The results of California's primaries tomorrow will determine candidates for the Golden State's next governor, the U.S. Senate and 53 congressional seats — including seven held by Republicans that Democrats have their eyes on in hopes of flipping the House.
But registered Republicans were sending their mail-in ballots back in greater numbers than Democrats, according to the latest results available over the weekend, a potentially troublesome sign for the left.
The state has a system known as "jungle" primaries, where the top two vote-getters in June advance to the November general election, regardless of political party.
As such, the top contests for governor and Senate could see two Democrats win the primary and advance to November, while there's a chance some House seats could end up with two Republican finalists.
Republicans, aware that this could be a wave election in Democrats' favor, appeared eager to stem the tide and were voting early in many important races.
How many GOP House seats will get flipped?
The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee is targeting seven districts that 2016 Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton carried over now-President Trump.
Those are the seats held by GOP Reps. Jeff Denham in the 10th District, David Valadao in the 21st District, Steve Knight in the 25th District, Mimi Walters in the 45th District and Dana Rohrabacher in the 48th District.
The DCCC also is hoping to get a Democratic winner in the seats held by retiring Reps. Darrell Issa in the 49th District and Ed Royce in the 39th District (E&E Daily, May 25).
"They're not going to get all seven that's for sure," GOP strategist Kevin Spillane said. "They've got a real possibility to get one or two. It's hard to tell which one."
California's open primary has prompted concerns among Democrats that they could end up with no candidates in some of the House races.
Those include the open races in the 39th and 49th districts, as well as the Rohrabacher race. Each of those has a large number of relatively unknown Democratic candidates that could split the liberal vote.
Issa seat: Anything's possible
In the 49th District — located in northern San Diego and southern Orange counties — there's also a chance two Democrats could win first and second, shutting out Republicans, Spillane said.
EMILY's List and a Democratic independent expenditure group are spending heavily in the race for Democrat Sara Jacobs, an education nonprofit CEO. She's the granddaughter to Irwin Jacobs, co-founder and former chairman of Qualcomm Inc., a telecommunications company.
It's a question of whether retired Marine Col. Doug Applegate (D) — who narrowly lost to Issa in 2016 — and Mike Levin, a clean energy advocate, can break through, Spillane said. The Sierra Club and California League of Conservation Voters (CLCV) both endorsed Levin.
In a bid to get a Democratic winner, the DCCC funded a television ad against Republican Assemblyman Rocky Chavez. Issa has endorsed Diane Harkey, state Board of Equalization chairwoman.
With so many candidates including credible Republican candidates, it's hard to forecast the outcome, Gonzales said, and it could be "two Democrats finishing at the top, two Republicans finish at the top or one of each."
Rohrabacher seat: 2 GOP finalists?
Rohrabacher's race in the 48th District — in coastal and inland Orange County — could see two GOP candidates win the primary, analysts said. Republican challenger Scott Baugh, a former state Assembly minority leader and former Orange County Republican Party chairman, is seen as a strong competitor.
It's a conservative district, Tony Quinn, analyst with the California Target Book, has said. If Rohrabacher and Baugh split the GOP vote fairly evenly, they could nab the top two spots and advance to November's election.
Democratic groups are working to hurt Baugh and help Harley Rouda (D), a businessman who has largely self-funded his campaign. The DCCC threw support behind Rouda, over stem cell researcher Hans Keirstead, the party's original recruit. That was after a poll that showed Rohrabacher with 30 percent of the vote and Rouda, Keirstead and Baugh all drawing 13 percent. Rouda is seen to have better grassroots support.
Democratic groups and the campaign wing of the Environmental Defense Fund also are funding efforts to hurt Baugh, with spots raising questions about ethics and his views on climate change. Rohrabacher denies any human causes of global warming. The DCCC has sent a mailer with an image of a sample ballot, reminding people that some Democratic candidates listed have dropped out and to not waste a vote, said Nathan Gonzalez, editor of the nonpartisan Inside Elections.
The fight to replace Royce in the 39th District — located in parts of Orange, Los Angeles and San Bernardino counties — has drawn six Democratic and seven GOP contenders.
Republican candidate Young Kim, who worked for Royce as his director of community operations and served one term in the California Assembly, looks likely to win one of the primary's top two spots, Gonzales said.
Fearing a liberal vote split, national Democratic leaders backed candidate Gil Cisneros (D), a Navy veteran who won the California lottery. However Cisneros "is definitely not the only Democrat running in the race," Gonzales added.
Other Democratic candidates include Andy Thorburn, who started an insurance business, Mai Khanh Tran, a pediatrician, and Sam Jammal, an attorney who worked in President Obama's Commerce Department and later for Tesla.
