The year’s biggest day of primary elections – with voters in eight states casting ballots in hundreds of congressional, state and local contests – closed Tuesday with two well-known Democrats prevailing in marquee California races while the outcomes of other key contests in the state could stay unresolved for days.
Dianne Feinstein, at 84 making another bid for the Senate seat she has held since 1992, was projected the winner. Gavin Newsom, the state’s lieutenant governor, was projected the winner of the race to succeed the term-limited Gov. Jerry Brown, D, and led Republican John Cox in early returns.
Both Democrats, 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 ballot in the Golden State, where Tuesday’s results are expected to provide new insight into Democrats’ chances for retaking congressional majorities in November.
In California, where President Donald Trump is deeply unpopular, Democratic Party officials are targeting at least a half-dozen seats in the state now held by Republicans, which could put them well on the way to flipping the 23 House seats they need to claim the majority.
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But the Golden State’s unorthodox primary system – where the top two vote-getters advance regardless of party – has raised fears that Democrats could be left without candidates on the November ballot in key districts.
Scores of Democrats are running across the state, and party committees spent millions in recent weeks and scrambled over the course of months to thin the crowded fields of candidates to avoid being locked out of the ballot in some districts.
The effort appeared to have made an impression on the public: Numerous voters interviewed Tuesday in those districts said that they had cast their votes strategically rather than based solely on their personal views.
James Woeber, a 48-year-old leadership consultant voting in the San Diego-area 49th Congressional District, said that 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.”
But 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.
“We apologize for the inconvenience and concern this has caused,” said Dean Logan, the county’s registrar-recorder, in a statement. “Voters should be assured their vote will be counted.”
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.
Early returns had Cisneros in second place behind Republican Young Kim, but he led another Republican by fewer than 1,000 votes with tens of thousands still to be counted.
Former Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, whose odds of winning the second slot in the race for governor depended on corralling votes in his home county, issued a warning to voters affected by the error to make sure they cast provisional ballots.
“If for any reason, your name does not appear on the voter rolls, you should request a provisional ballot & one must be granted to you,” he tweeted. “It is your right to vote so please insist a provisional ballot is issued to you. Every vote matters.”
A Democratic Party official monitoring the returns said the results available after the election-day tabulation “will likely be dramatically incomplete” due to the high number of provisional ballots, which are tabulated after voters’ eligibility is verified.
“At worst, this means that there were longer lines in the Hispanic precincts, which may have deterred people from voting,” the official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, said.
Elsewhere in the country, Democrats found more encouraging news.
In New Jersey, the national party’s 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 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 Alabama, GOP voters delivered a rebuke to incumbent Rep. Martha Roby, who is headed for a runoff against former congressman Bobby Bright – whom Roby defeated in 2010 when Bright held office as a Democrat.
Roby 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. In TV ads, Bright accused Roby of “[turning] her back on Trump when he needed her the most.”
In Montana, State Auditor Matt Rosendale and retired judge Russell Fagg battled for the GOP nomination to take on incumbent Democratic Sen. Jon Tester in a state that voted overwhelmingly for Trump. Rosendale held a small lead in early returns; some Republican operatives see the Maryland-born Rosendale as a flawed challenger for Tester.
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 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. Democrats remain nervous about lockouts in at least two other congressional districts besides the 39th.
In the 49th, the party was encouraged after Republicans rallied around Diane Harkey, a county official endorsed by retiring Rep. Darrell Issa, R; she won about a third of the vote in early returns, while a trio of Democrats – Applegate, attorney Mike Levin and former Obama administration staffer Sara Jacobs – clustered behind her.
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. Keirstead, not Rouda, occupied the second slot behind Rohrabacher in early returns.
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.
The drama in the races for the state’s two biggest prizes, U.S. Senate and governor, centered largely on which of the candidates would win the chance to compete against front-runners Feinstein and Newsom.
Feinstein, who in the pasthas 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 León, who hoped to consolidate support from the more liberal left, is not assured a runoff slot; polling has found second place going to anyone from de León, to an unknown businessman, to a white supremacist, to a San Diego businessman who is running for Senate in seven states to prove a point about ballot access.
In the race for governor, no candidate has been able to dislodge Newsom from first place, but the second slot was the focus of Democratic and Republican challengers.
Both Newsom and the White House hope that Republican Cox – a business executive who lost three elections in Illinois and a quixotic presidential bid before moving to California – will win the second slot. Trump repeatedly tweeted on Cox’s behalf, and presidential daughter-in-law Lara Trump broadcast a video touting him.
“Cox will probably lose, but the last thing we need is two Democrats in the runoff for governor,” said John Wilgreen, 46-year-old certified public accountant who voted Tuesday in Encinitas. “The GOP needs to have a candidate just to keep the debate honest.”
Some down-ballot Democrats are hoping for a surge by Villaraigosa, the former mayor of Los Angeles, which would lock Republicans out of the race. But others suggested that the party was better off with an easy Democratic lock in the form of Newsom, with Democratic attention and money going instead to the House races.
The Washington Post’s Bill Dauber and Tony Perry in California contributed to this report.