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Picking winners: National Democrats try to winnow the primary field, and not everyone is pleased

Andrew Romano
West Coast Correspondent
Photo illustration: Yahoo News; photos: Getty Images (2), AP

LOS ANGELES — Imagine that you’ve never run for elected office. Imagine that you’ve never even considered it; your career, after all, has nothing to do with politics. But then America elects a president who strikes you as so dangerous — so antithetical to your values — that you start thinking about how you can fight back.

You notice that your congressman, who belongs to the same party as the new president, is considered vulnerable. You’re anxious. You’re angry. You’re unwilling to stand idly by. So you decide to make the leap and run against him in the upcoming midterm elections.

Now imagine that six or seven months later, after 16-hour days on the trail, seven days a week; after locking yourself in a windowless room and dialing for dollars until your “brain turns to mush”; after putting your job on hold, or quitting altogether; after demanding huge commitments from staffers, volunteers and donors; after convincing countless new supporters to take a risk on you; after missing your kid’s bedtime and barely saying hi to your spouse before you conk out at night, just for a chance to serve your country and make it a better place — imagine that after all of this your party comes to you from Washington and asks you to drop out before a single vote has been cast.

What would you say?

In California’s 39th Congressional District, which overlaps the traditionally conservative bastion of Orange County, Democrats Phil Janowicz and Mai-Khanh Tran recently faced this question — and came up with different answers.

Tran immediately refused. Janowicz eventually acquiesced.

Their stories lay bare the unexpected downside of so-called resistance politics.

Party intervention in contested primaries is nothing new. Groups like the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee (DCCC) have always endorsed, promoted and generally angled to get the most “electable” candidates on the ballot.

But in the age of Trump, the stakes, and tensions, are higher than before. So many Democrats are running this year — more than 500 at last count, the most for any one party since Republicans flipped 63 House seats in 2010 — that many make-or-break primaries are overflowing with the kind of untested outsider candidates that worry risk-averse party leaders.

At the same time, populist, antiestablishment sentiment is surging. So when the DCCC does intervene, as it did in March by launching a “scorched-earth campaign” against Houston Democrat Laura Moser, progressive activists tend to lash back; in Moser’s case, they propelled her through the first round of primary voting and into May’s runoff.

Nowhere, however, is this dynamic more apparent, or more consequential, than here in California. In 2016, Hillary Clinton carried seven Republican-held congressional districts in the state, some of which hadn’t voted for a Democratic presidential nominee in decades. All seven districts instantly became midterm targets; that’s nearly a third of the 23 total pickups that Democrats need to retake the House.

At first the party’s Golden State strategy seemed simple enough. Let all of these enthusiastic new Democratic candidates duke it out for a chance to compete in the general against a wounded GOP incumbent. Tie said incumbent to Trump, who is enormously unpopular in California. Then sit back and watch as the Democratic survivor rides a “blue wave” to Washington.

But matters soon became much more complicated. In California’s 49th Congressional District, on the coast north of San Diego, Rep. Darrell Issa decided to retire; in the 39th District, Rep. Ed Royce did the same. A glut of new Republican candidates rushed to fill the void. In the 48th District, a wealthy slice of suburban Orange County shoreline, controversial Rep. Dana Rohrabacher — aka “Putin’s favorite congressman” — attracted a potent last-minute GOP opponent, and in the 50th District, the exurban area east of San Diego, two Republicans decided to challenge scandal-plagued Rep. Duncan Hunter.

The upshot was unsettling. California is one of two states with a nonpartisan primary system; the top two finishers advance regardless of party affiliation. Before, the GOP incumbent was basically guaranteed to secure one of the top two slots; the strongest Dem was a shoo-in for the other. But now that these Republican races were free-for-alls as well, Democrats were suddenly in very real danger of boxing themselves out of at least four winnable contests. Divide the Democratic vote among four, five or six candidates, the thinking went, and the top two finishers could both be Republicans.

As a result, the tables turned. Candidates once lauded as exemplars of the left’s anti-Trump resurgence were now being pressured step aside in favor of richer, more connected rivals — or, if they refused, cast as potential spoilers who could cost Democrats the House.

“These candidates need to understand that if we wake up after the election, after the primary, and two Republicans go on to the general and we lose the chance of a pickup [because] we came in third, you are going to be a villain,” said former Barack Obama speechwriter Jon Lovett on a recent episode of Crooked Media’s influential progressive podcast, “Pod Save America.” “You will be responsible.”

Royce’s district is a good example. With four viable Democrats and three viable Republicans (frontrunner Young Kim, a former state assemblywoman; former state Senate Minority Leader Bob Huff; and Orange County Supervisor Shawn Nelson), the top-two math is more daunting for Dems than anywhere else. Seeking to avert disaster, the DCCC has decided to weigh in.

Democrats Mai-Khanh Tran and Phil Janowicz. (Photo illustration: Yahoo News; photos: Tran for Congress via AP, Leonard Ortiz/The Orange County Register via ZUMA Wire)

“Grassroots activists have put these races into play,” says DCCC press secretary Drew Godinich. “They deserve to have a Democrat on the ballot this November.”

