California Democrats on Wednesday were poised to claim slots on nearly every House ballot on the year’s biggest day of primary elections, a major step forward in the party’s pursuit of the majority in November.
In a state heavily antagonistic toward President Donald Trump, Democrats spent millions targeting roughly a half-dozen Republican-held House seats that could give them a chunk of the 23 seats they need to flip to gain majority control of the chamber.
Opposition to Trump and his policies produced scores of candidates, which complicated Democratic efforts in a state with an unorthodox primary system whereby the top two vote-getters advance regardless of party. But by Wednesday morning, it was clear that Democratic candidates would compete in nearly all of the 53 districts.
Absentee ballots and a handful of close races meant that the outcomes of some key contests were up in the air and could remain undecided for days.
Voters chose nominees in seven other states in congressional, statewide and local contests on Tuesday.
Two well-known Democrats prevailed in marquee California races.
Dianne Feinstein, at 84 making another bid for the Senate seat she has held since 1992, was projected the winner, as several candidates vied for the second slot. Gavin Newsom, the state’s lieutenant governor, was projected the winner of the race to succeed the term-limited Gov. Jerry Brown, D, and will face Republican John Cox in November’s election.
Newsom’s primary victory ensures that the general election will focus largely on how the next California governor will relate to Trump and his policies. The president’s endorsement of Cox was widely seen as providing the Republican candidate with a bounce late in the primary.
“We’re engaged in an epic battle, and it looks like voters will have a real choice this November between a governor who’s going to stand up to Donald Trump and a foot soldier in his war on California,” Newsom said.
The Democrat offered a new slogan for his candidacy: “Resistance with results.”
Cox, an accountant who did not support Trump in 2016 but has embraced the president’s backing this year, used his election night speech to blast Newsom for criticizing Trump.
“It wasn’t Donald Trump who made California the highest tax state in the country,” Cox said. “It was Gavin Newsom and the Democrats.”
Feinstein, who in the past has broken with her party on issues that include the death penalty and the Iraq War, has run as the candidate of “California values” and built a huge lead over more than 31 challengers by emphasizing her leadership role and moving to the left on a number of issues. State Sen. Kevin de Lesn, who hoped to consolidate support from the more liberal left, is not assured a runoff slot.
Both Feinstein and Newsom, representing different generations and clashing styles of the party’s politics, will enter November’s election as clear favorites. But perhaps more attention was directed down the ballot, where Tuesday’s results provided new insight into Democrats’ chances for retaking congressional majorities.
In interviews at polling places in California on Tuesday, numerous voters said they had cast their votes strategically with an eye toward November.
James Woeber, a 48-year-old leadership consultant voting in the San Diego-area 49th Congressional District, said he voted for Doug Applegate – a well-known candidate with a military background – over two more liberal Democratic challengers he also liked.
“I think he’s got the best chance in November,” Woeber said. “We need that seat.”
Final results may not be known for days, given the state’s high proportion of mail-in ballots, which must be hand-checked before they are certified – a time-consuming process.
A further complication emerged Tuesday evening when elections officials in Los Angeles County announced that a “printing error” left more than 100,000 voters off the rolls, forcing them to cast provisional ballots – if they voted at all.
The error could affect counting in a number of closely watched races – including in the 39th Congressional District, where the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee has sought to get Navy veteran Gil Cisneros into a runoff.
Returns showed Cisneros in second place behind Republican Young Kim, but he led another Republican by more than 4,600 votes.
In Alabama, GOP voters delivered a rebuke to incumbent Rep. Martha Roby after she angered constituents by un-endorsing then-candidate Donald Trump after the 2016 release of the “Access Hollywood” tape in which he bragged about groping women.
Roby is headed for a runoff against former congressman Bobby Bright, whom she defeated in 2010 when Bright held office as a Democrat. In TV ads, Bright accused Roby of “ 1/8turning 3/8 her back on President Trump when he needed her the most.”
