over the 48th district, backing Rouda even though the state Democratic Party endorsed Keirstead. (Keirstead has not droppd out yet, and the two are currently separated by a tenth of a percentage point). And in the 39th district, CDP chairman Eric Bauman had to broker a truce last month between two candidates, Gil Cisneros and Andy Thorburn, to stop them from campaigning against each other after the attacks became increasingly negative.

Rachel Payne, a technology executive who was running in the 48th district but dropped out in May – and acknowledged she was pressured to do so because she wasn’t polling in the top two among her party – said she was happy a Democrat would advance against Rohrbacher, and had come to terms with her decision to exit the race. “It came down to math, and the math was too tricky,” she said. “I feel like I made the right choice.” Payne did, however, lament that party leadership did not adequately support female candidates across Orange County.

Strategists were quick to downplay these intra-party fights as indications of broader problems for the Democrats in the upcoming midterm and presidential elections, arguing that ultimately, the party would unify under the umbrella of opposition to President Donald Trump.

“Most of the time those struggles are overinterpreted,” said Jesse Ferguson, who ran the DCCC’s independent expenditures in 2014. “If you judge the democratic party based on the back and forth on Twitter you might think it’s a house divided. If you look at the results from the primary you will see a unified party ready to stand up to Trump.”

Write to Alana Abramson at


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