Democrats avoid disaster and are now poised to hold important California House seat

June 9, 2016

By Daily Kos Elections 

Democrats dodged a hailstorm of bullets in California’s 24th Congressional District on Tuesday night, as Santa Barbara County Supervisor Salud Carbajal easily took first place with 33 percent of the vote, ensuring that the party would be represented in the November general election. But that seemingly simple development was no sure thing.

At least a month before the primary—if not much earlier—Democrats began to fear that they might get locked out of the general thanks to the vagaries of California’s top-two primary system, despite the fact that Barack Obama won this open seat by a 54-43 margin. That’s because a second prominent local Democrat, Santa Barbara Mayor Helene Schneider, was also running, and private polls (none of which were ever made public) evidently showed that the pair might split the left-leaning vote and allow two Republicans, Assemblyman Katcho Achadjian and businessman Justin Fareed, to both advance. (Under top-two, all candidates run together on a single ballot, and the two highest vote-getters, regardless of party, win spots in the general election.)

To avoid this fate, the DCCC and the House Majority PAC started pouring in resources to help Carbajal, who had been endorsed by retiring Rep. Lois Capps and had emerged as the clear establishment favorite. Conversely, sensing an opportunity for an automatic pickup, the NRCC ran ads slamming Carbajal as a typical politician while also “attacking” Schneider for being too liberal, a mirror-image attempt to do what Claire McCaskill did to Todd Akin.

Fortunately for Democrats, the GOP’s chicanery didn’t succeed, and Carbajal easily took first place with 33 percent. Somewhat surprisingly, Fareed currently sits in second with 21 percent while Achadjian, who began the race with far greater name recognition, is out in the cold at 19. (Schneider wound up at 14.) But maybe not too surprisingly, since the HMP’s ads attacked Achadjian for his anti-choice views, which might have sent some of his more moderate would-be supporters over to Carbajal—and helped Fareed into the second slot, which is what Democrats would probably prefer for the fall. (The AP hasn’t yet called second place, but Fareed’s 2,357-vote margin is likely to hold up.)

In hindsight, it’s easy to wonder if DC Democrats got too freaked out, since Carbajal did prevail by a dozen points. However, that might have partly reflected the fact that the GOP presidential primary had petered out while the Democratic contest was still generating interest, a development that earlier polls wouldn’t have been able to account for. And while the sums spent by the D-Trip and HMP were not insignificant—some $825,000—no amount of money could have saved this race had Achadjian and Fareed both won.

Indeed, had the two Republicans moved on, the accusations of political malpractice levied at Democrats would have been intense—and not undeserved, since the very same thing happened in the 31st District in 2012. The top-two primary is a terrible, terrible system, but both parties have no choice but to play by the rules, and that means spending big to avoid unthinkable outcomes.

With the unpleasantness of the primary out of the way, the question now is whether national Republicans will bother targeting this seat in the fall. Daily Kos Elections currently rates this seat as Lean Democratic, but it’s eminently possible that the NRCC will wind up ignoring Fareed, especially since they’ll be on defense in so many other seats.