California’s High-Stakes Primary for Democratic Party’s Civil War
In California’s crucial June 5 primary, wealthy Democratic candidates and the state’s “top two” system are putting the squeeze on progressive hopefuls looking to move the party left in the November midterms. We speak to journalist and author David Dayen
AARON MATE: It’s The Real News. I’m Aaron Mate. Progressive Democrats are winning races in primaries across the country, and people are paying attention. Here, for example, is Fox News.
FOX NEWS ANCHOR: Bernie Sanders on who he wants to see holding the Democratic flag come November. In a number of cases he’s getting his way, with far-left candidates winning primaries over the more centrist establishment choices.
AARON MATE: The next primary is Tuesday, June 5 in California, which some call ground zero for the fight between progressive Democrats and more establishment types backed by the party leadership in Washington D.C. And California is key for the Democrats to retake the House in November. There are 23 districts across the country where Republican congressmembers hold seats that Hillary Clinton won in 2016. Seven of those districts are in California, making its primary a high-stakes race for what kind of candidates will help decide control of Congress.
Joining me is David Dayen, author of the book “Chain of Title.” He is also a Goodman fellow at In These Times magazine, and a contributor to The Intercept and The New Republic. Welcome, David. A lot to talk about in California. High stakes, as I said. Adding to the magnitude of this race on Tuesday and the stakes is the fact that you have a very bizarre primary system, where the top two candidates of any party are selected, meaning that for Democrats you can have some races where it’s possible that no Democrats end up advancing to the general election. Can you explain?
DAVID DAYEN: Yes. That’s exactly as you say. When you get your ballot in California, every candidate who’s running, whether they’re Democratic or Republican, Green, Peace and Freedom, Libertarian, decline to state, all of them appear on your ballot, no matter what party you’re from, and you can vote for any one of them. And then the top two of that advance to the general election. This was a change to the primary structure that was made in 2010 to solve the budget fight, actually. There was a moderate Republican who wanted to have an opportunity to win Republican primaries. He forced this top two system. And it’s causing quite a lot of chaos, especially in these races down in Orange County that are these targeted seats from the House, where you have a lot of first-time candidates who have a lot of money but not a lot of name recognition. And there are so many Democrats and some of these races, and maybe only two viable Republicans, that it’s very plausible, in three seats in particular, that two Republicans could move to the general election, and have no opportunity for Democrats to win that seat at all.
AARON MATE: Right. Your latest piece for The Intercept focuses on those three districts, the 39th, the 48th, and the 49th. And you start the piece by talking about a Democratic candidate whose entire campaign, to the tune of hundreds of thousands of dollars, is funded by himself.
DAVID DAYEN: That’s right. This a guy named Dr. Herbert Lee, who sort of came out of nowhere and just dropped $800000 on his campaign. He’s done nothing else but spend money. And I looked at those three races, and among the 14 active candidates on the Democratic side, there’s been $23 million raised, which sounds like a lot of money. However, $16 million of that came from the pockets of those candidates. Two thirds of the funding is self funded, and self-funded candidates historically don’t do very well because they usually are neophytes who have no understanding of how to attract voters in a big way. They throw their money away on consultants, and mail, and advertising, and they don’t necessarily connect, because they don’t have to look for public support to get low dollar donations.
And so it’s a symptom of the problem that I think Democrats are facing in Orange County, where there aren’t really a whole lot of options for them, since Orange County is kind of newly open to Democrats. And a lot of these rich candidates, who were prompted by the DCCC, the House campaign arm for Democrats, who really likes these self-funded candidates, because then they don’t have to throw money at a problem themselves. But it sort of created a monster here in California.
AARON MATE: Well, can you explain that further? This is a phenomenon that you and your colleagues at The Intercept have been covering, where you have progressive candidates across the country trying to get involved, getting, you know, raising money, collecting volunteers. But then you have the party leadership coming in, and saying we don’t want you to run because we favor the person who can actually fundraise for themselves.
DAVID DAYEN: Right. And so you combine that with this top two, which in the minds of Democrats creates this desire to winnow the field so you don’t have this shot of missing out in November. You end up with a lot of rich candidates who have, they can’t be sort of bullied around by the national party. So you have millionaires who can self fund. The candidates like you’re talking about, progressives who are trying to build sort of a coalition of support, can’t compete financially with these guys. And there’s no way to winnow the field, because if you, you know, if the party picks one of these millionaires and says, OK, we’re backing this guy, the other millionaires say, all right, I’m going to throw down another million dollars, and I’m not getting out of this race.
