Democratic efforts to retake the House of Representatives in November avoided a potential pitfall on Tuesday.
Democratic candidates in the 39th, 48th and 49th Districts, all representing parts of Orange County, appear poised to advance to November's general election, avoiding a nightmare scenario under California's top-two primary system, in which two Republicans would lead the primary and advance, leaving Democrats shut out of the general election.
"These districts are all critical to Democrats taking back the House nationwide in November," said Katie Merrill, with Fight Back California, a political action committee aimed at flipping Republican congressional seats in the state. "The potential of possibly being shut out of three or four of them would have really dimmed our chances for taking back the House."
California Democrats saw these Orange County districts, a long-time Republican stronghold that went for Hillary Clinton over Donald Trump in 2016, as some of their best chances to flip Republican-held seats this November.
In January, Rep. Ed Royce announced that he would be retiring at the end of the year. Days later, Congressman Darrell Issa followed suit, leaving open two vulnerable seats. A third congressman representing Orange County, Dana Rohrabacher, has been targeted by Democrats over his pro-Russian views.
A national spotlight and heated local resistance against President Trump led a bevy of candidates to announce their entry into the congressional races. But this enthusiasm almost became the Democrats' downfall.
When a handful of serious GOP contenders jumped into the races to replace Royce and Issa, the possibility emerged that the glut of Democrats could split the vote and allow two Republicans to advance to the general election.
But Tuesday's results show that Democrats have likely avoided that outcome. Returns in the Rohrabacher's 48th District portend a November showdown between the incumbent and either Democrat Harley Rouda or Hans Keirstead. Rouda declared victory early Wednesday morning, but fewer than 100 votes separated the two challengers.
In the Royce's 39th District, Democrat Gil Cisneros finished ahead of five other Democrats and advanced to a general election matchup with former state Assemblywoman Young Kim, who led all candidates in early returns.
"Young Kim is a new face on the scene and also was the chief staffer for [Royce]," said GOP consultant Sean Walsh. "She's very, very familiar with the community."
Further south, Republican Diane Harkey, a member of the Board of Equalization, led the field to replace Issa in the 49th District, followed by three Democrats: Mike Levin, Sara Jacobs and Doug Applegate. Here too, the possibility of a Democratic "lockout" appear to have been avoided.
Harkey's emergence was a consolation prize for some in the GOP who feared the equally-crowded field of Republicans in that race would allow two Democrats to advance to the general election.
"You can hope that you're going to get the Maserati for the Christmas present, but you're happy that the BMW showed up in the driveway," Walsh added.
Elsewhere in the state, congressional results showed the uphill climb Democrats will have to make to knock off entrenched Republican incumbents.
In the Central Valley, Democrats did little to inspire confidence in unseating incumbent Republicans Jeff Denham, David Valadao and Devin Nunes, who opened up wide leads over the Democratic challengers who they will face in the fall general election.
But Mark DiCamillo, director of the Berkeley Institute of Governmental Studies poll, said that those seats are still on the table for Democrats in the general election.
"Given the potential turnout in a general election, you could have seven or eight Republican-held seats in play," he said. "That's going to be the biggest story of the fall election."