Democrats have more to lose in California than a few primaries

Democratic dreams of regaining a House majority are taking a nightmarish turn in California, where a surge of new candidates risk splitting the vote on Tuesday and, in the process, shutting themselves out of the general election in a handful of swing districts.

It’s an odd state of affairs, the unintended consequence of voters’ decision in 2010 to move California to a nonpartisan primary system. Under the current setup, the top two vote-getters advance regardless of party affiliation, meaning Democrats are not guaranteed a place on the ballot in November.

But the problems run deeper than the quirks of the process. If Democrats fail to make the final menu in districts most analysts rate as up for grabs in the general, confidence in party leadership, its campaign arms and leading outside spenders will come under threat, along with the tenuous ideological detente that’s made 2018 a quieter season than many expected.

A California collapse would prime progressive activists to ramp up their criticism of organizations like the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, which they’ve frequently accused of clumsily thumbing the scales and pushing out more ideologically ambitious candidates. Other party establishment figures and groups, similarly seeking to place and avoid blame, will surely return fire (and then some), ascribing the mess to a combination of missteps by electoral neophytes and overwhelmed state and national operatives.

The sum result: a party thrown deeper into internal crisis and distracted by internal sniping — which will extend way beyond California — at precisely the moment it most needs to be focused on uniting and energizing its coalition.

The reality, of course, is that any self-inflicted failure in a state like California would come with plenty of blame to go around. The candidates, for one, are all fully aware of the dynamics in play — and the consequences of their decisions. In many cases, though, they are the ones with the least to lose. In the hotly contested 39th, 48th and 49th congressional districts, all in Southern California, the party’s influence has been diminished by the emergence of self-funded campaigns by first-time candidates mostly immune to conventional pressure tactics. Worthy candidates without overflowing war chests have shown themselves more willing to drop out and back fellow Democrats.

The DCCC, meanwhile, is mostly focusing its big spending on cutting down Republican hopefuls, like those angling to nick second-place finishes, as it seeks to stay clear of the liberal fray and make the best use of its resources.

That’s due in part to the financial independence of the party’s own candidates, but also speaks to the organization’s standing with Democratic voters, who — especially after the 2016 presidential primary — have shown themselves to be skeptical of pre-primary interventions by the party establishment. The backlash to the DCCC’s efforts to narrow Democratic fields in Texas and Pennsylvania was intense, further complicating its role in California.

Concerns about the party’s ability to successfully steer its midterm ship are also bubbling up in connection with the California gubernatorial race. With Democratic Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom expected to finish a strong first in that primary, there is growing angst over whether Democrat Antonio Villaraigosa, a former Los Angeles mayor, can outlast Republican John Cox for the second spot in the general.

This matters immensely for Democrats because, as the logic goes, the presence of a Republican like Cox at the top of the ticket statewide in November will inspire more GOP voters to hit the polls. And even a small spike in Republican turnout across the state could damage Democratic candidates in swing districts down the ballot.

Hence the frustration in liberal corners at Newsom and his allies’ efforts to effectively elevate Cox by tying him to Trump and the National Rifle Association. As a general election campaign tactic, it makes total sense. But coming ahead of the primary, critics say, it has the practical effect of rallying the state’s Republicans behind Cox, while hurting Villaraigosa and complicating Democratic hopes of denying the GOP a general election rallying point.

The absence of a clearly defined Democratic leader, someone with the sway to push back or rein in this kind of potentially self-defeating behavior, has rarely been more glaring. Now, only a bit more than 24 hours until the polls close, the state of play in a number of high-profile races remains in question. The answers, when we get them — likely sometime on Wednesday — will tell us as much about the Democratic Party’s national prospects as who appears on the November ballot in California.