By Dan Walters | CALmatters Commentary
California’s Republican Party hasn’t shown much political acumen in recent years, which is one reason why it’s been, in the words of former Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, “dying at the box office.”
However, the GOP may be pulling off one of history’s most audacious political coups, one that could save the seats of several embattled Republican members of Congress and potentially preserve the party’s control of the House.
Republicans are exploiting the Democratic Party’s abject lack of discipline and gaming California’s top-two primary system to potentially block Democratic challengers from reaching the November ballot.
In several of the most vulnerable districts with large numbers of potential Democratic challengers, well-known Republicans have also filed their candidacies. Under the state’s primary election system, the top two finishers in June face each other in November regardless of any party affiliation. With so many Democrats on the June ballot, the chances for Republican vs. Republican runoffs in those districts are high.
Take, for instance, Orange County Congressman Dana Rohrabacher, who has faced sharp criticism for his apparent affection for Russian President Vladimir Putin and who represents one of seven GOP-held districts in California that voted for Hillary Clinton in 2016.
Rohrabacher has 15 challengers, including eight Democrats. But the one drawing the most attention is Scott Baugh, a former Republican assemblyman and former county GOP chairman.
Baugh insists that his bid to dislodge Rohrabacher is genuine, saying the congressman “has lost focus on what’s important.” But he’s also a longtime friend of Rohrabacher and the best known challenger so could easily wind up as the congressman’s only foe in November. If so, the seat would be guaranteed to remain in GOP hands.
Something similar is happening several hundred miles to the north, in a San Joaquin Valley district represented by Turlock Republican Jeff Denham that also went for Clinton in 2016.
Republican Ted Howze, a former Turlock city councilman and longtime Denham supporter, filed to run against him, insisting, “I’m running on my own merits, not to be somebody’s shadow candidate.”
But of course, like Baugh, he would never admit to being a friendly foe, even if it were true.
Democrats had entertained high hopes of unseating San Diego County Republican Darrell Issa, but he decided not to run for re-election. Five Democrats are running, but as in other targeted districts, there are two well-known Republicans, Assemblyman Rocky Chavez and Diane Harkey, a member of the state Board of Equalization. So chances are fairly good for another Republican vs. Republican runoff in November.
Another San Diego Congressman, Duncan Hunter, is under investigation for ethics lapses, and several Democrats have filed to challenge him. But so has Republican Bill Wells, the mayor of El Cajon. In one of the state’s most conservative districts, it’s possible that another all-Republican runoff will result.
Democrats know that what’s happening could thwart their hopes of picking up four or five congressional seats in California, thereby severely reducing their chances of retaking Congress.
A recent state Democratic Party posting on Twitter was meant to castigate Republicans, but it really just underscored the Democrats’ worries, to wit:
“How worried is @CAGOP about getting walloped in the House? They’re pulling out all the stops to game the horrible top-two primary. Don’t be fooled. It’s a scam to try and shut Dems out.”
One must ask why Democratic leaders such as state chairman Eric Bauman and House Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi opened the door by allowing so many Democratic candidates to file.
If the GOP ploy succeeds and Democrats don’t get more than one or two new seats, the finger-pointing and scapegoating will be severe.