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No, Democrats haven't shown they're going to win the House

Following a fresh round of bellwether votes, the party still hasn't shown it can win the districts they need to take control of the House.
Image: Voters In California Head To Polls To Cast Ballots In State's Primary Election
Voters cast their ballots at a Masonic Lodge on June 5, 2018 in Los Angeles.Mario Tama / Getty Images

News analysis

WASHINGTON — The lesson of Tuesday night's primaries for Democrats: They still have a lot of work to do if they want to win control of the House in November.

They managed to avert the total disaster of getting "locked out" of general election contests in California, where candidates of all parties compete against one another in primaries and the top two vote-getters advance to the general election.

But they didn't look particularly impressive in doing it.

In several of the state's most competitive districts — the kinds of races Democrats will have to win if they hope to take charge of the House — Republicans collected more than half the vote.

And in this moment of constant chatter about an "enthusiasm gap" benefiting Democrats in November, California provides a rare barometer for the general election, both because the two parties match up head-to-head in its primary system and because a significant chunk of the nation's swing districts are in the state.

In the 10th District, which is rated as a "toss-up" by the Cook Political Report, GOP Rep. Jeff Denham — one of the top Democratic targets in the country — grabbed just 38 percent of the vote.

Normally, that would be dead-man-walking territory for an incumbent, and cause for the other party to start popping champagne corks. But another Republican, Ted Howze, siphoned 14 percent of the vote. Together, he and Denham accounted for 52 percent.

Republican Rep. Steve Knight, whose 25th District is on all the lists of most-likely to swing, picked up 53 percent of the vote Tuesday against four Democratic rivals.

That doesn't mean Democratic nominees Josh Harder and Katie Hill can't beat Denham and McKnight in their respective districts in November. But the Republican majorities on Tuesday do serve as a reminder that the GOP holds the political high ground in the battle for the House.

Rep. Jeff Denham, R-Calif., isn't out of the woods yet.Bill Clark / CQ Roll Call via AP Images

The GOP also got more than half the vote in the California districts of Reps. Dana Rohrabacher and retiring Ed Royce, who is retiring. Both seats remain vulnerable to Democratic takeover — Rohrabacher, who has been uninhibitedly pro-Russia, did win just 30 percent of the vote Tuesday — but the results, like those in the Denham and Knight districts, suggest Democrats haven't reached a tipping point with the electorate.

Moreover, Republicans in congressional races will surely point to the strong economic numbers that the president has promoted — historically low unemployment and steady growth among them — as long as they continue. And while Trump's approval ratings are persistently negative, most of the GOP incumbents don't carry the same political baggage. That is, they have both swords and shields with which to defend their turf.

For now, Democrats are relieved that they'll have candidates on the ballot in all the potentially competitive House races in California — a development that was far from certain when voters went to the polls Tuesday and that had Democrats cursing California's primary system.

Neera Tanden, president of the liberal think tank Center for American Progress, tweeted her frustration at the process on Tuesday night before eventually reveling in Democrats' advancement in each of the races.

"I think I can speak for America when I say CA’s jungle primary is super dumb," she wrote.

There was other good news for Democrats on Tuesday night, said Kristen Hawn, a party strategist who works with centrist candidates. She took heart in the defeat of candidates aligned with the liberal Vermont senator and 2016 presidential candidate Bernie Sanders.

"He's not the kingmaker," she said, adding that in several districts, "really solid women came through the primaries for us, which is exciting."

For example, Democrats are enthralled with Mikie Sherrill, a former Navy pilot and federal prosecutor, who cruised through a New Jersey primary in the district that GOP Rep. Rodney Frelinghuysen is leaving open. That district, where she'll face off against Republican Assemblyman Jay Webber, is a brick on almost any path leading Democrats to control of the House.

And an unprecedented number of women have been running — and winning — in primaries. It remains to be seen if that will affect the partisan makeup of the House in the next Congress.

Of course, any election night is a snapshot. But after this one, the picture of a Democratic House still hasn't come into focus.