"Democrats are feeling better about the race, but I wouldn't say it's a certainty that Cisneros or a Democrat gets in," Gonzales said.
Early returns show GOP edge
Mail-in ballot returns appear to show Republican voters eager to keep seats in GOP hands. In many cases, registered Republicans are sending their ballots back more strongly than the share of district voters they represent. Democrats are not returning those ballots as forcefully in many cases.
For example, in Royce's district, Republicans comprise 36 percent of those who received mail-in ballots.
As of this weekend, Republicans made up 46 percent of ballots already returned. Democrats comprise 34 percent of those with mail-in ballots and comprised 34 percent of the ballots returned, according to information compiled by according to Political Data Inc.
However, in the 49th District that Issa now holds, Democrats were returning mail-in ballots strongly. Democrats there make up 32 percent of those with mail-in ballots versus 37 percent for Republicans. They were even for returning those, at 38 percent for each group.
Early returns released by elections officials generally are seen as a good indicator, said Paul Mitchell, vice president of Political Data.
"In California, the primary voters in particular vote strongly with their own party," Mitchell said.
The mail-in ballot group is large in the Golden State, he said, adding that "we expect 70 percent of the votes to come in this way." Those returns also tend to track with who show up on Election Day, he said.
"They do a great job of truly forecasting what the electorate is going to be," Mitchell said. In California one-quarter of the electorate in registered as "no party preference," or without a political party. Those people do not tend to show up strongly for primaries, Mitchell said.
"Middle-of-the-road ticket splitters, those are the kind of voters who don’t care about primaries," Mitchell said.
De León could get second shot at Feinstein
In the race for Senate, state Sen. Kevin de León (D) is challenging Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) as she seeks a sixth term.
There are 11 Republicans in the race, and GOP voters failed to rally around one, Spillane said. None of the 11 are well-known or have significant financing or endorsements (E&E Daily, May 23).
"That's the one thing that gives de León hope to get to November," Spillane said. "Odds are that [de León] will score the second spot, but there is a chance for a Republican to outpoll him. I couldn't tell you which one."
If Feinstein and de León win first and second, he'll need to put together a coalition of progressive Democrats and Republicans who "don't have a home," Gonzales said.
Asked whether conservatives wouldn't more likely support Feinstein, Gonzales said that some GOP voters might pick de León as a kind of outsider, "if he's viewed as the fresher face." He added, however, "I'm not sure I believe he can put that coalition together."
A poll from Public Policy Institute of California (PPIC) released late last month showed Feinstein with support from 41 percent of likely voters, while de León garnered 17 percent. The poll did not ask about the Republican challengers. The survey found 36 percent of likely voters were undecided.
Race for governor
California Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom (D) is seen as a lock to win first place in the race to replace retiring Gov. Jerry Brown (D). Newsom has led in all of the polls.
Then it's a battle for second between Republican venture capitalist John Cox — who, President Trump endorsed — and former Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa (D), said Spillane.
Depending on who gets the second spot, Newsom will either have a brawl through November or coast to the governor's mansion, several analysts said.
"If Villaraigosa can get that second spot, it will be a very competitive governor's race in November," Spillane said. "If Cox gets it, it won't be that competitive. Newsom will win easily for a number of reasons. Republicans aren't that competitive in the state."
Newsom and Villaraigosa are both seen as environmentally friendly. Newsom pledged he'd call for 100 percent renewable energy from the start and wants to overhaul the transportation sector. Villaraigosa wants the state's carbon cap-and-trade program reformed to force more direct emissions reductions at facilities.
He's to the right of Newsom on one green issue, advocating reform of the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA), a law developers loathe.
Cox wants to repeal the added gas tax the California Legislature passed last year to fund $52.4 billion in road repairs. Brown advocated the user-pays tax over borrowing through bonds.
Newsom, meanwhile, in an ad posted on Facebook, painted Cox as in sync with Trump. That's actually an effort to get Republicans to vote for Cox, so that Newsom can face him and not Villaraigosa in November, said Gonzales.
Cox can't beat Newsom, Gonzales said, adding, "I don't think this is the type of cycle where California is in the mood to elect a Republican governor."
He noted, however, that while Republicans don't have top ticket contenders, party leaders are anxious to drum up the vote because there is more at stake than just these statewide races.
"There's some Republican concern that if the Senate race and the governor's race are a lost cause for Republicans, that will depress Republican turn out," in November, "and that will hurt Republicans' chances of holding all those competitive House seats at the congressional level," Gonzales said.
The primary arrives as the latest voter registration figures showed for the first time there are fewer registered Republicans in the Golden State than voters who register as independent.
There are 73,000 more independent voters than those in the GOP, according to information compiled by Political Data.
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