Side Note

Beware the primary election saboteur

Last week, a faceless conservative group seemed poised to convert Democratic nightmares into hellish reality.

In California’s 39th Congressional District, the little-known Herbert H. Lee, a doctor who ran as a Democrat despite only registering as a member of the party this November, pumped $1 million into his campaign at the last minute. According to the Los Angeles Times, the largest share of the money went to a conservative data group — inciting concerns that Lee may have been running only to split the Democratic vote enough that none of the Democratic candidates would make it to the general election.

Lee, who had little public presence during the race, gave $162,000 of his money to a conservative group—Elephant Data LLC, a Delaware-based data firm which claims to provide “conservative campaign solutions.” Per the Times, that amount is significantly more than what any other candidates spent on data help. Lee's competitor Gil Cisneros, who ended up advancing to the general election, gave only $12,704 to his data team.

The reason a split vote is even possible is the way California's primaries are structured. The state’s “top two” system mandates that the two politicians with the most primary votes advance to the general election, regardless of their political party. Because so many Democrats had entered races, state party officials feared that a split vote in several toss-up or left-leaning House districts meant the top two finishers would both be Republican.

This election cycle, the 39th Congressional District, which boasted 15 candidates, had been a particular site of concern. Herbert H. Lee’s odd candidacy only made the headache worse. As Democrats jockey to win back a majority in Congress in the upcoming election, the “top two” system may have provided conservatives a potential loophole to exploit: add to the tumult by bolstering candidates that can siphon off Democratic votes.

The Times wasn’t able to confirm Lee’s intentions in soliciting support from Elephant Data or much of his background prior to running, but Lee amped up his campaign right as Democrats were pushing candidates in the 39th Congressional District to drop out to avoid a split vote. Still, despite his spending, he earned only 4 percent of the vote—and another Democrat, Gil Cisneros, will reach the general election in November.