California Primary Rule May Hurt Democrats' Bid To Unseat GOP's Rohrabacher A big coup in Democrats' efforts to retake the House would be to defeat California Rep. Dana Rohrabacher. But too many Democrats on the ballot may divide the vote — shutting them out of the runoff.
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California Primary Rule May Hurt Democrats' Bid To Unseat GOP's Rohrabacher

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California Primary Rule May Hurt Democrats' Bid To Unseat GOP's Rohrabacher

California Primary Rule May Hurt Democrats' Bid To Unseat GOP's Rohrabacher

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RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Democrats have high hopes to take control of the House of Representatives in the midterms. But to do it, they need almost every corner of California. The party has even targeted Orange County, a one-time Republican stronghold won by Hillary Clinton in 2016. The big prize there would be toppling 15-term Republican incumbent Dana Rohrabacher. But California has this unusual two-tier primary system. And that along with an unusually crowded field of Democratic candidates could dash the party's hopes in next week's primary. Here's NPR's Ina Jaffe.

INA JAFFE, BYLINE: Dana Rohrabacher touts his proud past as a speechwriter for Ronald Reagan and toes the conservative line on many issues - illegal immigration, for one. Here he is addressing the Huntington Beach City Council.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

DANA ROHRABACHER: Well, I would suggest that those who are advocating sanctuary cities or a sanctuary state are betraying the American people.

JAFFE: Some of Rohrabacher's other positions, however, have made him seem vulnerable even to fellow Republicans. He voted against both the GOP tax cut and the spending bill. He recently lost some business support when he said that no one should have to sell their home to someone who's gay. But most controversial is his long support for better relations with Russia and meeting with close associates of Vladimir Putin. So recently, Democratic voters crowded into a synagogue in Rohrabacher's district, eager to check out the candidates vying to replace him. Susan Becker knew what she was looking for.

SUSAN BECKER: I have to support the person who is most likely to win. It's just a shame that there are so many Democrats running because we're going to split the vote.

JAFFE: Here's why Becker's worried. California's primary system puts all the candidates on one ballot and sends the top two finishers on to November, regardless of party. But in their enthusiasm to oppose Rohrabacher and Donald Trump, eight Democrat signed up, making it hard for any candidate to consolidate support. That's why Michael Kotick dropped out, though his name is still on the ballot.

MICHAEL KOTICK: We have to be really smart about the math. And when candidates see that the math is getting crowded, we have to make responsible decisions on behalf of the community, on behalf of the party.

JAFFE: What made Kotick's decision so urgent was, at the last minute, another Republican jumped into the race.

(SOUNDBITE OF POLITICAL AD, "IT'S TIME")

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: We need more from our representatives in Washington. We need Scott Baugh.

JAFFE: Scott Baugh is a former Republican leader in both the state legislature and the county party, so he's well-known in this district. And if Democrats can't rally around a single candidate, they may have no one on the November ballot. At the synagogue forum, one candidate had to deal with this uncomfortable question from moderator Kevin O'Leary.

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KEVIN O'LEARY: Shouldn't you consider dropping out and asking your supporters to support one of the Democrats?

(APPLAUSE)

JAFFE: You can hear what a popular suggestion that was. Really, the top issue at this forum was winning - just winning. And two Democrats seem viable.

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HANS KEIRSTEAD: Hello, Democrats. Good evening.

JAFFE: Stem cell biologist Hans Keirstead wanted to show he had the official support to make it to November.

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KEIRSTEAD: I am the California Democratic Party-endorsed candidate.

JAFFE: But while Keirstead has the support of the state party, the national Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee is supporting his chief rival, tech entrepreneur Harley Rouda. And Rouda's message to Keirstead should sound familiar.

HARLEY ROUDA: I think the best thing he could do is drop out at this point.

JAFFE: This is not the only place where Democrats' glut of candidates has imperiled their chances. In another Orange County congressional district, Democrats were going at each other so hard that the head of the state party brokered a truce on negative advertising. At the same time, they're attacking some Republicans running there. The idea is to narrow the field and make sure a Democrat makes it into the runoff.

RAPHAEL SONENSHEIN: This is just getting really wild.

JAFFE: Raphael Sonenshein, executive director of the Pat Brown Institute at California State University, Los Angeles, says everyone's now trying to figure out how to game the system, including voters.

SONENSHEIN: For example, should I vote for a candidate I don't much like so that our party doesn't get shut out or vote for that person so I can shut out the other party? This was the kind of political gamesmanship that the top two was sort of advertised that it would save us from. I think it hasn't really worked too well this year.

JAFFE: And it's not just Democrats who are facing a perilous primary next week. Republicans risk being shut out of the races for governor and United States Senate.

Ina Jaffe, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF MATTHEW HALSALL'S "THE END OF DUKKHA")

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