Navigating California’s Jungle Primaries

An in-depth look at the highly complex CA-48, CA-49 and CA-45 races, and all of the interacting variables that could sink or boost Democrats in these districts.

by Rachel Murphy Azzara and Sudha Mohan

Anxiety over California’s jungle primaries is mounting – and for good reason. Also known as a non-partisan blanket primary, a jungle primary means that one primary is held for all parties, with the top two candidates proceeding to the run-off election. What this means for Democrats is that there is a possible outcome where two Republicans get the most votes in June, essentially ending Democratic chances to take the seat in November. And if that’s not enough to give you pause, add in claims of party co-optation, a contentious convention, friction on the ground, and a whole lot of candidates from multiple parties vying for the same seats.

What’s the best strategy in these high-risk, high-stress primaries? At Democrats Work For America, we vet candidates for winnability and want to teach voters how to think strategically about candidates and winning elections. With that in mind, let’s take a look at a few key districts in play this June and the potential paths to a Democratic victory. Please note, our assessment program is led by Sudha Mohan with input from local grassroots activists. It is an iterative process – we’ve found early assessment and support to be vital to the success of campaigns, but candidates are periodically reviewed and reassessed upon the arrival of new information, the entry of new candidates, or changing dynamics.


Incumbent Dana Rohrabacher has been in Congress since 1988, taking the CA48 seat in 2012 after California’s 2011 redistricting. CA48 is R+4, but narrowly went to Clinton in the 2016 election. This, combined with Rohrabacher’s pro-Russia, pro-Trump and pro-Assange stance, has shifted the district from solid Republican to leans R or toss-up, according to Cook Political. Constituents are generally wealthier, educated and predominantly white (20.2% Hispanic, 17.9% Asian).

Eight Democrats will appear on the ballot: Hans Keirstead, Michael Kotick, Laura Oatman, Rachel Payne, Harley Rouda, Deanie Schaarsmith, Omar Siddiqui, Tony Zarkades (Laura Oatman has unofficially withdrawn and is now endorsing Harley Rouda).

Six Republicans will appear on the ballot: Dana Rohrabacher, Scott Baugh, John Gabbard, Paul Martin, Stelian Onufrei, Shastina Sandman.

The top four fundraisers by the end of 2017 were: Rohrabacher (R) ($1.1M), Rouda (D) ($1.2M), Keirstead (D) ($855K), Omar Siddiqui (D) ($577K). Rouda’s early support is noteworthy. In fact, Rouda hit the marks across the board on our grassroots early assessment. An attorney actively involved in local business and philanthropy, Rouda engaged well with constituents and local grassroots activists. In terms of the issues, Keirstead and Rouda are fairly similar, with Rouda perhaps only slightly more moderate in his language. Input from the ground described Rouda as more passionate, energetic and engaging than Keirstead. So, we were quite surprised when the California Democratic Party (CDP) voted (quite overwhelmingly) to endorse Keirstead. Rouda’s campaign was outraged as were many grassroots activists. In fact, some CDP representatives went rogue, independently endorsing Rouda – an act for which they may have risked penalty.

The questionable endorsements of CDP aside, our job is still the same – to assess which candidate has the best chance of winning the general election against the GOP – which is still Harley Rouda. The CDP endorsement will kick Keirstead up by several points and will siphon votes; however, as it approaches June (or even after 1st quarter fundraising is publicized), more candidates may ‘unofficially’ drop out – like Oatman did. If those candidates endorse Rouda – he will likely overcome CDP’s lack of support. There is a scenario where Keirstead could win or where Rouda and Keirstead could cancel each other out resulting in 2nd place going to a Republican or lesser-known Democrat like Sidiqqui – the latter scenarios are less likely, but would result in losing the district. If Keirstead wins the primary, we will, of course, do everything we can to help him win against Rohrabacher, but a win is doubtful.