After initially welcoming the deluge — “The deep bench of outsider candidates is a testament to the incredible grass-roots energy we are seeing on the ground,” Godinich told Yahoo News last November — the organization recognized that Royce’s departure could scramble the field. So in late January it commissioned a poll, which showed Republicans in the top two slots. At that point, the DCCC approached every declared Democrat, presented the data and asked whether anyone would consider exiting the contest before March 14, the deadline to get your name on the ballot. Members of California’s congressional delegation, including Rep. Mark Takano of Riverside, starting calling. But nobody said yes.

“It became a game of chicken,” says Jay Chen, who ran against Royce in 2012 and jumped into the 2018 contest after the incumbent announced his retirement. “Admitting you would drop out was like a sign of weakness. Everyone was waiting for someone else to do it.”

Among those biding their time was Phil Janowicz. An exuberant, MIT-educated chemistry PhD, Janowicz, 34, gave up his tenured teaching position at Cal State-Fullerton the previous April to run for Royce’s seat and combat the Trump agenda.

“I wanted to make a real difference in this community,” Janowicz says. “2016 didn’t go the way I wanted on the national level. Elections have seldom gone our way in Orange County. I figured I could either complain about it or be a part of the change.”

Student council aside, Janowicz had never campaigned for political office. It turned out to be harder than he expected.

“People will tell you about the daily grind,” he says. “But it didn’t fully sink in until I was doing it.”

Every day Janowicz got up at 5 a.m. to read, email and check Trump’s tweets. By 6 he was communicating with his staff and strategizing for the day ahead. “Call time” came next. For eight straight hours, with the briefest bathroom and lunch breaks, Janowicz would dial whatever number his campaign manager gave him, say whatever name was on the sheet in front of him and ask for money. He estimates that the amount of time between calls was “about 45 seconds.”

“It was brutal,” Janowicz says. “I had assumed from watching TV that campaigning was giving speeches, going to events and talking to voters. But the bulk of campaigning is done in what’s basically a closet, on the phone, asking former classmates from third grade for $50. I didn’t fully understand how grueling that would be, day and day out, seven days a week.”

After calling potential donors, Janowicz would ring up voters from 4 to 6 p.m., then race to three or four events in the spread-out 39th district — “from Diamond Bar to Chino Hills to Yorba Linda” — before arriving home at 10:30 and enjoying “half an hour of family time” before bed.

But the grind was manageable. The real problem was money. Janowicz led a few early polls, but then two multimillionaires entered the Democratic fray: Gil Cisneros, 47, a former shipping and distribution manager at Frito-Lay who had won a lottery jackpot of $266 million with his wife in 2010, and Andy Thorburn, 74, a Villa Park health insurance executive and former teachers’ union leader who loaned his campaign $2 million right out of the gate.

“It became a war of attrition,” Janowicz says. “I was spending all of my waking hours trying to raise money when they could just write themselves a check and go campaign. I’m young, spry and bubbly, but over time it was wearing me down quite a bit. It took its toll.”

Still, Janowicz kept running. Confronted with the DCCC numbers, he was unfazed, claiming the pollsters had oversampled Republicans. But then Janowicz commissioned his own survey, and even though it showed him tied with Cisneros and Thorburn “around 9 percent,” with the rest of the Democrats trailing “around 4 percent,” that’s when he officially got worried. The reason was that the poll also showed Republicans in first and second — and the only way to propel a Democrat into the top two was by removing Janowicz from contention.

“When I got that result I threw the paper and said, ‘I don’t want to believe that,’” Janowicz recalls. “But I talked to my wife about it and we both knew what had to be done. We knew we didn’t have unlimited funds like Cisernos and Thorburn.”

Janowicz made his final decision over lunch at a Claim Jumper restaurant on March 14, the filing deadline, and dictated his campaign-ending statement to a staffer in the parking lot.

“As a math guy, a scientist, logically I was at peace within a minute of making the decision,” Janowicz says. “Emotionally, I’m still working through it. It’s going to take me a really long time. It’s something I spent every living, waking minute of my life doing. To not see it through and even file? It feels wrong.”

Only one other viable Democratic candidate bailed before the deadline: Jay Chen. His reasoning was similar to Janowicz’s. His own poll showed that he’d have a great chance of surviving the primary if there were only one other serious Democrat, Cisneros, in the race. But that “best-case scenario” wasn’t going to happen.

“No one else would get out,” Chen says.

So he did.

“You don’t want your family to make this sacrifice — you don’t want to barrel ahead with all this support — if you know from the data that it might be a suicide run not just for yourself, but for the party as well,” he explains.

Even now, Chen, who was considered a frontrunner due to his prior political experience and deep ties to the district, wonders if he could have won. “I had to commit to my decision,” he says. “But I’ll tell you, my wife is not convinced. She thinks I should have stayed in — that I could have pulled it off. She has great political instincts. It scares me when she says that.”

