In California Primary, Democrats Keep Their House Hopes Alive

In all seven California districts key to their chances of winning the House, Democrats on Tuesday advanced a candidate to the mid-term ballot. Meanwhile, incumbent Senator Dianne Feinstein will square off against another Democrat, Kevin de Leon. We discuss the primary results with editor and author Narda Zacchino

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Story Transcript

AARON MATE: It’s The Real News. I’m Aaron Mate.

To win the House in November, Democrats will need California. That’s where seven Republican members of Congress hold seats that Hillary Clinton won in 2016. If Democrats can flip about 25 districts like that across the country, they can take the house. But under California’s election rules, to get to the November ballot, a candidate has to finish in the top two of the state primary. That made Tuesday’s primary in California very important. The good news for Democrats is that in all seven districts, if current results hold up, Democrats will avoid a shutout, meaning they will field a candidate in each of these races come November.

Meanwhile, on the Senate side, because of that top two rule, it will be a Democrat against a Democrat. Incumbent Sen. Dianne Feinstein finished first in her race, followed in second place by another Democrat, Kevin de Leon. And in the governor’s race, former San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom finished in first place, followed by a Republican second, John Cox. Newsom spoke to supporters last night.

GAVIN NEWSOM: This is only the first half of the election calendar. But thanks to you, the halftime score is looking very promising, and the home team is winning big.

AARON MATE: Joining me to discuss California’s primary results is Narda Zacchino. She is a book editor and author of “California Comeback: The Genius of Jerry Brown.” Also a former editor at The L.A. Times, and The San Francisco Chronicle. Welcome, Narda. Let’s start with these pivotal House races. Again, they were in jeopardy for Democrats, because if a Democrat failed to finish at least in the top two, that would have meant that some Republicans would have been facing other Republicans in November, and seriously diminishing Democrats’ chances for the House.

So it looks like Democrats have cleared that hurdle, but on the negative side, in many of these districts where a Democrat finished in second place, the combined total of Republican votes for any Republican candidate exceeded that of Democrats. So what can you tell us about what this says about Democrats’ chances in November?

NARDA ZACCHINO: Well, first of all, there are 53 House seats in California, more than anywhere in the country, of course; 14 of the 53 are held by the Republicans. And of those 14, 7 of them are in districts that Hillary won, beating Trump in the ’16 election. Of those 14, 10 of them are being targeted by Democrats, the national Democratic Party, as possibly being winnable. So a lot of money is going to be pouring into those races, and in some of these states the Democratic opponents have their own millions of dollars. They’re wealthy. And so this is going to be a real battleground that the Democrats seem to feel that in, especially in those seven seats that Hillary, those seven districts Hillary won, that they’re vulnerable.

Dana Rohrabacher is particularly targeted. I know a lot of Republicans who don’t like him, either. And so he is, there’s going to be a lot of money poured into the race to defeat him. He only got 30 percent of the vote in his election yesterday, so he’s vulnerable.

AARON MATE: And on the Senate side we have an interesting race, where it’s going to be Dianne Feinstein against another Democrat, Kevin de Leon. There were many challengers in that race. We interviewed Alison Hartson, who was a progressive challenger also contending. Does Feinstein, who won by a pretty sizable margin, face a threat from Kevin de Leon?

NARDA ZACCHINO: You know, it’s really hard to say what happens between now and November. I suspect not. She recently came out against the death penalty, which was a really brave thing to do, for her. And Kevin de Leon is more progressive than Dianne Feinstein, for sure. And it’s possible that, I mean, this was, it’s not like there were other Democrats in the race to pull votes. So you probably see, you know, pretty close. I think she got 44 percent, or something like that, and he only got 11. So he has a real uphill climb to get her. But I think what he’s doing is really establishing himself as a solid progressive. And he’s been the head of the state Senate.

And I don’t think he can defeat her. I think people in California feel-. She’s been a senator for 26 years, and I think they feel loyal to her. She is in her 80s. And so some people feel she’s-. In fact, when he went after her for her age, I think he mentioned her age, people were upset about that. I think she has a lot of loyalty here in California. It’s going to be hard for him, but it sets him up for the next time.

AARON MATE: What, to you, explains her success? Because from the outside, looking at California, which is known as progressive, I mean, here you have a senator who opposes a $15/hour minimum wage, she voted for the Iraq war, she voted for the Bush tax cuts. She opposes universal health care, Medicare for all. What explains her continued success?

NARDA ZACCHINO: Yes, she also said Edward Snowden should be tried for treason, and she was, she’s on the Intelligence Committee, and doesn’t have a good record there. She is, well, she’s a, she’s a senator for all the people of California. The Republicans, I think, respect her, too, for her positions. And that’s, the whole, his whole plank was about being more progressive than she is. He is more in sync with the people of California in many ways, especially-. California’s a very progressive state. So I think for her it’s a lot of loyalty. You know, she was very anti-gun. She’s the one who had the assault weapon ban that wasn’t renewed. It was not renewed when, I forget the year, but she’s very been very strong. She came out strongly again for gun control. He is, too.

So there’s no question that he is far more progressive than she is. And I think maybe he’ll make more of that, and he’ll have a lot of backing from progressives in California.

AARON MATE: When it comes to this Democratic Party internal civil war, Bernie Sanders-style progressives against corporate-friendly candidates, did Tuesday’s results tell you anything?

