Democrats work to get out the vote ahead of the June 5 primary

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Democrats have high hopes for a “blue wave” of voters in the June 5th primary that could take hold of the Republicans’ vulnerable districts. But Democrats are also worried that with such crowded fields in some of the House races, they could be locked out of the general election because of the state’s open primary system.

That’s the concern for Democrats in the 49th Congressional District, which covers South Orange County and North San Diego County. Four Democrats are vying to fill Republican Darrell Issa’s open seat, but the concern is that they’ll split the vote.

Issa’s retirement was a victory for Democrats, but it didn’t guarantee them a seat. The June primary election ballot has 16 candidates: eight Republicans, four Democrats, and four from other parties. California’s open primary system means the top two vote getters move on to the general election. November’s ballot could have two Democrats on it, or as polling seems to indicate, two Republicans.

Democratic activists say if the candidates are going to split the pie, they’ll have to make the pie bigger, by driving more Democrats to the polls.

Flip the 49th volunteer Gus Hawthorn telling would-be voters about the possibility that the Democrats could be locked out of the general election. (Photo: Jenny Hamel) (The original image is no longer available, please contact KCRW if you need access to the original image.)

Two weeks before the primary, the headquarters of Flip the 49th: Neighbors in Action – a volunteer driven Super PAC – was buzzing with energy. Posters on the walls read “Issa, you’re toast,” and “Trumpcare almost killed me.” Desks were cluttered with pens, stickers and mailers. About a dozen volunteers sat in front of laptops making one phone call after another.

“This is Michael, I’m with Flip the 49th. We’re calling voters to make sure you’re going to vote in the primary, June 5th. Critical election. You planning on it?” said volunteer Michael Gordon, on the phone with a potential voter.

“The key is just voting for one of those four Democrats,” Gordon continued. “Whichever one suits you, so we can flip the House, and put a constitutional check on Mr. Trump.”

But there is division among the Democrats in this district and they have failed to coalesce around a single candidate. Flip the 49th campaign manager Johnny Papagiannis said with that in mind, his group is focused on voter turnout.

“Most of the candidates in races like this are targeting voters that they know will vote, the people that don’t miss midterms, don’t skip primaries, because they’re a reliable voting bloc,” said Papagiannis. “The universe of voters we’re going for are infrequently-voting Democrats, then some Independents and some parties that may be with us, including some Republicans.”

Republicans have a voter registration edge over Democrats in the 49th, and polling shows them a head, but the district is split pretty evenly between Republicans, Democrats and no party preference voters. There are a lot of affluent left-leaning families and a growing immigrant population in the district, which bodes well for Democrats. However, the 49th is also home to Camp Pendleton, has a large military base and is home to many conservative retirees.

Posters line the walls at the Flip the 49th: Citizens in Action headquarters in Carlsbad (Photo: Jenny Hamel) (The original image is no longer available, please contact KCRW if you need access to the original image.)

In 2016, the district voted for Hillary Clinton by more than seven points. That same year, Congressman Issa barely held onto his seat, defeating the progressive candidate Marine Colonel Douglas Applegate by just over 1600 votes, the narrowest margin of any of the House race that year. Now Applegate is back on the ballot along with three other Democrats, environmental lawyer Mike Levin, former state department employee Sara Jacobs and real estate developer Paul Kerr.

And of the eight GOP candidates, the frontrunners are Assemblyman Rocky Chavez; Diane Harkey, who sits on the State Board of Equalization; and San Diego County Supervisor Kristin Gaspar.

Kris Urdahl, with Carlsbad Republican Women Federated, said Republicans are committed to turning out voters and that she isn’t worried about a blue wave in the district.

“No. I think the average American working class middle class they said a lot in the 2016 election,” she said. “You know, they’re tired of the way things have been run.”

But Urdahl acknowledged that activists from the left have had major influence in the 49th and throughout the state.

“It’s a congressional seat that we know the other side is anxious to flip. They have targeted several throughout the state of California,” said Urdahl. “I’m a big fan of Darrell Issa. I think he’s done a terrific job as our congressman in Washington. But, they’re throwing a lot at us. And so I’m happy that some very good Republicans have stepped up in this race.”

Activists on both sides of the aisle see turning out the vote as their best strategy, with the hope that at least one of their candidates makes it to the November ballot.