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Too Many Candidates? Democrats Grapple With Oversupply In Southern California

The U.S. Capitol is seen here on March 7, 2018.
Anadolu Agency
Getty Images
The U.S. Capitol is seen here on March 7, 2018.

A grassroots rally featuring customized Beatles lyrics and sickle-and-hammer-adorned Donald Trump signs might not be the place you'd expect an outbreak of political pragmatism.

It came as the crowd sang a parody of "Come Together."

"Here come elections / We've got people running / we've high emotions / we've got strange primary," sang the protestors there for their weekly picket of Republican Darrell Issa's district office, as a tambourine beat away. "Come together, right now / turn it blue."

There they were, cheering as a candidate explained why she had just decided days before to drop out of the race in the midst of a cycle where a record-setting number of women are running for Congress.

"As much as the people may have wanted to support our campaign, what I saw was that because it's an open primary, the threat of us splitting the vote was far too strong and the fear was there," Christina Prejean told the protestors. "We cannot allow for two Republicans to get past the primary. We just can't let it happen."

"Thank you, Christina!" the crowd responded. "Thank you, Christina! Thank you, Christina!"

Issa won reelection in California's 49th district in 2016 by the barest of margins: less than 2,000 votes. With Democratic energy through the roof in 2018, his soon-to-be-vacated seat is a top Democratic pickup target.

But in this seat and in a nearby Orange County district, Democrats may have too much of a good thing. Four Democrats remain in the race to replace Issa. A whopping eight are running in the seat being vacated by Orange County Republican Ed Royce.

Crowded primary races can often point to a big November wave. But in California, they can create a problem. The state's unique primary setup advances the top two finishers, no matter what party. Increasingly, Democrats are worried that these two key targets, which both broke for Hillary Clinton in 2016, could end up with all-Republican fall ballots.

"Because they can consolidate the pie," explains Terra Lawson-Remer, one of the organizers of a grassroots SuperPac called Flip The 49th. "Even if [the Republicans] have a smaller pie, each individual gets a bigger slice of their smaller pie. We split the pie among all of our fractious candidates. And no Democrat can get through to November."

So while progressive activists are livid at the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee for inserting itself into this week's Texas primary, here in Southern California, many on-the-ground organizers are urging the DCCC to throw some elbows.

"We have just too many candidates," says Marian Bodnar, one of the leaders of the Indivisible group in the 39th district, currently represented by Royce. "I honestly don't know what the answer is."

"I can't predict how anyone would react" says Bodnar, if the DCCC endorsed a candidate or dropped opposition research on others, as they did in Texas. "In some ways, it would be helpful. I'm sure there will be those people who go, 'no, my candidate...' But at least it would set some sort of direction."

But the DCCC appears to be playing it cautiously, after watching Laura Moser surge into a runoff election in Texas in the wake of the party's aggressive push to knock her out of the race.

Drew Godinich, the DCCC's Irvine-based spokesman, says after decades of futility in and around Orange County, Democrats view crowded fields as a good thing.

"Democrats in Orange County were begging people to run in these seats," he says. "I'm always going to take the alternative where we have a number of well-qualified people who are really litigating the case for the first time in these districts. The Democratic Party has seen in the past where the top two can pose a challenge. And that's why in past election cycles we actually stepped in to help support a Democrat and ensure that they got through."

Sources in multiple campaigns say the DCCC has been holding blunt closed-doors conversations with all the candidates in the overcrowded races, raising potential positives and negatives they would expect to be aired in a general election. But, with the California filing deadline now arrived, the DCCC has yet to publicly step in and either back or block any candidates.

"At the end of the day, all options are on the table to help ensure that there's a Democrat on the ballot in November," Godinich says.

But DCCC critics like Nina Turner of Our Revolution, Bernie Sanders's political action committee, are convinced the committee's exercising of those options helped, rather than hurt, Laura Moser.

"It shows very clearly that the grassroots in the state of Texas and all across this country are leveraging their power and their voice to participate," Turner says. "The mainline Democrats, the establishment Democrats, of this party cannot continue to put their thumbs and their bodies on the scale to get an artificial result."

While the DCCC keeps its public neutrality, some of the grassroots organizers are stepping up their efforts to winnow the field. Flip the 49th recently decided to pay for a viability poll.

"A real poll, not a fly-by-night, put your finger in the wind poll," Lawson-Remer says.

The survey found 2016 candidate Doug Applegate leading the field, followed by two Republicans. But after pollsters delivered negative information about all the candidates, two GOP candidates took the top spots.

Most of the 49th district's Democratic candidates acknowledge the crowdedness problem. They just all see themselves as the party's best option.

"It's a risk and I want people to be energized by that risk," Applegate says. "But nobody's been able to spend a million bucks and come within ten points of me.

"I know we're running the strongest campaign," counters candidate Mike Levin. "I know we're viable. We'll be on the ballot in June. We're going to win and be on that ballot in November. And we're going to win there, as well."

Sara Jacobs, who, if victorious, would be the youngest woman ever elected to Congress, argues Democrats need younger candidates, and women, to win this fall.

"We have to give them something exciting to vote for," she says. "If we're going to win we need women, and we need young people, to come out to the polls."

None of the candidates in either open district earned enough votes to win the party's official nomination at the California Democratic Party's recent convention. So as the suddenly cautious party officials bide their time, and as the candidates continue to stick to their guns, party activists can only plead for eventual unity.

"If you prefer your candidate so much that you refuse to vote for someone else's candidate when the time comes, you are saying that you prefer Donald Trump to the option that's presented to you," Lawson-Remer tells the crowd during the protest outside Issa's office. "And I think we are not in the position to let the perfect be the enemy of the good. We have too much at stake."

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Scott Detrow is a White House correspondent for NPR and co-hosts the NPR Politics Podcast.
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