In New Jersey, Democrats’ favored candidates easily won House primaries. Well-funded former assistant secretary of state Tom Malinowski emerged from a three-way primary to win the right to challenge 7th Congressional District incumbent Rep. Leonard Lance, R. In the 11th Congressional District, which Republican Rodney Frelinghuysen is leaving after 24 years, Navy veteran and attorney Mikie Sherrill won an overwhelming victory.
And in the 2nd Congressional District, which is being vacated by retiring GOP congressman Frank A. LoBiondo, Democratic voters nominated Jeff Van Drew, a conservative Democratic legislator whom the party had recruited for years, while Republicans nominated a local politician who had raised just $22,529 and had been ignored by the national party.
New Jersey voters did deliver a wake-up call to Sen. Robert Menendez, D-N.J., who is running for reelection months after the Justice Department dropped a bribery case against him and the Senate Ethics Committee admonished him for improper dealings with a longtime donor.
Menendez won only 62 percent of the primary vote against Lisa McCormick, a Democratic challenger who raised virtually no money and had not actively campaigned against him. Menendez will face Republican Bob Hugin, a retired pharmaceutical executive who is self-funding his campaign, in November.
In Montana, State Auditor Matt Rosendale was the projected winner of the GOP nomination to take on incumbent Democratic Sen. Jon Tester, in a state that voted overwhelmingly for Trump. Rosendale had been the top choice of national Republican leaders, but some GOP operatives fear the Maryland-born Rosendale could be vulnerable to charges that he is not Montanan enough.
Incumbent Rep. Greg Gianforte, R-Mont., will face Kathleen Williams, a Democrat, for the state’s at-large House seat.
The New Mexico governor’s race will be a battle of House veterans: Primary voters nominated Democratic Rep. Michelle Lujan Grisham and Republican Rep. Stevan Pearce. Despite Lujan Grisham’s departure, the state’s congressional delegation stands to gain another woman, with female candidates winning both parties’ primaries to replace the two gubernatorial candidates.
Debra Haaland, who won the Democratic primary for Lujan Grisham’s seat, could become the first Native American woman to serve in Congress.
South Dakota Republicans nominated another woman, longtime Rep. Kristi L. Noem, for governor. She will face Democrat Billie Sutton, a state senator who entered politics after he was paralyzed in a rodeo accident.
And in Iowa, Democrats were set to nominate women to challenge two vulnerable incumbent House Republicans. State Rep. Abby Finkenauer will face Rep. Rod Blum in the 1st Congressional District, while business executive Cindy Axne is set to meet Rep. David Young in the Des Moines-area 3rd Congressional District.
The California races could remain unsettled for days as ballots are counted.
In the 49th, the party was encouraged after Republicans rallied around Diane Harkey, a county official endorsed by retiring Rep. Darrell Issa, R. She finished ahead of a trio of Democrats – Applegate, attorney Mike Levin and former Obama administration staffer Sara Jacobs – competing for the second slot.
In the 48th, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee has spent more than $1 million to boost businessman Harley Rouda and attack Republican Scott Baugh; the party is hopeful that Rouda can climb over Baugh to make a runoff with Republican Rep. Dana Rohrabacher. The complication in that race: the continuing presence of Democrat Hans Keirstead, a scientist lured into the race by Democrats before they sided with Rouda.
Rouda occupied the second slot behind Rohrabacher on Wednesday, with Keirstead running third and Baugh fourth.
Democrats were more confident about making runoffs in Central Valley races against Republican congressmen David Valadao and Jeff Denham and bullish on two Los Angeles-area districts with Republican incumbents in the seats: the 25th, held by Rep. Steve Knight, and the 45th, held by Rep. Mimi Walters. TJ Cox, a Democrat, will face Valadao in November.
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The Washington Post’s Tony Perry in Encinitas, Calif., and William Dauber in Huntington Beach, Calif., contributed to this report.
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