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Jewish Candidate Could Save Democrats From Disastrous California ‘Jungle Primary’ Loss

Democrats received some potentially disaster-avoiding news when a recent poll showed Democratic candidate Mike Levin leading in the much-watched race to fill Rep. Darrell Issa’s Southern California seat.

The state’s 49th district, which extends north from San Diego, could be key to Democrats taking back the House of Representatives –- Hillary Rodham Clinton carried it by 7.5 percentage points over President Trump. But the state’s unusual “jungle primary” system means a crowded Democratic field may end up splitting the vote on Tuesday, causing two Republicans to run against each other in the general election.

“We’re feeling great. We just have to finish strong,” Levin, who is Jewish, told the Forward the day before the vote. “It’s very important. We have to win the 49th district if we’re going to take back the House.”

According to Tulchin Research, who surveyed 500 likely voters between May 22 and 24, Levin was at 17 percent, two points in front of Republican Diane Harkey, who was endorsed by Issa. Democrat Doug Applegate, who lost to Issa by less than a percentage point in 2016, came in third place with 12 percent. The top two vote-getters regardless of party will proceed to the general election.

Levin, the former leader of the Orange County Democratic Party, has focused on environmental issues like supporting alternative energy sources and has attacked Trump over his policies and statements.

A crowded Democratic field has made the race “personality driven” — not just regarding the candidates themselves, “but [also] the personality of the president and the whole concept of Washington as a personality,” Sherry Bebitch Jeffe of the University of Southern California’s Sol Price School of Public Policy told the Forward.

Jeffe, a longtime local political insider, said she was impressed by Levin’s speaking ability and has heard local Democratic leaders speak highly of his ability to connect with impassioned progressive voters.

She also highlighted changing demographics in the area that could be helping Democrats.

“Orange County isn’t Orange County anymore,” Jeffe said, adding that a rising Latino population, more independent millennial voters and Trump’s alienation of some higher income, higher educated suburban voters could help swing the traditionally-conservative district against Republicans.

Geoffrey Skelley of the University of Virginia’s Center for Politics also told the Forward that changing demographics in Orange County, especially growing numbers of Latino and Asian voters in the central inland districts, could benefit Democrats in future elections.

The 49th district also has a high percentage of Jewish voters. There are about 26,000 Jews in the area, making up nearly four percent of the population.

Skelley said Jewish voters in the southern part of the district closest to San Diego could help swing the general election for Levin if he gets past the primary.

“There is a fairly vital and viable Jewish vote,” Skelley said. “There’s fairly low turnout in off-year elections, [so] Jews becoming increasing important considering we know they vote.”

Levin has emphasized his Jewish roots, tweeting about his grandparents’ experience overcoming anti-Semitism.

“When I see our family name Levin on signs or banners or shirts or buttons, it’s my grandma and grandpa’s legacy,” Levin told the Forward, adding that his grandfather adopted the name “Dean” for his business after James Dean.

The national Democratic Party has not officially backed a candidate in the race, but the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee has helped register voters in the district and paid for a video attacking Republican candidate Rocky Chavez.

The party is also looking to flip the 48th district, which runs along the coast south of Los Angeles.

Incumbent Republican Rep. Dana Rohrabacher has come under fire for his connections to the Russian government. But again, a crowded primary filed could mean the Democrats get locked out of the general election if Republicans are the two highest individual vote-getters in the primary.

That could make a Levin win in the 49th even more imperative, especially if control of the House comes down to just a few seats.

“[Voters] want to see members of Congress who will speak truth to power and hold Trump and his administration accountable,” Levin said.

Contact Ben Fractenberg at or on Twitter, @fractenberg




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