LOS ANGELES — For Democrats in Orange County, Calif., it has started to seem, in recent months, as if the question is not so much “Who’s running for Congress in 2018?” as “Who isn’t?”
In February, Democratic real estate broker Boyd Roberts announced that he would be challenging longtime GOP Rep. Dana Rohrabacher of California’s 48th Congressional District in the upcoming midterm elections.
In March, businessman Harley Rouda, another Laguna Beach Democrat, declared that he would be gunning for Rohrabacher’s job as well.
In April, Laura Oatman, an architect and mother of five, entered the race.
Then came pioneering stem cell biologist Hans Keirstead. And American Airlines pilot Tony Zakardes. And lawyer Omar Siddiqui. And Nestlé executive Michael Kotick.
And these California Democrats aren’t unique.
Earlier this month, the party won key victories in Virginia, New Jersey and scores of other local contests across the country. But one of the biggest stories of the night — if not the biggest — was recruitment, particularly in the battle for control of Virginia’s Republican-dominated House of Delegates.
In previous years, Virginia Democrats had failed to field challengers in politically promising districts, conceding dozens of seats to vulnerable but unchallenged GOP incumbents. But 2017 attracted droves of diverse, often rookie candidates electrified by President Trump and itching to “resist,” and by Election Day, Virginia Democrats had standard-bearers on the ballot in 88 of 100 districts — the most anyone could remember. The party wound up winning 16 seats, roughly twice the number even the most optimistic partisans had predicted before the election.
This, in turn, has led to newfound optimism for the party going into 2018. According to Politico, Democratic leaders are now predicting “a fundraising and candidate recruitment surge, powered by grassroots fury at the Trump administration.”
When it comes to recruitment, the conventional wisdom is clear: The more candidates, the merrier.
“Given the failed agenda being pushed by Paul Ryan and Washington Republicans, it’s no wonder that strong candidates are stepping up to the plate in Orange County and across California,” says Drew Godinich, a spokesperson for the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee. “The deep bench of outsider candidates is a testament to the incredible grassroots energy we are seeing on the ground.”
Or as the DCCC chair, Rep. Ben Ray Lujan, D-N.M., has said elsewhere, “No party ever lost an election due to too much energy and momentum.”
But 2018 is shaping up to be such an unusual election cycle that one has to wonder:
Could an unprecedented glut of Democratic hopefuls — and the crowded primaries that are sure to follow — tip the scales the other way?
Could Democrats be in danger of having too much of a good thing?
This, at least, is the line that Republicans in the traditional conservative stronghold of Orange County are peddling.
“All the Republicans are unified behind one candidate in each of these races and the Democrats have divided loyalties to candidates who have no name ID,” county GOP Chairman Fred Whitaker has said, according to the Orange County Register. “I’m pretty happy with it.”
And so, more than anywhere else, the O.C. will be the place to watch to find who’s right.
In November 2015, with roughly a year to go until Election Day 2016, only one Democrat had launched his candidacy across all of Orange County.
Now there are seven Democratic candidates running in Rohrabacher’s district alone — and 23 in the O.C. as a whole, where diversifying demographics, a dwindling Republican registration advantage and Hillary Clinton’s groundbreaking countywide victory in 2016 have Democrats eyeing four GOP incumbents previously considered safe: Reps. Rohrabacher; Ed Royce, CA-39; Mimi Walters, CA-45; and Darrell Issa, CA-49.
For the most part, these challengers are not the gadflies, vanity candidates and sacrificial lambs that have run against Rohrabacher & Co. in prior elections.
There’s Mai-Khanh Tran, a Vietnam-War-refugee-turned-pediatrician-turned-two-time-cancer-survivor. There’s Andy Thorburn, a teacher-turned-union-leader-turned-millionaire-businessman. There’s environmental activist Mike Levin, who’s raised nearly a million dollars since announcing his candidacy in March. And there’s retired Marine Col. Doug Applegate, who came within 1,622 votes of unseating Issa in 2016.
Not to mention 19 more like them.
Political scientists say there’s a strong relationship between the number of candidates a party recruits and the party’s win-loss record on Election Day.
“If a party can convince a large number of skilled and experienced candidates to run for office, those candidates tend to do better and the party tends to win more seats,” Seth Masket of the University of Denver wrote in August for the data-focused FiveThirtyEight website. “Democrats had twice the number of challengers that Republicans did in 2006 and then took over the House in that election, while a similar advantage yielded similar payoffs for Republicans in 2010.”
In his analysis, Masket plotted the Democratic share of viable, early House challengers — that is, candidates who raised more than $5,000 by June 30 of the year before the election — against the number of seats Democrats eventually gained or lost on Election Day.
He found that in every election since 2004 in which Democrats fielded more candidates than Republicans, they also wound up gaining seats — an additional 2.5 House members per each additional percentage-point advantage in early House candidates, on average. The most extreme example was 2006, when nearly 70 percent of the early House candidates were Democrats. That year, the party netted 31 seats on Election Day.
Apply the same formula to the 2018 cycle, Masket noted, and Democrats will be on track to pick up 93 House seats — the third-largest gain in U.S. history.
Which brings us to the problem with the political science on recruitment: The numbers so far this cycle are way off the charts — making it pretty much impossible to predict how things will ultimately shake out.
