May 24, 2018 at 10:38 am PST | by Karen Ocamb
Could Democrats screw up the primaries?

Equality California’s Rick Zbur (Photo by Karen Ocamb)

The California Democratic Party convention logo was clever—a brightly lit lighthouse about to be hit by a big wave in the darkest of night. “California: The Big Blue Beacon of Hope,” the banner said, a sentiment anticipating the predicted giant blue Democratic wave curling up in the distance, about to hit the country in a midterm electoral response to Donald Trump’s 2016 election and the chaos that has since ensued. 

The prediction has merit. Democrats have been winning special elections and two unabashed progressives won primaries in the South on May 22. Out lesbian former Sheriff Lupe Valdez made history winning the Democratic nomination for Texas governor and the opportunity to go up against anti-LGBT Republican Gov. Greg Abbott in November.

And history was also made in Georgia where Stacey Abrams became the first woman to win the Democratic nomination and could become America’s first black female governor, if she defeats whichever white candidate the Republicans choose in a July 24 runoff.

“We are writing the next chapter of Georgia’s future, where no one is unseen, no one is unheard and no one is uninspired,” LGBT ally Abrams said on election night.

But while politicos are excited about the prospect of the midterms becoming another “Year of the Woman,” there’s a hitch in the California Dream in which Democrats flip seven of the 23 GOP seats needed to retake the House. The state’s non-partisan June 5 primary—with the top two winners facing off in November—too many viable enthusiastic Democratic candidates are vying to catch the wave as Republicans strategize ways into the top two slots.

“It’s the Wild West at its best with the jungle primary,” Republican Bob Huff, one of 17 candidates hoping to replace retiring Rep. Ed Royce, told CalMatters. It “gives political operatives with money an opportunity to choose who they want to run against.”

In fact, in some races, California Democratic Party-endorsed candidates are competing with different candidates endorsed by the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee while SuperPACs posit GOP candidates as liberal Democrats to Trump voters to scuttle their campaigns.

In Orange County, for instance, rock red Republican Rep. Dana Rohrabacher’s seat is a toss-up—in which the Democratic Party has endorsed stem cell researcher Hans Keirstead and the DCCC is backing Keirstead’s rival, Harley Rouda, an Orange County real estate investor.

In the race for retiring Ed Royce’s congressional seat, out California Democratic Party Chair Eric Bauman had to intervene in the public contretemps between Democrats Gil Cisneros and Andy Thorburn.“The opportunity to win this seat is too important for the two leading Democrats to squander it by focusing our fire on each other,” the two candidates finally said in a joint statement declaring a truce. “In order to flip the 39th District, it is essential that at least one of us make it through the June primary.”

Equality California executive director Rick Zbur tells the Los Angeles Blade, “our goal really has been to replace all the sitting [anti-LGBT] incumbents.” But it’s not a breeze. Trump colluder Devin Nunes in Congressional District 22 or Rep. Duncan Hunter in CD 50, who is under federal investigation, remain popular in their districts.

Zbur says progressive groups having been trying to dislodge some of the weaker Democrats to avoid the risk of two Republicans getting in the run off. “Most of us ended up going our ways and just picking our best candidate,” he says, “narrowing it down to one or two candidates that we thought were the strongest.” For instance, Equality California picked Harley Rouda in the Rohrabacher race.

In the contest to fill retiring anti-LGBT Rep. Darrell Issa’s seat, Equality California believes Sara Jacobs is the strongest of the four good Democratic candidates running. Jacobs, who formerly worked for Hillary Clinton, “has both a transgender brother and a gender non- conforming sibling and so her understanding of the LGBTQ social justice and civil rights issues is unique, really stronger than what we’ve seen from any ally candidates,” Zbur says. “So this is a pretty important race for us,” adding “this is one of the races where we’re worried that two Republicans could get in.”

Another race that has been generating angst among progressives is between Dave Min and Katie Porter hoping to boot Republican Rep. Mimi Walters. Porter has TV ads featuring endorsements from progressive Sens. Kamala Harris and Elizabeth Warren. But Min has the endorsements of the CDP, Equality California and a number of progressive groups.

“We think he is going to be the stronger general election candidate,” says Zbur. “Katie Porter is great. Obviously, a strong progressive. They both were amazingly strong on LGBTQ issues—but ultimately we went with Min,” who has outraised Porter in money. Zbur notes that polling in the largely Asian Pacific Islander district indicates he performs well with Democrats, “but is also stronger in the Decline to State, which you need to pick up that seat.”

One seat that Equality California really wants to win is the CD 25 seat held by Steve Knight, son of anti-LGBT hater Pete Knight of Prop 22 “Knight Initiative” infamy. “We’ve got three candidates in that primary, two of which are LGBTQ candidates. We have endorsed Katie Hill, who is bisexual. She’s the top fundraiser in the district,” Zbur says. “Her closest competitor is the nominee from last year, Bryan Caforio, who is also very good on our issues but an ally.” The third candidate is self-described “grassroots scientist” Jess Phoenix, who’s in third place.

If Hill wins the primary, Zbur says, “that’s going to set up an interesting dynamic where we’ve got an LGBTQ candidate running against someone from the Knight family with that whole anti-LGBTQ history.”

Will the June 5 jungle primary generate enough Democratic voter enthusiasm to win back the House or will Republicans win their Trumpian crapshoot?

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