The House Majority PAC, formed to help Democrats take back the House in November,… (handout )
Daniel Mintz recently had a chance to see California's new election system up close, and it was an eye-opener.
An official with the political organization Move On.org, Mintz was in California to work with his group's favored candidates, including a Democrat running for a Ventura County congressional seat.
In previous years, Mintz's contender, well financed and awash in endorsements and party backing, might have brushed past three other Democrats on June 5 to win a place on the November ballot. But now she also has to beat a Republican and a well-known independent candidate; the top two finishers will face off in the fall under new state election rules.
"This could be the nightmare scenario of the jungle primary," Mintz said. "There could turn out to be no Democrat on the ballot in November in a district the party could win."
Last year's redrawing of the state's political maps created a new "swing" district in Ventura County, making it an attractive target for both major parties. With six candidates, no incumbent and Republican and Democratic voters fairly evenly matched, the seat is one of roughly a dozen in California that could figure in the battle for control of Congress come November, when either major party could win.
The dynamics of the contest are complicated. The only Republican on the ballot, state Sen. Tony Strickland of Moorpark, is all but assured of a place in the runoff, close observers say. The main hurdle for Mintz's endorsee, Assemblywoman Julia Brownley (D-Oak Park), is widely seen as independent Ventura County Supervisor Linda Parks rather than the other Democratic hopefuls.
Parks, who lives in Thousand Oaks, made a name for herself in local environmental causes. She recently switched her registration from Republican to unaffiliated. If she wins next month, she will be a rare independent candidate on a runoff ballot, and Democrats won't be able to add the seat to their column.
It may be Parks, not Brownley, who has the most to fear from the three less well-known Democrats, said Allan Hoffenblum, a former GOP strategist who handicaps congressional and legislative races in his nonpartisan California Target Book.
The other Democrats are Realtor/entrepreneur/CEO Albert Maxwell Goldberg of Ventura; Oxnard harbor Commissioner Jess Herrera; and independent small businessman David Cruz Thayne of Westlake Village, in the Los Angeles County part of the district.
The presence of four Democrats could split like-minded voters and keep all of those candidates off the November ballot. But Hoffenblum views the primary as a contest of ideology, in which Strickland is likely to take the right, Brownley the left and Parks the center. The other Democrats are more likely to siphon votes from Parks, he believes.
"She's not the only centrist in the race," Hoffenblum said.
MoveOn is helping to round up campaign contributions and volunteers for Brownley, viewed by her party's leaders as their best shot at a runoff spot. The House Majority PAC, formed to help Democrats take back the House in November, has spent more than $340,000 to support her and attack Parks, according to PAC spokesman Andy Stone.
The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee sent out a mailer attempting to link Parks to Sarah Palin and the tea party.
California's U.S. senators, Dianne Feinstein and Barbara Boxer, have also rallied around Brownley, while Republican leaders say they plan to go all-out to help elect Strickland in the fall.
Parks has been supported by an independent group, the "super PAC" icPurple, linked to La Jolla billionaire Ted Waitt. The group is running cable TV ads for Parks.
Some of the new district, the 26th, is represented by Rep. Elton Gallegly (R-Simi Valley), who decided to retire rather than seek reelection in a changed political landscape.
Democrats in the district outnumber Republicans slightly, 40% to 36%. Almost 19% of the district's voters are not affiliated with any state-recognized party.
The Cook Political Report, which analyzes federal elections, labeled the race a tossup.
Voters in the district chose Democrat Barack Obama over Republican John McCain in 2008 and approved Proposition 8, the gay marriage ban, the same year.
In 2010, they narrowly picked Republicans Meg Whitman and Carly Fiorina over Gov. Jerry Brown and Boxer, respectively.
Strickland, running for state controller that year, lost the district to John Chiang by four points.