California’s 49th Congressional District is 78% White, 7% Asian, 2% Black and 26% Hispanic. College graduation rate 39%. The last Democrat to win the seat was in 2000. Darrell Issa has held the seat since 2002, only narrowly beating Doug Applegate in 2016. An R+1 district that went to Clinton by nearly 7 points, CA49 is well within reach. However, the threat of two Republicans going to the runoff is genuine. With Darryl Issa’s retirement, there is no incumbent in the race, and eight Republicans running in the primary: Rocky Chavez, Kristin Gaspar, Diane Harkey, Brian Maryott, David Medway, Craig Nordal, Mike Schmitt, and Joshua Schoonover. There are four Democrats: Doug Applegate, Sara Jacobs, Paul Kerr and Mike Levin.

Top four end of year fundraisers were Sara Jacobs (D) ($1.4M), Mike Levin (D) ($1.2M), Paul Kerr (D) ($1M) and Doug Applegate ($663K).

The ground is still shifting in this district, but let’s dig in and get a sense of the battlefield. Two of the Democrats have already faced off in 2016 – Levin and Applegate. Applegate proceeded to the runoff against Issa, losing by a slim margin in spite of targeted grassroots support and the momentum of Hillary Clinton at the top of the ballot. Both Applegate and Levin have a certain amount of loyal supporters carried over from 2016.

We are seeing Sarah Jacobs gaining ground. In general, female candidates are doing well in primaries, and, despite her youth, Jacobs is the one candidate with actual policy experience. Both Kerr and Jacobs have contributed sizable funds to their own campaigns – this is not unusual for later entrants. Though Jacobs has inherited wealth, she is quite self-made charting her own course through college and early career.

Note that the last two times the district went to a Democrat they were female candidates:  Lynn Schenk and Susan Davis. Susan Davis (current representative for CA53 redistricted from CA49 which she represented from 2001-2003) has endorsed Sarah Jacobs for CA49.

With a 27% Hispanic population, Republican Rocky Chavez is a legitimate threat. Hispanic candidates have performed well in districts with high Hispanic populations.  Democrat candidates will need to heavily emphasize DACA/DREAMers to gain traction in primary and in a potential runoff against Chavez, who has taken the lead over female Republican candidate, Diane Harkey, in recent polling. Sara Jacobs does have the endorsement of Rep. Juan Vargas (D, CA51), which may help should she find herself in the runoff against Chavez.

So, what are the paths to a Democratic victory in CA49? We’re not all that confident that either Applegate or Levin can win against Chavez, our assessments have favored Sarah Jacobs as having the best chance of winning the general. But, with a do or die primary, just getting a Democrat in the runoff is an obstacle. Despite their efforts (misguided or not), CDP was unable to get Levin to the 60% threshold needed for the endorsement. This is largely due to both Levin and Applegate having staunchly devoted supporters from 2016.

For either of them to win in the general, they would need full-throated endorsement and support from the other campaign. For the primary, they risk diluting the Democrat vote as their respective bases are quite different (Applegate appealing more to military/far left grassroots and Levin more party establishment/business). As with CA48, potential unofficial dropouts could impact the outcome, not necessarily in a good way. This is a narrow needle to thread and it depends on Sarah Jacobs staying in the race.

If all Democrat candidates stay in the race and she continues to gain ground, Jacobs will likely win (Harkey loses votes, Levin and Applegate fall behind Jacobs due to a lack of diverse appeal). If Jacobs drops out, the likelihood of Chavez and Harkey going to the runoff increases. It is a mistake to assume her votes would automatically go to another Democrat instead of a Republican woman in this district. If Jacobs stays in the race, either she or Levin will be in the top two, based on grassroots input and current polling. For Levin to win, Kerr and Applegate must drop out and Jacobs must stay in the race.

Like CA49, the ground is still shifting in CA39 where demographics play a heavy role (high Hispanic and Asian populations) and the field is crowded. Four Democrat candidates have dropped out, but six remain on the ballot. Early assessment of candidate  strengths, endorsements and fundraising have led us to feature Mai-Khanh Tran. Endorsements from former candidates like Jay Chen would be beneficial.


