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5 things to know about California’s crucial House races

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From left, candidates Doug Applegate, Sara Jacobs, Mike Levin, Christina Prejean (who since has dropped out) and Paul Kerr gather onstage at a recent forum for Democrats running for Rep. Darrell Issa’s seat.
(Nick Agro / For The Times)

There are fewer than 80 days until the California midterm primaries that might set up Democrats to reclaim control of the House.

The contests in California are essential for the party, which has based its strategy on winning at least a few of the Republican-held districts in the state that backed Hillary Clinton for president.

For the record:
8:40 AM, Mar. 18, 2018 An earlier version of this article stated that Democrat Mike Levin received the party’s endorsement in the race to replace Rep. Darrell Issa. He came closest in the vote on an endorsement, but did not win it.

With the candidate lists finalized and the campaigns chugging along, here are some important things to know about the races:

California’s top-two primary system could lock Democrats out of some races after June

Despite pleas from the state and national party, only a handful of Democrats bowed out before the candidate filing deadline, setting up a potential nightmare scenario for the party.

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A crowded Democratic field means most candidates will get only a small portion of the vote. That, coupled with the entry of a handful of Republican challengers into already crowded races, means there is a legitimate possibility that no Democrat would make it into the top two in some of the June primary races. (In California, the top two vote-getters advance to the November general election regardless of party.)

The volume of candidates from both parties is a particular problem for Democrats in their quest to flip three crucial Orange County-area districts that chose Clinton for president and have over 50 House candidates among them.

For example, in the district held by retiring Rep. Ed Royce of Fullerton, the field of 20 candidates includes nine Democrats and seven Republicans. The field is similarly flooded with candidates from both parties in the nearby district of Rep. Darrell Issa, who also is retiring, and Rep. Dana Rohrabacher’s coastal district.

Though voter registration numbers are slowly moving in Democrats’ favor, most Orange County districts still lean Republican, making it more likely that two Republicans could split the biggest chunks of the vote and leave Democrats behind.

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Few of the Democrats have ever been on a ballot

The Democratic field is made up almost entirely of political novices who say they were inspired to run by the election of President Trump.

In vulnerable Republican Rep. Mimi Walters’ 45th District, all four Democrats on the ballot are running for office for the first time.

First-time candidates have to work harder to build name recognition and raise money, two things that are difficult even when there aren’t several other Democrats running. They have less than three months to break away from the crowd and hope voters are in the mood for nontraditional candidates.

Meanwhile, Republicans such as Scott Baugh, a former Orange County party chairman who decided to run at the last minute against Rohrabacher, and Ted Howze, a former Turlock city councilman who is running against Rep. Jeff Denham in the Central Valley, are well-known in local circles and have a web of donors to tap. They also won’t have to answer for Trump’s most controversial actions the way incumbent Republicans may be forced to do.

Endorsements aren’t a sign of party unity

State Democrats had hoped to use their endorsement process to narrow the focus to one challenger per House district. But it didn’t work out that way.

In a handful of the prominent races, activists were so split that the party made no endorsement at all, preventing it from directing money to any candidate in those races.

Even some candidates who eked out enough votes at the state convention to get a party endorsement aren’t getting full support.

Three California House Democrats have backed Harley Rouda, a Democrat running against Rohrabacher in Orange County, even though opponent Hans Keirstead narrowly won the state party’s endorsement.

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Democrat Mike Levin came closest to receiving the party’s endorsement in the race to replace Issa, but several local Democratic clubs have voted to rate him “unacceptable” and asked the Congressional Progressive Caucus to rescind its endorsement.

Democrats are reaching for heavily Republican districts, and they are excited about their strategy

Targeted but not particularly vulnerable Republicans will face a number of motivated opponents in the primary as Democrats hope to take advantage of a possible Democratic wave.

Four Democrats have filed to run against Rep. Tom McClintock of Elk Grove and three against Rep. Devin Nunes of Tulare. They may be hoping to mimic part of the strategy one Democrat used on his way to a strong performance in a special House election for a Pennsylvania district that Trump won. That candidate focused on ambivalence about the GOP tax bill and worked to capitalize on anti-Trump energy.

Democrats still have a questionable chance of winning these seats, though some of them have raised more money than the Republican incumbents. Trump won both districts handily, and McClintock and Nunes won reelection by even wider margins.

Democratic incumbents aren’t in much trouble

Republicans have identified a handful of Democratic incumbents they will try to oust even as the GOP mostly goes on the defensive this year.

Although Republican opponents have signed up to run in all of the races, no candidates were strong enough to convince election handicappers that Democrats should worry, and they’re at the bottom of a Times ranking of the toughest races.

See The Times’ ranking of the hottest House races »

In a typical year, Republican challengers in swing seats could count on getting a lot of help. But with so many seats to defend around the nation, the GOP will be careful to spend time and money where it can do the most good, so California’s Republican challengers are probably on their own.

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sarah.wire@latimes.com | Twitter: @sarahdwire

christine.maiduc@latimes.com | Twitter: @cmaiduc


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