National operatives are increasingly worried no Democrat will advance to the general election in a key U.S. House district in Southern California, blaming a self-funding candidate’s attacks on other Democrats for a potential disaster that could harm the party’s chances of winning the U.S. House.
Democratic operatives are pointing fingers at Paul Kerr, a Navy veteran and businessman, ahead of the primary vote on Tuesday. Kerr has spent over $5 million of his own money on the race to replace retiring GOP Rep. Darrell Issa in San Diego County. Despite the heavy spending, he was running fourth among Democrats in two polls of the district released this week, one from the San Diego Union-Tribune and the other from the Democratic firm Tulchin Research.
The problem comes from California’s top-two primary system, where the two leading vote getters in the primary advance to the general election regardless of which party they belong to. While Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton won the 49th District by 7 percentage points in 2016, national operatives now fear a four-way split of Democratic votes could lead to two Republicans advancing to the general election.
There are two additional districts where Democrats fear they could be blocked from the November ballot ― the adjacent 48th District, represented by pro-Russia Republican Dana Rohrabacher, and the nearby 39th District, where GOP Rep. Ed Royce is retiring. All three districts are considered toss-ups in November.
The preemptive finger pointing shows how afraid Democrats are of blowing a competitive race in a year where the battle for control of the House is expected to be razor-thin, and how intense the resulting infighting will be if Democrats are locked out in November.
Democrats are blaming Kerr because he’s paying for direct mail and television ads attacking another Democratic candidate, environmental lawyer Mike Levin, as a stooge for ExxonMobil and Countrywide Financial ― two companies that are widely loathed by the party’s base.
“Mike Levin profits,” the narrator says in the TV spot released Friday. “We pay the price.”
Democrats fear the attacks on Levin ― and on Sara Jacobs, a former Clinton campaign aide backed by EMILY’s List ― will divide the Democratic vote and allow two Republicans, state tax board member Diane Harkey and Assemblyman Rocky Chavez, to qualify for the ballot in November. Kerr is the only Democrat to air ads attacking another Democrat.
“The top-two system is extremely complicated and calls for creative tactics, but for the lowest-performing Democrat to not only refuse to drop out of the race, but actually attack one of the top-performing Democrats on television is really disturbing and destructive,” said one national Democratic operative working on House races. “Paul Kerr’s actions could lead to Democrats being boxed out of the 49th.”
Democratic Rep. Ted Lieu, who represents a different Southern California district, called for Kerr to take down the negative ads.
Kerr’s campaign didn’t respond to a request for comment. But he sent out a Twitter missive on Friday alleging Levin was the favored candidate of Democratic insiders.
Kerr has pitched himself as the candidate who can best relate to families in the district ― while he’s now wealthy, he grew up in a working-class family and worked his way through college in his late 20s and early 30s. Jacobs, meanwhile, has benefited from more than $1 million in donations from her grandfather ― Qualcomm co-founder Irwin Jacobs ― to a super PAC backing her.
His campaign has also sent mailers attacking Jacobs for inflating her resume and alleging she disrespected veterans.
Levin was actually the first candidate to go negative, with mailers attacking retired Marine Col. Doug Applegate, who narrowly lost to Issa in 2016. While Levin has the endorsement of the Congressional Progressive Caucus, a collection of progressive groups in California have questioned his credentials.
The San Diego Union-Tribune poll, conducted by SurveyUSA, found Harkey polling at 24 percent, followed by Applegate and Jacobs at 11 percent apiece, Levin at 10 percent, and Kerr and Chavez at 8 percent.
The Tulchin Research poll found Levin in the lead at 17 percent, followed by Harkey at 15 percent, Applegate at 12 percent, and Chavez and Jacobs tied at 11 percent. Kerr was polling at 7 percent.
The 49th District was one of Democrats’ earliest targets this cycle, with local activists hosting regular protests outside Issa’s office and eventually driving him into retirement.
Ellen Montanari, one of the activists who led the protests, said she and others were disappointed Kerr hadn’t dropped out.
“Most of us in the district are really upset he’s stayed in the race,” said Montanari, who recently endorsed Levin. “He’s spending millions and he’s still in single digits. He just won’t let go.”
“He would’ve been a hero if he dropped out,” she added.
The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee and House Majority PAC, which is run by allies of House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, have spent heavily attacking Chavez in an effort to avoid a lockout. Their goal is to consolidate Republicans around Harkey, who is considered a lock to make the runoff, and make it easier for Jacobs or Levin to advance to the general election.
This story has been updated with additional information about Levin and the latest polls.
CORRECTION: A previous version of this story stated incorrectly that Kerr was in the U.S. Marines and Applegate was in the Army. Kerr was in the Navy and Applegate was in the Marines.