Unlike the other districts we’ve discussed, California’s 45th Congressional District is not at risk of two Republicans winning the primary, yet it has seen the most official withdrawals of Democrat candidates. Four will appear on the ballot: Brian Forde, Kia Hamadanchy, Dave Min and Katie Porter. The incumbent (and only Republican running) is Mimi Walters.

CA45 covers part of Orange County. It is a wealthy district with a 50% college graduation rate. Racial breakdown is 67% white, 21% Asian, 1% Black and 19% Hispanic. CA45 is historically a safe red district at R+3, but went to Clinton by nearly 5 points in 2016. CA45 has been redistricted several times, most recently in 2011, but the seat has always remained Republican. The top four end of year fundraisers were Mimi Walters (R) ($1.8M), Brian Forde (D) ($871K), Katie Porter (D) ($734K) and David Min (D) ($676K).

Our early assessment favored Katie Porter. CDP has endorsed David Min. Both are reasonably capable of facing off against Walters in the general. As a woman, Porter may fare better in a district that has already elected a woman to the seat. Further, with endorsements ranging from Elizabeth Warren, Kamala Harris, Emily’s List, and Democracy For America, she is well-positioned to create a broad coalition of Democrat voters – which will be necessary to win the general. Note that a different district as historically red as CA45 in a red state that went to Trump, particularly one with less education and less wealth, would fare better with a more conservative Democratic candidate as opposed to one with diverse reach across the political Left.

Each district is different.

Three districts with three very different dynamics, but all potential wins with proper strategy unique to the district, the state and the demographics. Winning means flipping the seat blue and the power that gives Democrats to affect policy – jungle primaries like these add another layer of complexity to achieving that goal. Further, power struggles between party officials and grassroots can complicate matters and weaken our chances.

To keep up with these districts and our assessments, follow us on Twitter: @SuMoh7, @RachelAzzara and @DemsWork4USA

2 thoughts on “Navigating California’s Jungle Primaries

  1. Thanks for this report, but there are a number of errors in your assessments that cannot be ignored. In CA-48, none of the remaining Democratic candidates are dropping out; they did band together to stop the CDP endorsement of Kierstead at the party convention, opting for “no endorsement” and that effort failed. It’s shaping up to be a two horse race for the Democrats with Kierstead and Rouda. Baugh will siphon Republican votes from Rohabacher, but not likely enough to shut out a Democrat. Sidiqqui doesn’t live in the district and is running as a “Reagan Democrat.” He wouldn’t run in CA-39, where he lives, because of his public support for Rep. Ed Royce and his only connection to the district is that’s where is law practice is based. if the multiple Democratic candidates who won’t drop out garner enough votes, Baugh could find himself in a number #2 position and will guarantee Rohrabacher’s return to Congress. But again, none of the other Democratic candidates are bowing out.

    In CA-49, Levin was not a candidate in 2016. He and Applegate never faced off against each other. Levin is a former executive director of the Democratic Party of Orange County and is a clean/green energy executive. Jacobs has done poorly in debates, endorsements, and in CDP votes; she’s rich and that’s where most of her money is coming from. In this case, dollars do not match the smaller contributions and support gained achieved by Levin and Applegate. And please check your math on demographic make up of this district with covers South Orange County and North San Diego County — 78% white, 7% Asian, 2% African-American and 26% Hispanic is 113….

    CA-45 is completely inside Orange County. Min has captured a considerable chunk of official party endorsements and endorsements from various Democratic clubs. Both Porter and Forde have performed well in fundraising but the district’s political leanings are more moderate than progressive; an Elizabeth Warren endorsement — while adored by residents to the far left — won’t matter that much. Walters, and previous congressional reps from this district, have won here easily before by barely campaigning. Voter registration advantages for Republicans are a huge mountain to climb.

    1. Daniel, in 48, correction: Laura Oatman and Michael Kotick have already dropped out. The lesser competitive candidates with ability to harm the outcome are now Omar Siddiqui and Rachel Payne. I believe they are patriots. It could still happen and in time to make a difference.

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