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Uncertainty Lingers in Critical California House Races

Democratic nominees remain unknown after initial primary results

Democrats are targeting 10 GOP-held seats in California. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)
Democrats are targeting 10 GOP-held seats in California. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)

Democrats will keep a close eye on California county registrars over the next few days as uncertainty remains in several House races. But initial results show Democrats could avoid a general election shutout in some of their top targets.

The Associated Press has yet to call the second-place finishers in seven of Democrats’ 10 GOP-held targets in the Golden State, with mail-in ballots yet to be counted, and a voter roll debacle that threw even more chaos into vote-counting.

Democrats view California as key to flipping the House, but the top-two primary system created headaches for Democrats in races with multiple candidates on both sides.

The two highest vote-getters advance to November regardless of party. A slew of Democratic candidates raised concerns that they could split the vote, causing two Republicans to advance.

Democrats have been operating behind the scenes for months to encourage some candidates to drop out. And they spent millions in the final weeks boosting their candidates and knocking down other Republicans to secure a spot on the general election ballot.

It appears the strategy may have worked, but uncertainty remains with scores of votes not yet counted.

Watching mail-in ballots

Some Democrats were cautiously optimistic Wednesday morning as several races remained uncalled, but they appeared to avoid a shutout in some key races.

California Democratic Rep. John Garamendi told MSNBC early Wednesday morning that it appeared Democrats would be on the November ballot in those races, describing the prospect of a general election shutout as “our great fear.”

One Democratic operative involved in California House races cautioned that mail-in ballots yet to be counted could change results in races where candidates are separated by 2,000 or 3,000 votes.

California accepts mail-in ballots postmarked on Election Day, so it could take a few days to count the outstanding ones.

One race with a risk of a general election shutout is in the 10th District in the Central Valley, held by GOP Rep. Jeff Denham. Democratic investor Josh Harder was in second place in the initial results, just 850 votes ahead of Republican Ted Howze.

That shutout concern was greatest in three districts that touch Orange County: the open 39th District held by retiring GOP Rep. Ed Royce; the 48th District held by GOP Rep. Dana Rohrabacher; and the open 49th District held by retiring Rep. Darrell Issa.

The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee and House Majority PAC, a super PAC aligned with Democratic leadership, spent a combined $7.9 million in those three districts to avert a shutout.

And Democrats weren’t the only ones concerned about the top-two system. The Congressional Leadership Fund, a super PAC aligned with House GOP leadership, spent $1.7 million on those three races by funneling money through a group called the American Future Fund in order to bolster top GOP candidates.

Democrats have not yet avoided a shutout in the 39th District, but Navy veteran and lottery winner Gil Cisneros, the DCCC’s pick, was the Democrat closest to second place.

The Associated Press declared that Republican Young Kim, a former Royce staffer, secured the first place spot. Cisneros was ahead of pro-Donald Trump Republican businessman Phil Liberatore by 4,600 votes when Orange County reported its final unofficial results from polling places early Wednesday morning. Additional mail-in ballot results from Orange County will be posted Wednesday evening and in the following days.

It’s not clear how much a voter roll error in Los Angeles County, part of which is in the 39th District, will affect the final outcome. More than 118,000 voters’ names were accidentally not included in voter rolls due to a “printing error,” according to the Los Angeles Times. Voters whose names were not on the rosters at polling places were able to vote via provisional ballots, which will be verified later.

Disaster averted?

The threat of a shutout prompted intense media attention and heartburn among Democrats. California Democratic consultant Dave Jacobson called the top-two system a “cyclical migraine for voters and candidates alike” that will persist until it is changed.

Averting disaster in these races is key for Democrats looking to flip the House, given the number of pickup opportunities. Hillary Clinton won seven GOP-held seats in 2016.

“Now that Democrats are in a position to compete in the general election up and down the state, the pathway to flipping the House from red to blue has only increased,” Jacobson said via text message Wednesday morning.

Democrats appear to have avoided a shutout in two Orange County races, but The Associated Press has not yet declared second-place finishers.

In the 48th District, which some said presented the greatest threat of a shutout, Democrats Hans Keirstead and Harley Rouda are vying for second place against GOP Rep. Dana Rohrabacher.

Rouda, a businessman, declared victory over Keirstead, a stem cell researcher, but he was ahead by only 73 votes.

Further south in the open 49th District, three Democrats were also in the mix for second place against Republican Diane Harkey, a member of a state board that oversees tax collection.

Attorney Mike Levin was 1,800 votes ahead of Sara Jacobs, the next closest Democrat.

Nominees unknown

In other races where a shutout was not a risk, the Democratic nominees remain undecided.

Democrats are once again targeting GOP Rep. Steve Knight in the 25th District, who some describe as the most vulnerable GOP incumbent in the state. Homelessness non-profit executive Katie Hill was 1,500 votes ahead of 2016 nominee Bryan Caforio in the initial results. Hill cast herself as more of a moderate, while Caforio emphasized fighting Trump’s agenda.

GOP Rep. Mimi Walters, a deputy chair of the National Republican Congressional Committee, still does not know her Democratic opponent.

The Democratic race came down to Katie Porter, who was endorsed by EMILY’s List, and Dave Min, backed by the state party, who are both law professors at University of California, Irvine. The Democratic primary between the two was heated, and Porter led Min by 2,600 votes.

Democrat Ammar Campa-Najjar also had a 2,700 vote lead over Republican BIll Wells for in the race for second place against GOP Rep. Duncan Hunter in the 50th District. The district is traditionally Republican, but Democrats are eyeing the seat since Hunter is under federal investigation for misuse of campaign funds.

Some matchups set

November matchups in three races were set Wednesday morning. 

The AP projected that Democrat Jessica Morse would take on GOP Rep. Tom McClintock in the 4th District.

Morse, a former program analyst for the U.S. Agency for International Development, outraised McClintock for two fundraising quarters in a row, and closed the gap on McClintock’s cash on hand advantage. As of May 16, the end of the pre-primary reporting period, McClintock had $698,000 on hand compared to Morse’s $648,000.

Democrats are also targeting GOP Rep. Devin Nunes in the 22nd District. He’ll face attorney Andrew Janz in November, who has raised $1.8 million, capitalizing on Nunes’ high profile role as a Trump ally and chairman of the House Intelligence Committee. But Nunes still has more than eight times as much cash on hand than Janz.

In the 21st District held by GOP Rep. David Valadao, businessman TJ Cox, the only other candidate in the race, officially advanced to November.

Clinton had the widest margin of victory in 2016 in the 21st District, carrying it by 15 points even as Valadao was re-elected by a 13-point margin. Republicans are confident Valadao is a strong incumbent who has built an independent brand in his district.

Correction: A previous version of this story misstated the number of races yet to be called by the Associated Press.

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