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Democrats' push to win the House in the midterms could hit a snag in deep blue California

Key Points
  • California holds its primary elections Tuesday, and its top-two system could potentially lead to Democrats getting shut out of House general elections in key districts.
  • The party is targeting about 10 Republican-held districts as it tries to win a majority in the House.
  • A flurry of Democratic candidates entered the House races, leaving the potential that they could split the vote and allow two Republicans to enter the general election.
California voters go to the polls.
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Democratic efforts to win a House majority in the midterms could hit a snag Tuesday in one of the country's most liberal states.

In California, the party hopes to challenge about 10 GOP-held districts and pick up a good chunk of the 23 Republican seats it needs to win control of the chamber. But Democrats need to get past an obstacle in Tuesday's primaries: a system that sends the top two candidates, regardless of party, to November's general election.

Strong Democratic candidate recruitment and voter enthusiasm fueled the party's hopes that it could compete in California House districts recently dominated by Republicans. However, the Democratic vote in some swing districts could get fragmented among multiple candidates, leaving the potential for two Republicans to advance.

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Local and national party officials acknowledge most paths to Democrats winning a House majority — and pushing for their vision on health care, immigration and taxes — require a strong performance in California. Democrats face the prospect of getting locked out of up to three competitive districts in November, which would reduce the party's margin for error in key districts elsewhere.

"It would absolutely be an embarrassment," said John Vigna, communications director for the California Democratic Party, about the prospect of more than one lockout. "We are very cognizant of the role California has to play in taking back the House. I think a lot of our voters are very aware that any chance of Democrats taking the House has to come through a gangbusters performance here in California."

Officials from both parties closely following the House primaries generally see the state's 39th and 48th Districts in the Orange County area as the ones where the Democrats are in the most danger of missing out on the general election. Incumbent Republican Rep. Ed Royce is retiring in the 39th, while GOP Rep. Dana Rohrabacher faces a challenger from his party in the 48th.

Observers also see some risk for a Democratic lockout in the 49th District, another Orange County seat vacated by GOP Rep. Darrell Issa's retirement. They acknowledge the prospect is less likely there.

Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Calif) at the 2015 WEF in Davos, Switzerland.
David A. Grogan | CNBC

Getting a candidate into all three of those winnable districts is important for Democrats. Nonpartisan election analysis sites consider all three general election races either toss-ups or favorable to Democrats — if the party fields a candidate in November. The districts either have roughly balanced partisan leanings or have only narrowly skewed more toward Republicans than the country as a whole in recent presidential elections, according to Cook Political Report's Partisan Voter Index.

With several Democrats running in each district, both local activists and national party groups have tried to boost overall Democratic voter turnout to give candidates more votes to split. The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee has spent millions on ground operations and ads trying to boost voter turnout and registration. The House Democrats' campaign arm has spent money to help Democrats and hurt Republicans in some districts, and even drawn the ire of some candidates for efforts to intervene or encourage Democrats to drop out.

Last week, the DCCC acknowledged the number of Democratic candidates and retirements from Royce and Issa raised the "serious risk of being shut out" in "multiple races." The retirements complicated matters because one or more Republican running for an open seat could take a larger share of the primary vote than one incumbent would.

House Republicans' campaign arm has also spent money in the three districts' primaries. Last week, the National Republican Congressional Committee kicked off what it called a six-figure ad buy to motivate Trump voters in the 39th, 48th and 49th Districts.

A Republican familiar with the races argued lockouts would be "catastrophic" because of Democrats' efforts and spending to ensure a party candidate makes it through Tuesday's primaries.

In the 39th District, former state Assemblywoman Young Kim appears to have the edge among Republicans. Leading Democrats Gil Cisneros — whom the DCCC backs — and Andy Thorburn previously reached what Vigna called a "ceasefire agreement" to stop attacking one another ahead of the primary. The DCCC has tried to prop up Cisneros, a Navy veteran and education advocate, and damage Republicans Shawn Nelson and Bob Huff, who could play spoiler to the Democrats.

Rohrabacher is expected to win one of the general election spots in the 48th District. Democrats have tried to hit GOP former California Assemblyman Scott Baugh and help businessman Harley Rouda, their preferred candidate in the race over stem cell researcher Hans Keirstead.

In the 49th District, leading Republicans include state Assemblyman Rocky Chavez and former state Assemblywoman Diane Harkey. Contenders on the Democratic side include clean energy advocate Mike Levin, Marine veteran Doug Applegate and former State Department official Sara Jacobs. National Democrats have run ads criticizing Chavez.

A local advocacy group called Flip the 49th has worked to increase Democratic turnout in the district, using canvassing and phone banks to urge infrequent Democratic voters to cast ballots. Terra Lawson-Remer, the group's chair, said it has not backed a particular candidate but believes the efforts have reduced the chances of a lockout in the district.