ENCINITAS, California (CNN) - California's primary election Tuesday will be a key test of the electoral strength of Democratic women during a year in which the women's marches and the #MeToo movement have converged into a powerful tide that has carried several female candidates to victory.
In their quest to win the 23 seats that would give them control of the House of Representatives, Democrats are targeting the seven Republican-held districts in California that were won by Hillary Clinton in 2016. There are high-profile female Democrats in several of those districts, all hoping the trend will carry them over the finish line Tuesday night.
In California's 49th District, held by retiring Republican Rep. Darrell Issa, 29-year-old Sara Jacobs is facing off against three male candidates, including Doug Applegate, who lost to Issa in 2016 by a mere 1,621 votes.
In California's 25th District, represented by Steve Knight, 31-year old Katie Hill is facing off against 2016 nominee Bryan Caforio.
In the wild race for retiring Rep. Ed Royce's district in California-39, the attention has focused on the slugfest between Gil Cisneros and Andy Thorburn --- who are competing against two Republicans for the No. 2 slot. But pediatrician Mai Khanh Tran got the backing of EMILY's list and could draw a significant share of the vote.
Jacobs, a former State Department contractor who could become the youngest woman ever elected to Congress, says her youth and gender have cut both ways this primary season.
They have drawn young women volunteers and supporters who want to help the campaign navigate California's complex "top-two" primary system, where all candidates are on the same ballot and the top two vote-getters will advance to November, regardless of party.
"There are so many young people who are excited to see someone who looks like them," Jacobs says.
Her youth and gender have also brought valuable financial support for Jacobs in this highly competitive district, which covers portions of Orange and San Diego counties. The super PAC for EMILY's List, Women Vote!, has spent $2.4 million to support her campaign. (Jacobs' grandfather, Qualcomm founder Irwin Jacobs, has given more than a $1 million to Women Vote! this campaign cycle).
Overall, there has been $5.9 million in outside spending in the 49th -- that is higher than any other California district.
At the same time, Jacobs contends that she has faced a different level of scrutiny than some of her male counterparts. There are the chauvinist comments -- a guy who said she could have his vote in exchange for a date, and another who said she'd get more votes from men if she wore a bikini in her ads.
Voters have also approached her after debates dispensing advice about her appearance, her hairstyle and demeanor -- telling her, for example, that she needs to speak slower or that her voice is too high. ("I get that one a lot," she says).
"I think that's partially because I'm young, partially because I'm a woman, people do feel more comfortable coming up and giving me that type of feedback," Jacobs said. "It's also that the subconscious image of a leader in people's minds is a very specific thing. In some cases, my voice sounds too high to them, because it's not a male voice. And I don't look like a leader to them. So part of it is explaining to them -- it feels weird because you haven't seen it before."
In between canvassing kickoffs on the final weekend before the California primary, Jacobs stopped by a tent on Moonlight Beach in northern San Diego County run by "Moms Demand Action North County."
She was immediately swarmed by the group of excited orange-shirted women, who were spending the day dispensing orangeade and cookies to beachgoers in an effort to raise awareness about gun violence.
They peppered Jacobs with questions about whether Democrats could be boxed out here in California-49 by the top-two system. Jacobs told them that is less of a risk here than in California-48 and California-39, adding that female candidates running against a bunch of men in Democratic primaries have done better than expected this midterm season.
"We're the only ones running an entirely positive campaign, and I think that's swaying people in the end," Jacobs said. "Everyone is getting these nasty things in the mail, and we're not interested in partaking."
"We're letting the boys play in the mud," Jacobs says with a laugh.
There has been little reliable public polling in California-49. A number of internal polls have shown Jacobs, environmental advocate Mike Levin, and Applegate, an attorney and retired Marine colonel, bunched together in second place. Several California strategists said they believe Paul Kerr, a small business owner and US Navy veteran who has sent several negative mailers about Jacobs' credentials, appears to be trailing that pack.