NARDA ZACCHINO: You know, there’s, this has been going on since the 2016 election. The Democratic Party is a bit fractured in California because of that. I have people I know who are on the national, on the State Committee Democratic Party, for example, in the lieutenant governor race. The party- there were two statewide races. The party did not endorse either Democrat, any Democrat, because of the two factions that were fighting over each candidate. In the lieutenant governor’s race, for example, there was the, there’s one candidate who, she and her father put 9.3 million into her campaign, and she got the state party to not endorse her Democratic opponent.

So this is going to be interesting, and I think this is something that the Democratic Party has to resolve nationally in order to, you know, to really be a force against the Republicans. And it still exists in California. There still is the, are these two factions.

AARON MATE: All right. And on the governor’s side, you had the former mayor of San Francisco, Gavin Newsom, finishing in first place. He’s a Democrat. He’ll square off not against another Democrat, but against John Cox, who is a Trump supporter. Now, I want to go to some of what Cox said last night.

JOHN COX: Mr. Newsom and his corrupt cronies made, they did a bunch of ads touting their opposition to the president. Well, let’s send him the very first message, and that is it wasn’t Donald Trump who made California the highest taxed state in the country. It was Gavin Newsom and the Democrats.

AARON MATE: That is the Republican nominee for governor in California, John Cox. So I think it’s pretty unlikely that he can beat Newsom. Newsom is popular, and has enjoyed a lot of success at many levels. But I’m wondering if that sort of, that tax, that anti-tax talking point could maybe resonate with some voters, because my sense of California is that it’s worked before.

NARDA ZACCHINO: Well, don’t forget that California in 2012 passed a huge tax increase on the wealthy, and it was, it was a huge election. That was, Jerry Brown engineered that. And then in 2016 they extended it. It was supposed to expire, I think, in 2018. It now is going to expire in the 2020s. And so California has twice in the last two elections voted themselves big tax increases. The last tax increase, that resulted in the recall of a Democratic assemblyman in Orange County in this election. He was replaced by a Republican, which lost the supermajority vote in the assembly for Democrats because of their election last night. But he voted for a transportation tax that would put, I can’t remember, but a small amount of tax when you buy gasoline. California already has high gas taxes. So the people of Orange County recalled him because he voted for it.

But California, I don’t know that you can call it an anti-tax state when in the last two big elections, in ’16 and ’12, they voted for a very large tax increase. Now, truly it was for the wealthy, against the wealthy, but they went for it. In fact, the most wealthy districts in California, like in the Silicon Valley area, they voted for, they had the highest vote for that tax increase, even though they were the ones being taxed the most.

So I don’t think-. And I’ll tell you Cox’s problem. John Cox lost half a dozen elections in Illinois. He was from Illinois. He only moved to California full time, living here full time in 2011. So he’s sort of a newbie, and Californians don’t like that so much. And that might become an issue. But he was not doing well in the polls until Donald Trump endorsed him last month. Donald Trump endorsed him, and he was able to, he rallied Republicans around, who support Trump in California, to vote for him. And they did. Trump is going to be a liability, in my opinion, and in the opinion of other people, in November because Trump is not well liked in California. A lot of the things that, that John Cox and Trump stand for are not popular with Californians. And so I think that Trump, I’m not sure that it’s going to be a wise thing for Cox to have Trump either come into California or say a lot of, you know, great things about him.

Newsom, by the way, spent eight years, the last eight years, as lieutenant governor, and he is very much on the other side. He’s more progressive than Jerry Brown. He, as you remember, maybe, when he was mayor of San Francisco, he allowed gay marriages to happen in San Francisco, which long preceded Proposition 8, resulted in Proposition 8, which then was overturned by the Supreme Court. He also was ahead of everyone on legalizing marijuana, which has been a huge tax boon to California and huge in terms of taxes. So he’s also now calling for a single payer health plan, which is something he set up when he was mayor of San Francisco, and he got something like 97 percent of San Franciscans who were, who got health care.

AARON MATE: So that’s interesting, because that was a subject recently of a very heated debate between Democrats in the state legislature.

NARDA ZACCHINO: Aha. And I know, it is a, and it has come up before. A single payer health plan came up before. It came up during the administration of Schwarzenegger, and it actually passed. There was a, it passed the legislature, and then Schwarzenegger vetoed it. And it’s come up again. But I think if Newsom is governor, he’s also very anti-death penalty. So is Jerry Brown. But Newsom is, I think he really walks the walk there, and Jerry might not, so much. But yeah, I think it’s going to be, it’s going to be an interesting race. I don’t think there’s any chance that Gavin Newsom is going to lose this race. So, I mean, he, he’s popular. He’s also looking at establishing a state bank for Californians, which is this, a movement that’s growing in the state. There are people who are grassroots, people who are trying to get this done.

So it’s going to be an interesting race. And I don’t think that Cox has a chance. Especially if he uses Trump. California has something like 40 lawsuits against the Trump administration for things like sanctuary states, abortion rights, and stuff-. A lot of the policies, especially on the environment. On the environment, and immigration. Those two in particular. California-. The United States is way out of sync with California on those issues.

AARON MATE: So much so that I think Trump or his people have threatened to pull funding from states like California.

NARDA ZACCHINO: There was a court ruling that they can’t do that. So, yeah. But it’s making its way through the courts.

AARON MATE: Right. And I duly stand-. I happily stand corrected on my rendering of Californians’ views towards taxes. So thank you for that. We have to leave it there, though. Narda Zacchino, book editor, author of “California Comeback: The Genius of Jerry Brown,” former top editor at The L.A. Times and San Francisco Chronicle. Thank you.

AARON MATE: Thank you.

NARDA ZACCHINO: And thank you for joining us on The Real News Network.