Case in point: According to a recent analysis by Michael Malbin, executive director of the nonpartisan Campaign Finance Institute, 391 Democratic challengers have already raised $5,000 or more. No other cycle comes close. The next highest tally belongs to the GOP, who in October 2009 boasted fewer than half as many candidates (184) with $5,000 or more. In fact, at every fundraising level — $5,000, $25,000, $50,000, $100,000 — the Democratic class of 2017 is more than twice as large as the Republican class of 2009.
Also unprecedented is the fact that, so far this cycle, 85 percent of the candidates who’ve cleared $5,000 are Democrats. By October of 2009, Republicans could only lay claim to 72 percent of the $5,000 club — and they still managed to pick up 63 seats the following November, thanks to that year’s tea party wave.
So far, so good for the Dems, right? Absolutely. But the flip side of this flood of Democratic challengers is that a lot of them are clustering into a few pivotal races, competing against each other for the opportunity unseat the most vulnerable Republican incumbents. As Malbin points out, “eight Democratic challengers have filed FEC reports in the race against the incumbent, Jeff Denham, in California’s 10th District. Seven are running against Dana Rohrabacher in CA-48, seven against Peter Roskam in Ill.-6, and seven against John Faso in NY-19. The most these 29 challengers can do in the general election is defeat four incumbents.”
In other words, there may be 391 viable Democratic challengers out on the trail right now, but they’re only running against 156 Republican incumbents — which means that, on average, 2.5 Dems are already competing in each primary contest, with roughly a year to go until Election Day. Rewind to this point in the last Democratic wave cycle (2006), and you’ll see that the average number of primary candidates back then was significantly lower: about 1.4 Dems per contest.
None of which is bad for the party, per se. The only way to lay the groundwork for a wave election is by fielding solid candidates for as many flippable seats as possible, then waiting for the national mood to turn in your favor. By that measure, this year’s Democrats are miles ahead of where Republicans were in the fall of 2009, when only 97 Democratic incumbents had drawn viable challengers.
Yet it’s not impossible to imagine that squeezing seven or eight Democrats into a competitive House primary could have some unintended consequences.
“The level of enthusiasm that comes with such a crowded field almost always outweighs any downside,” says Dan Schnur, a former spokesman for Republicans Pete Wilson and John McCain, who until recently ran the Jesse M. Unruh Institute of Politics at the University of Southern California. “But there needs to be some type of organization or structure through which to channel all that energy.”
The first thing to note is that unlike 2006, when then DCCC chair Rahm Emanuel “recruited the right candidates, found the money and funded them and provided issues for them,” 2017 is all about fired-up grassroots activists making the leap to electoral politics on their own. This means less grooming, less district-by-district tailoring, less top-down centrism — and more rookies, more idiosyncrasies and likely more progressivism.
From there, it’s a short leap to a more unpredictable primary season. As in the 2016 GOP presidential primary contest — when the popular vote was divided among a dozen candidates — the eventual nominee could wind up being a plurality candidate who represents a passionate faction of the party. But that isn’t always the same thing as a nominee who’s the best fit for the district in a general election.
In fact, some Democrats worry that in such a scenario Republicans could “put their thumbs on the scales,” says Dave Min, one of two University of California, Irvine law professors running against Walters in CA-45 (along with five other Dems).
“With so many candidates, we run the risk that the incumbent will play in our primary,” Min tells Yahoo News. “Republicans could spend money to help pick a weaker candidate — the challenger they want to face in the fall.”
A cramped field can also complicate fundraising. The problem isn’t so much a lack of donations; so far, overall receipts have been impressive. It’s that “we all have to spend down to zero in the primary, while the Republican incumbent saves her cash,” according to Min. “So she’ll have more than a million dollars on hand to define the contest from Day One — while our nominee will have to start over from scratch.”
Meanwhile, things could get even wilder in California, where control of Congress may ultimately be decided — and where Democrats compete against Republicans and independents in a nonpartisan primary system. (The top two finishers proceed to the general election regardless of party affiliation.) Here, the risk is that splitting the Democratic vote seven or eight ways in a historically conservative area could allow a non-Democratic challenger to finish second and go head-to-head with the GOP incumbent next November.
This has happened before. In 2012, Republican Rep. Gary Miller was gerrymandered out of his previous district (the 42nd) and forced to run in a new, majority-Hispanic district that leaned to the left. In the primary, Redlands Democrat Pete Aguilar actually won the most Democratic votes — but because three other Democrats were also running, Republican Bob Dutton squeaked past him with 25 percent of the vote and faced off against Miller in the general election.
It could happen again. In CA-48, for instance, one Republican, Stelian Onufrei, is already campaigning against Rohrabacher — he has pledged to spend half a million dollars of his own money — while another, former county GOP Chairman Scott Baugh, is waiting in the wings with more cash on hand than Rohrabacher himself. A Libertarian and an independent candidate are running as well.
(The DCCC has said that, to prevent such outcomes, “We absolutely reserve the right to get involved in these primaries where necessary.”)
In the end, Democrats should be excited about how many candidates they’ve recruited for 2018 — and how many have simply volunteered. The biggest class of challengers in recent memory? That’s a good problem to have.
But it’s also worth remembering that the party is proceeding into uncharted territory — and that 2018’s most congested primaries could shake out in some unusual ways.
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