Among those who did stay in was pediatrician Mai-Khanh Tran. In 1975, Tran arrived in America as a 9-year-old refugee from war-torn Vietnam — without her parents. She spent her summers picking strawberries in rural Oregon, eventually working her way through college at Harvard as a janitor. Later she survived two bouts of breast cancer and endured eight rounds of in vitro fertilization before finally getting pregnant at age 46.

Gil Cisneros (Photo illustration: Yahoo News; photo: Angel De Leon/Cisneros for Congress via AP)

So when the DCCC contacted her and said she didn’t “have a chance,” claiming she’d be “perceived as a spoiler” if she persisted, Tran said no.

“I frankly told them that I am going to continue,” she says. “I’d never given up during cancer treatment. I’d never given up during my IVF treatment. I’m certainly not going to give up now. I just can’t do it, because of my donors and my supporters — because of so many in this district. I can’t let them down.”

Janowicz’s decision had an undeniable mathematical logic. Tran’s logic is more emotional, but it is a kind of logic all the same — and it is nearly as difficult to deny.

“I’m the only qualified woman,” she explains. “The only physician. The only immigrant. The person who has raised the most money [from outside donors]. The person who has campaigned the longest. How am I not a viable candidate?”

Despite her experience leading “medical missions to some of the most remote regions of the world” — leper colonies in the Vietnamese jungle, typhoon-ravaged villages in the Philippines, impoverished neighborhoods in Tijuana — Tran says that running for office has “absolutely been one of the most challenging experiences of my life.” Her daily grind looks a lot like Janowicz’s — except that, on top of all that, she’s also a working mom.

“So I was seeing patients three days a week and raising my 5-year-old daughter while still campaigning for Congress,” Tran says, noting that she always tries to return home for bedtime. “It’s really difficult.”

For Tran, that added challenge underscores a larger political reality. “There’s a reason why women have a hard time getting elected to public office,” she says. “Politics is stacked against us. We don’t have the establishment, the machinery or the financial support that a lot of men do. There’s a constant questioning of my capabilities — much more than I expected. I can’t accept that. I’m still running because I want to make sure women have a seat at the table.”

With less than a month to go before the June 5 primary, Republican Young Kim leads in most public and private polls. The other top slot is undecided, in large part because most Democrats have yet to tune in — and the ones who have are dividing their loyalties among the four remaining viable candidates, risking a Democratic shutout.

As a result, the race is getting ugly. Last month, Thorburn released a message left on his home answering machine by someone claiming to be Gil Cisneros. “I’m gonna go negative on you,” the voice said. (Shortly after, the Cisneros campaign attacked Thorburn’s business record with an “Andy Thorburn Tax Evader” mini-site.) Cisneros denied leaving the message and threatened to sue. (Two forensic experts have concluded that it’s likely not Cisneros’s voice on the tape.) Meanwhile, Cisneros has also been forced to deny an allegation of a recent “inappropriate encounter” with a female Democrat after three of his Democratic opponents, including Tran and Thorburn, released a joint statement saying “it cannot be ignored.” (According to the accuser’s campaign website — she is currently running for state Assembly — the Thorburns were among “the first to donate” to her campaign and “have been very supportive”; she has endorsed Thorburn in return.)

Noting the chaos, the DCCC has upped its involvement, lavishing more attention on the 39th District than any other race in the country. In April, the organization endorsed the well-funded, well-connected Cisneros, a top political donor who has invested his lottery millions in education philanthropy, by adding him to its “Red to Blue” program — a move meant to signal to local Democrats that the time had come to coalesce around a single candidate. (According to a source familiar with the polling, the latest DCCC data shows Kim in first and Cisneros in second place overall, with “significant room for growth.”) Earlier this week, the DCCC released its first House ads of the cycle — and they target Republicans Bob Huff and Shawn Nelson in an effort to drive down their support and make room for Cisneros in the top two. And the group has been making significant ground-game investments in the 39th District as well.

None of the remaining candidates will admit that they’re as worried as Washington about splitting the Democratic vote and failing to advance. Thorburn, for his part, says the race has come down to him and Cisneros. Former Obama administration Commerce Department staffer Sam Jammal — the fourth viable Dem — insists that “these things tend to work themselves out,” and that the party will be fine if it just “gets as many Democrats to turn out as possible.”  And Tran, whose campaign emails frequently rail against the DCCC, is unbowed.

“I’m angry that people look at traditional parameters and think that’s the best way to win this race, because those parameters are entirely based on money,” Tran says. “My ultimate response to people who badgered me to drop out is ‘let the voters decide.’”

Even if they decide to send two Republicans to the general?

“If that happens,” she says, “then clearly the Republicans are better at getting their message out.”

Janowicz, however, is not so sanguine.

“To say ‘I’m not worried’ is ludicrous,” he says, laughing. “In fact, I’m increasingly worried. Again, I’m the math guy. And while anything is possible, many things are more probable than others. We have a long, long way to go.”

With that, Janowicz pauses; he’s searching for the right words to sum up his first run for office, which he swears won’t be his last. “I can objectively say this is the most interesting-slash-messed-up primary in the country,” he finally explains. “I will look back years from now and say ‘I was part of something.’ We’ll see what that something turns out to be.”

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