Dems in danger of botching California's 'jungle primary'

“Welcome to the jungle. It gets worse here every day.” – Guns N’ Roses

The California primary next Tuesday could serve as a sentinel indicating whether the House of Representatives is truly in play in the midterms.

But of late, Democrats are struggling in the Golden State. And if they can't deliver in next week's contests, their shot at reclaiming the House could suffer a major setback.

It starts in the “jungle.” More specifically, California’s “jungle primary.”

California conducts a “top two” primary system. A “jungle.” That means a pair of candidates – regardless of party – matriculate to the general election in November. It’s not guaranteed that there will be one Democrat and one Republican to emerge Tuesday and face one another in autumn. It could be a Democrat and a Republican. Or it could be two Democrats. Or, it could be two Republicans. 

DEMS STRUGGLING TO FLIP KEY CALIF. HOUSE SEATS

Democrats boast built-in advantages in California. This is why Democrats relish the the idea of a top-two system. On its face, this is a boon in liberal enclaves and left-leaning districts.

But strangely, Democrats could be a victim of their own success in the primary. President Trump fueled a flood of Democratic House candidates all over the country. Democratic interest surged in Democratic strongholds. Still, the party struggled to unify behind one or even two candidates in some of these districts. That means that Democratic voters will likely speckle their ballots for an array of candidates instead of just one. That dilutes Democratic votes. Yes, Democrats may collectively garner the most votes in some of these districts. But the fear is that two Republicans could squeak through as the top vote getters. Republicans could effectively block Democrats from the ballot in November as infighting splinters the left.

It's another sign of Democratic problems this cycle. In December, Democrats enjoyed a 13-point advantage over Republicans in the national generic ballot for Congress. That edge plummeted to just 3 or 4 points now. Chatter about a Democratic wave is diminishing.

If the election were held today, Democrats would need to flip a net of 22 seats to secure control of the House. Democrats could make up a lot of that ground in California alone.

California is a Democratic state. With immigration and DACA front and center, Democrats are angling for the seats held by retiring GOP Reps. Ed Royce and Darrell Issa. Democrats came close to knocking off Issa in 2016. Then there are also major races against GOP Reps. Steve Knight, David Valadao, Jeff Denham, Mimi Walters, Dana Rohrabacher and Duncan Hunter Jr.

Democrats hope to unseat Rohrabacher over perceptions he’s aligned too closely with Russia. Hillary Clinton narrowly carried Denham’s district and won Valadao’s district by 15 points. Clinton topped Trump by 17 points in Walters’ district. Ethics clouds loom over Hunter. Democrats are poised to excoriate California Republicans who voted yea on the tax reform bill. Rohrabacher voted nay on the final version of the tax package. Issa did, too, but he’s not running again.

Democrats likely need to flip at least five if not all of these California seats to have a legitimate path toward winning the House in November. But any shot Democrats could have may disintegrate if their supporters scatter their votes Tuesday. That could propel Republicans to the top two slots in the jungle primary and doom the Democrats long before November arrives.

Success in California on either the Democratic or Republican side of the aisle could have consequences for leadership on Capitol Hill next year. Big Democratic wins in California could catapult House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., back to the speakership. Major losses could mean curtains for the San Francisco Democrat. There’s also risk for House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif. Delivering GOP upsets in the jungle primary would solidify McCarthy as the odds-on successor to retiring House Speaker Paul Ryan, R-Wis. -- should Republicans retain the House. The downside for McCarthy isn’t as significant as Pelosi’s. But a poor performance by Republicans in California certainly doesn’t help McCarthy’s leadership aspirations.

No one is quite sure which way the midterms could go. Any honest Republican will tell you that they were reasonably sure 2006 was going be a bloodbath for their party by late spring/early summer of that year. Republicans are certainly worried right now. But not petrified.

It’s also a stretch to divine too much from the results of recent House special elections. Democrats finally nabbed a special election victory in March with a win by Rep. Conor Lamb, D-Pa. Democrats didn’t capture special elections for House seats in Kansas, Georgia, Montana, South Carolina and, more recently, Arizona. All were Republican seats to start with. But Democrats made all of those races more competitive than they should have been.

However, there may be a singular, pertinent takeaway from those special elections and what they mean to the midterms: Democrats will likely run stronger on historic GOP turf than they have in the past. But like the special elections revealed, making those contests closer may not be enough to covert customary Republican seats into Democratic gains.

Tuesday’s jungle primary may not portend a total disaster for Democrats come November even if things don’t go their way. There are certainly lots of seats Democrats can try to flip in Pennsylvania. There are a few seats in play in North Carolina and Florida, along with various seats in Colorado, Indiana, New Mexico, Washington and Nevada. But California is California. No state delivers a prize as grand.

If Democrats botch the jungle primary, they may be destined to wander in the wilderness.

Capitol Attitude is a weekly column written by members of the Fox News Capitol Hill team. Their articles take you inside the halls of Congress, and cover the spectrum of policy issues being introduced, debated and voted on there.