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IRVINE, Calif. — National Democrats, confronting mushrooming 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.
[Read more on how California’s “top two” system works.]
“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 Mr. 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 the 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 whom 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 President 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 stretch 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 Mr. 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 Mr. 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 Mr. 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 Mr. Rohrabacher, in hopes that a Democrat can finish in the top two and face the incumbent in November.
[Read more: The Rev. Billy Graham’s son takes his conservative political message to California.]
And the national campaign committee is supplementing the air attacks with a ground game that includes alerting voters about five “ghost candidates” who remain on the 16-person ballot.
What worries Democrats in a primary season where female candidates are having great success, though, is that two of the former candidates are women and could draw latent support from voters eager to support them. So paid canvassers are handing out pamphlets that cross out the names of some of the candidates who have withdrawn while noting two of them have endorsed Mr. Rouda.
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.
Mr. 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.
An official with the national campaign committee said they did urge Mr. Keirstead to offer evidence refuting the charges, but they did not demand the students appear on camera.
Mr. Keirstead, citing favorable polling figures, said he was not dropping out. But the candidate logjam is exasperating area activists who have been organizing for a year and a half against Mr. Rohrabacher, a vocal supporter of Mr. Trump.
“I get anxious just thinking about it,” said Tara Steele, a marketing executive active in the Newport Beach Democratic Women’s Club. “If the disorganization of the Democratic Party is the reason he gets re-elected, it will be incredibly disheartening.”
The Democratic split has delighted Mr. Baugh, a former assemblyman and onetime close friend of Mr. Rohrabacher who thinks he can get the controversial, Russia-friendly incumbent into a one-on-one race if he can fend off furious Democratic attacks.
“It feels like they got a million dollars’ worth of concern and they’re dropping it right on top of my head,” he said.
In Mr. Issa’s district, the airwaves are so saturated that when officials for one statewide campaign inquired about buying more commercials this week in San Diego, they were told there was no advertising time left.
The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee is attacking one of the leading Republicans, Assemblyman Rocky Chavez, for departing from conservative orthodoxy — in an effort to dissuade right-leaning voters from supporting him in a race that also features 16 candidates.
But to the frustration of some of the Democratic candidates, the national campaign committee has not taken sides in Mr. Issa’s district.
“I’m pissed off that they gave Harley that and they aren’t giving me that,” said Doug Applegate, who is running again after nearly defeating Mr. Issa in 2016, referring to a spending push House Democrats are doing jointly with Mr. Rouda.
But Mr. Applegate is contending with the same issue that dogged him in his last bid: claims that he stalked and harassed his ex-wife. A rival sent out a mailer reprising a local newspaper editorial on the charges, suggesting Mr. Applegate would imperil the party’s chances of winning in November.
Mr. Applegate, a retired Marine officer, notes that his former wife has denied he ever abused her and he has a ready response: “Believe the woman.”
He ventured on more dangerous ground, though, when he was asked in an interview about one of his top Democratic rivals, 29-year-old Sara Jacobs.
“I think she’s extremely bright, she’s going to be real capable,” he said, before invoking his time in the Marines. “I like 20-year-olds. I put my life in the hands of 20-year-olds. But they were more experienced, knew their area of position better and were probably more competent with their weapon.”
Ms. Jacobs, the wealthy granddaughter of the Qualcomm founder Irwin Jacobs, has been criticized for inflating her résumé, and even some sympathetic Democrats wonder if she has sufficient experience.
“It’s much easier for people to believe that it’s some man, my grandfather, behind the scenes pulling strings than me because of my gender,” she said.
Ms. Jacobs’s California-based pollster, Amy Levin, urged Democrats to rally behind the only woman their party is fielding in Mr. Issa’s district.
“Our polls and others show that Democrats need to man up and get behind the woman so we don’t lose this seat in June,” Ms. Levin said.
The good news for the party is that it may avert being locked out of another seat — that held by Representative Ed Royce, a Republican who is retiring — as the state party negotiated a truce between two well-funded Democrats who had been savaging each other.
The worry among Democrats about the “top two” primaries is intensifying because lawmakers have been factoring gains in California into their calculations of how they would flip the House.
“Winning back the House without California is not impossible but will be very, very difficult,” said Representative Raul Ruiz, a Democrat who represents the Palm Springs area.
Many California Republicans also believe the open primary law, which was adopted in a 2010 referendum, has proved to be a political science experiment gone terribly awry.
“I hate the top-two,” said Representative Kevin McCarthy, the House majority leader and California’s most prominent Republican.
In the tradition of many reforms enacted by voters in the state that helped pioneer direct democracy, the move to do away with partisan primaries has triggered a host of unforeseen consequences.
“It has created mass confusion,” said Dave Gilliard, a longtime Republican strategist here. “And the people who have been empowered are not people from the districts. It has really just increased the power of outside forces.”
It is, however, the people from the districts who are the most frustrated.
When one of the lagging Democrats, Omar Siddiqui, took his turn on the microphone at the candidate forum, applause filled the synagogue when he was asked if he would consider dropping out.
And when Mr. Siddiqui defended himself by citing an internal campaign poll, in which he said he would gain support once voters learned more about him, one woman in the audience warned against Democratic wishful thinking.
“In one week?” she yelled out.
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