Pressure from national Democratic groups and state activists to support their candidate of choice and force other Democratic contenders to drop out is producing a backlash in the contest to control the Southern California congressional seat being vacated by Republican Rep. Darrell Issa.
The Democratic infighting over the preferred party choice to run has intensified in recent weeks, echoing clashes between Washington's Democratic establishment and progressive groups on the ground in Texas for the chance to take on GOP Rep. John Culberson.
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A Democratic candidate "viability" forum held in San Diego County Friday was billed as a way for candidates to prove who has the best qualifications to compete against Republicans for the seat.
The "viability" event was organized by Flip the 49th Neighbors in Action, a local chapter of the national liberal group Indivisible. The group, which has raked in $440,000 including $100,000 from Jane Fonda and other Hollywood celebrities, took credit for helping push Issa to give up the seat earlier this year by holding nearly a year of protests outside his district office.
After a brief January celebration, the group shifted into panic mode to try to winnow the crowded Democratic field. Democratic party operatives are worried that having several Democrats compete will splinter their party's votes.
That could produce a nightmare scenario for Democrats under California's "jungle primary" rules, which mandate that only the two-top vote-getters go on to compete in the general, regardless of party. Two Republicans could end up getting the largest percentage of votes and Democrats could wind up shutout completely.
Over the weekend, Flip the 49th organizer Terra Lawson-Remer urged activists disappointed that only Democratic candidate Mike Levin came to the forum to "show leadership, shake it off, and stay committed and engaged in the larger cause."
Most of the Democratic candidates were scheduled to appear at the event before a packed house of hundreds of voters in Oceanside, Calif. Voter interest in the forum was so strong the group organizing it promised overflow seating at a separate location.
Hours before the event, all but one candidate abruptly canceled, and another, Christine Prejean, dropped out of the race.
Two of the four Democratic candidates bowing out of the debate issued statements citing ethical and legal concerns that a Super PAC, which can take unlimited funds from special interests, sponsored the event.
However, resentment against a campaign by Democratic Party activists to persuade the leading Democratic candidate Doug Applegate and the other contenders to step aside and promote Levin also likely played a role.
Applegate was the first to pull out of the event, announcing that he would instead hold a "ATFR"—Ask The Frontrunner event—at Bagby Beer Company at 6 p.m.
Over the last week and a half, three college groups in the district have blamed Levin and other party activists for "a smear campaign" against Applegate and have labeled his campaign as "unacceptable" while endorsing Applegate or saying they are open to the other Democratic candidates in the race. The Democratic Women's Club of San Diego also listed only the campaigns of Applegate, Sara Jacobs, and Prejean, before she dropped out, as "acceptable."
Since early 2017, Democratic Party leaders in Washington and Sacramento have backed Levin, an attorney and former executive of the Orange County Democratic Party, for the seat.
Levin so far has $1.22 million—nearly twice as much as Applegate—for his campaign.
Applegate is a former Marine colonel and attorney who came within 1,600 votes of defeating Issa in 2016, sending the message that the eight-term Republican, one of the wealthiest members of Congress, was vulnerable.
National Democrats are worried that Applegate carries too much baggage from news that surfaced late in the 2016 race that his ex-wife has accused him of stalking, harassing and threatening her. She also obtained a restraining order against him in 2002 and another in 2004.
Polls show Applegate has the most potential voter support among Democrats in the district but also carries the most negative perceptions in the Democratic field. Applegate held the lead in a recent San Diego Union Tribune/10News poll in the 49th district, which stretches South of Orange County, along the coastal area to La Jolla.
Applegate garnered 18 percent of likely voters, while another retired Marine colonel, Republican Assemblyman Rocky Chavez, collected 17 percent.
In third place, Republican Board of Equalization member Diane Harkey earned 10 percent, Levin took in 8 percent and GOP San Diego Supervisor Kristin Gaspar rounded out the top-tier with 7 percent.
Sara Jacobs, granddaughter of Qualcomm founder Irwin Jacobs, is polling at 5 percent but has already been furiously spending money from her personal fortune to increase her profile. Democratic businessman Paul Kerr and attorney Christina Prejean, both have polled at 1 percent. Prejean dropped out on Friday, winning praise from Democratic activists.
Several other lesser-known Republicans are attracting less than 1 percent.
Applegate's campaign in 2016 pushed back against the allegations about harassing his ex-wife, arguing that courts ended up dismissing them and rescinding both restraining orders. His ex-wife, Priscilla Greco, also has vigorously defended him. She echoed the statements again last week when the issue appeared to plague Applegate anew.
"I'm disappointed that uninformed people are yet again making disrespectful and personal attacks against our family," she said.
"We went through a difficult divorce, as many people have, but to take things out of context and make Doug out to be an abuser is absurd," she said. "Doug and I are parents first, and we raised two amazing children together. I support his run for Congress, and I will be voting for him in June and November 2018."
Still, Applegate's rough divorce history has party activists very wary, especially in the wake of the #MeToo era, as Democrats have hit the Trump White House for hiring two aides accused of domestic violence by ex-wives.
During a contentious Democratic Party convention in San Diego in late February, veteran Sen. Dianne Feinstein, (D., Calif.), failed to win the party's endorsement in her primary contest against Democratic challenger Kevin de Leon. Levin came close, raking in 53 percent of the convention endorsement vote, but short of the 60 percent needed to get the nod. Applegate garnered 27 percent.
The national efforts to bolster Levin and the ongoing efforts to push Applegate is rankling some young Democratic groups in the district. Democrats of Miracosta College in late February took the unusual step of issuing a two-page press release labeling Levin "unacceptable" for engaging in a "disreputable campaign of libel and defamation since as early as April of 2017, going further than even Republican attacks to misrepresent and lie about the marital history of Doug Applegate."
"This has been repeatedly corroborated by members of Congress, campaign materials disseminated, and statements made to delegates and voters," the group wrote, accusing Levin of "refusing to believe the very woman he is using as a political weapon."
The group also accused Levin's campaigning of demeaning our members and threatening its president and another young Democrat's "careers and positions."
At a recent Democrat retreat in Lake Tahoe, the group said several delegates requested that surrogates and senior Levin staff be escorted from the room by security or gaveled down "due to their aggressiveness and being egregiously out of order."
"When confronted about this, Mike Levin dismissed these concerns and directed aggrieved parties to take it up with staff," the group wrote.
"Running for such an important office can often be intense and requires every advantage at a candidate's disposal, but there is a clear distinction between ‘politics as usual' and scorched-earth tactics," they wrote.
"Through both his own actions and his tacit approval of the actions of his staff, Mike Levin has demonstrated that he is an unacceptable candidate," they asserted.