DAVID DAYEN: And that’s what you’re seeing in the 39th, 48th, and 49th, where you have multiple candidates spending millions and millions of dollars, and the party sort of unable to separate the wheat from the chaff. And you have all this infighting going on, a lot of intraparty arguments. And meanwhile, on the other side, the Republican candidates have electoral experience, by and large. And you know, the way that things are looking, there’s definitely an opportunity that you’re going to get two Republicans advancing to the general election in some of these races.
AARON MATE: Let’s talk about the Senate primary for the seat held by Dianne Feinstein. She’s running again, but she’s faced some strong resistance this time. Back in February the state party declined to endorse her. She has many challenges, including state Senate member Kevin de Leon. Is she in trouble?
DAVID DAYEN: Well, you know, Feinstein has been representing California since 1992 in Congress. And she’ll, I think, be 85 years old at the end of this campaign. So there is this, you know, it’s well documented that she is at odds with some of the more progressive constituents here in California. And state Senate leader Kevin de Leon is definitely running to her left. He is trying to amass support from labor, which has actually endorsed him over Feinstein, and from progressives.
He, you know, it’s a tough state to really gain a lot of traction if you’re not super well known like a Dianne Feinstein. I mean, the population of California is 39 million people. It’s Like running for president of Canada, to run statewide, or president of Iraq. Those are the comparable populations. And so it’s going to be difficult for Kevin de Leon. However, he’s likely to make the top two. It’s likely to be a Feinstein-de Leon general election. And that gives de Leon five more months to introduce himself to the public in California, and try to get more people interested in this campaign. I think there’s got to be some tipping point where he becomes buyable, sort of, in the eyes of the electorate. And we’ll see if that happens, and if he’ll have the money, frankly, to compete, because Feinstein’s backers have, have almost been blackballing donors who want to give to de Leon’s campaign. There’s an under the radar thing going on that’s denying de Leon the kind of fundraising support that he’s had in the state legislature. And so that’s going to be difficult for him to overcome.
AARON MATE: What are they doing? They’re basically telling donors if you donate to Kevin de Leon that we’re, you’re, you’re not going to get anything. You’ll never get your access to not only Feinstein, but all the sort of establishment figures that, that binds, that are backing Feinstein. People like Garcetti, the mayor of Los Angeles. People like Kamala Harris, the other senator from California. There’s definitely a campaign to keep the money out of de Leon’s pocket, and really, his best shot is if the labor community really comes forward strongly.
And that’s weirdly dependent on the governor’s race, for bizarre reasons, because Antonio Villaraigosa, who is a Democrat running for governor, is strongly backed by charter school interests. And if he gets into the top two against Gavin Newsom, it’s likely labor will spend a lot of money in the governor’s race. If Gavin Newsom goes to the general election against a Republican, he’s likely safe to win that seat, and it frees up money for labor, perhaps, the spend on de Leon. So in the wackiness of this top two primary, who wins the primary on the governor’s seat might have a bearing on what happens in the Senate race.
AARON MATE: Finally, David, in terms of this struggle for the Democratic Party’s identity, pitting Bernie Sanders-style progressives versus more centrist candidates, in your reporting, the candidates you’ve covered at the conventions where we’ve seen some acrimonious fights, how have you seen that identity battle play out?
DAVID DAYEN: Well, we’re seeing it play out all over the country. The Intercept has been reporting on this. Some races have been won by the more progressive elements, some have been won by the establishment. Here in California, kind of a bellwether race for that is actually the 45th Congressional District. Katie Porter, who is the only congressional candidate that’s backed by Elizabeth Warren. She was a former student of Elizabeth Warren’s and she’s a law professor at UC Irvine. She’s the progressive candidate in the race. She’s running against a guy, Dave Min, who is also a professor at UC Irvine. But he is backed by the New Democrats, who are the more centrist Democrats in Congress. And he was also backed by the state party, the California Democratic Party, at the convention, in a very contentious battle. He won by one vote at the convention.
And so what happens in that Porter vs. Min race, and that’s a race where they’re going to go up against Mimi Walters, who is the incumbent Republican down in Orange County around Irvine. That’s sort of the bellwether in terms of this struggle for the soul of the Democratic Party, or what have you. That will be an interesting race to watch on Tuesday.
AARON MATE: David Dayen, author of the book “Chain of Title,” Goodman fellow at In These Times magazine, and a contributor to The Intercept and The New Republic. Thank you.
DAVID DAYEN: Thank you.
AARON MATE: And thank you for joining us on The Real News.