Vexed for months over the prospect of getting boxed out of crucial House races after California's primary, Democrats think they've found a way to fight back.
The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee this week began airing television ads that go after two Republicans running for retiring Rep. Ed Royce's seat. The ads made no mention of a third, Young Kim, who has led polls, has the backing of Royce, and is widely seen as the Democrats' most formidable potential opponent in November.
By attacking two Republicans viewed as second-tier, Democrats are hoping to suppress GOP votes for those candidates while ensuring that Kim gets far enough ahead to be the only Republican in the general election. They also hope to avoid explicitly backing or attacking one of their own in the increasingly nasty intraparty fights in some districts.
"We dislike all the Republican candidates, but we're just choosing wisely which ones we're attacking," said one Democratic source familiar with the committee's thinking.
The strategy is part of a new approach to California's top two primary, in which the top two vote-getters on June 5 advance to the general election regardless of party. With at least half a dozen candidates from each major party, the free-for-all to replace Royce (R-Fullerton) could yield a choice between two Republicans.
The ads in Royce's 39th District attack former state Sen. Bob Huff for positions he took on increasing taxes as a state legislator and hit Orange County Supervisor Shawn Nelson for the "pension hypocrisy" of accepting a generous pension package while moving to cut benefits for others.
Aside from Kim, Democrats hope the beneficiary of the ads is Gil Cisneros, a Democrat and Navy veteran whom the DCCC recently elevated to its "Red to Blue" program, which gives his campaign more strategic and fundraising support. The move was short of a formal endorsement, but was meant to signal to donors and supporters which campaign it thinks is strongest. Veteran political operatives are also being courted by the DCCC to join Cisneros' campaign before the primary.
With tensions running high among Democratic activists, party leaders have been warned that increasing their support for Cisneros or attacking another Democrat as they did in a Texas race could backfire.
"I don't believe we should be attacking any Democrat in California," said Rep. Ted Lieu, who serves as western vice chair for the committee.
Attacking two Republicans was seen as an elegant solution.
It could also be more effective. If the DCCC publicly attacked one Democrat in a splintered field, there's no guarantee it would help a viable Democrat snag a spot in the top-two primary.
"It is incredibly hard to know where their votes go," says Jesse Ferguson, a Democratic strategist who ran the committee's independent expenditures in 2014, the year the party endorsed Pete Aguilar early in a primary and spent money to boost him through the top two, ultimately helping him capture a seat he'd been locked out of two years before.
"That's the problem with the Rubik's Cubes that are these top-two systems. … You end up chasing your own tail."
A spokesman for the National Republican Congressional Committee, the DCCC's GOP counterpart, called the move desperate. "They're spending hundreds of thousands of dollars just to get to the starting line, and that's clearly not a position of strength," said Jack Pandol.
At a meeting of California's House Democrats Tuesday night, many in the delegation cheered the strategy and discussed whether it could be used in two other Orange County races where they're at risk of being shut out, according to two sources who attended the meeting.
One of the seats, currently held by Rep. Dana Rohrabacher (R-Costa Mesa), sparked new concern after the DCCC's internal polling showed Rohrabacher's support eroding, leaving open the possibility that GOP challenger Scott Baugh could pick up some of his votes and make the November runoff. Another Democratic shutout could happen in the 49th Congressional District, where four Democrats and eight Republicans are running to replace retiring Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Vista).
But each race has nuances that could prompt Democrats to work even harder to get one of their own through.
With only two well-known Republicans running in Rohrabacher's district, the committee will also need to coalesce behind a Democrat. (Three of the eight Democrats on the ballot have dropped out, citing the top-two primary as a concern).
The committee made a major move toward that end Friday, adding Democrat Harley Rouda to its "Red to Blue" program, even though Hans Keirstead received the California Democratic Party's endorsement in March. DCCC chair Rep. Ben Ray Lujan (D-N.M.) called Rouda the "strongest candidate in this race."
In Issa's district, the four remaining Democrats include Sara Jacobs and Paul Kerr, who have used their personal wealth to run nearly nonstop TV ads in the pricey San Diego media market. So far, the committee has remained mostly quiet there.
"There's more than one way to skin that cat, and I don't think they've figured out which end of the cat they're starting at yet," said Parke Skelton, a campaign consultant for Democratic candidate Mike Levin.
In the coming days, that could mean another "Red to Blue" announcement from the DCCC, or even an outright endorsement.
"The math is complicated, we know that," said DCCC spokeswoman Meredith Kelly. "We leave every option on the table to get involved in a more overt way to ensure that we have a Democrat" in each of these races.
Times staff writer Sarah D. Wire contributed to this report.
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9:05 a.m.: This article was updated with a comment from the National Republican Congressional Committee.