Jacobs, whose senior team is comprised entirely of women, told members of the mom's group that early returns are seeded with signs of optimism for her campaign. Early returns indicated that vote-by-mail ballots were coming in at a higher level than in 2016, Jacobs told the women, and the campaign believes many of the low-propensity voters casting ballots in the 49th will be women.
(Those levels fluctuate by the day. In San Diego County --- which comprises about three-fourths of the votes in the 49th --- the number of absentee ballots returned as of Monday afternoon was tracking just below the level they reached this juncture in the 2016 primary, according to that county's registrar. The Orange County Registrar's office said the level of vote-by-mail turnout appeared to be settling between 2014 and 2016 levels).
The midterm electorate typically tends to be more male, white and conservative than in presidential years. But door-knocking this cycle, Jacobs said she has met many women who don't normally vote in midterm elections but answer the door eager to talk about the possibility of increasing female representation in Congress.
"They have done their research; they know who the candidates are," she said during an interview at a picnic table on Moonlight Beach. "They are excited to be voting for female candidates," she said, noting her focus on issues like affordable childcare, the link between gun violence and domestic violence, and the challenges confronting both women in the military in this veteran-heavy district.
Jacobs' advisers also believe female candidates across the country are outperforming their poll numbers consistently this year and that the higher level of engagement by women voters could mean a bump of six to 10 points above normal returns.
In a recent analysis of returns for female Democrats thus far, the Cook Political Report's Dave Wasserman said 2018 could end up being the "year of the angry college-educated female."
He pointed to candidates like former nurse Lauren Underwood, who dispatched six male opponents in Illinois' 14th Congressional District by winning 57% of the vote.
Gender ultimately helped sway Allison Shaewitz of Carlsbad, who organized the "Moms Demand Action" booth at Moonlight Beach. At first, she was "gung-ho" about supporting Levin, an attorney who was executive director of the Democratic Party of Orange County, but then she met Jacobs.
"She's been so supportive of us as this grassroots movement, and us as women," Shaewitz said. "She's so young, and some people see that as a negative. I look it as a positive. I asked her the other day 'How are you not tired?' and she said 'Youth.' She said, 'It's my generation that is being affected by these policies,'" Shaewitz recalled.
"Look at this tough race that she's in; people have asked her to get out of it for the sake of the Democratic Party, and she won't," Shaewitz said. "I have so much respect for that. She's 29. She could be doing anything."
There are eight Republicans on the ballot in the 49th, but Republican support appears to have consolidated behind Diane Harkey, who was endorsed by Issa.
One point of contention here has been the debate over whether Jacobs' inflated her resume. Her allies say a male candidate would not have faced the sorts of attacks that she has; some of her critics argue that her experience is perfectly valid issue that has nothing to do with sexism.
The controversy was over the fact that Jacobs has described herself as a policymaker who worked at the State Department under the Obama administration. The San Diego Union-Tribune noted that she was actually hired by a government contractor, IEA Corporation, which does work for the State Department.
"I think it's a legitimate issue," said Parke Skelton, a longtime California political consultant who is advising Levin, particularly for "any candidate that puts out advertising saying they worked in the State Department."
"There's a whole other level of vetting and oversight for people who are actually employed by the state department, as opposed to someone who worked for a subcontractor that had a contract with the State Department," Skelton said. "I think that's a pretty serious misstatement."
A section of Jacobs' website "setting the record straight" is now devoted to debunking the attack, explaining that she reported to State Department officials, with testimonials from her former bosses. It notes that Jacobs worked as a conflict and stabilization policy officer in the Bureau of Conflict and Stabilization Operations at the State Department --- doing analysis on instability in East Africa and groups like Boko Haram. (Jacobs also worked at the United Nations and UNICEF, and was a policy adviser on Clinton's 2016 campaign).
In a statement posted on Jacobs' website, her former supervisor at the State Department, Cindy Huang, said the suggestion that Jacobs did not help shape policy was "inaccurate, false and completely silly."
"Third-party contractors fulfill important functions in the federal government, and our bureau and the State Department were not unique in acquiring talent this way," Huang said in the statement.
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