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Is this fringe Democrat going to spoil a hotly contested California race for Democrats?

The wild story of a Trump supporter backing a Democrat in the high-stakes primary in California’s 39th District.

Herbert Lee is running as a Democrat in California’s 39th district.
Dr. Herbert Lee for 39th Congressional District via Facebook

Is a Trump supporter going to spoil a hotly contested California race for Democrats?

The Facebook page for the campaign of Herbert Lee, a little-known Democrat in one of California’s fiercest “jungle primary” races on Tuesday, is run by a die-hard Trump supporter’s newly opened data firm, to which Lee’s campaign recently cut a $160,000 check. Democrats fear Lee could blow one of their best shots at picking up a long-held Republican seat this fall.

Democrats are nervously watching the race in California’s 39th District, fearing the D next to Lee’s name could help him siphon off enough votes to prevent a Democrat from finishing in the top two, meaning Democrats will have no chance of picking up the seat in the fall. California has an unusual “top two” primary system, in which candidates, regardless of party, compete for first and second place to make it to the general election in November. In a crowded pack of six Democrats in an open race, even if Lee gains 2 percent of the vote, it has the potential to be devastating for Democrats’ hopes of flipping a district Hillary Clinton won to blue.

Meanwhile, as David Dayen reported at the Intercept last week, Lee has been sinking hundreds of thousands of dollars of his own money into his campaign — the bulk of which he spent between April 1 and May 16 — including that $160,000 payment to an almost untraceable data company.

“At this point, any underperforming and virtually unknown Democrat spending last-minute money is harming Democrats’ chances of getting into the top two,” Drew Godinich, a Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee spokesperson, told Vox.

Lee is a mystery

Among the six Democratic candidates in the race, Lee has little to no name recognition. His campaign website is modest and outdated in style. He doesn’t list any endorsements — although he’s picked one up from the Asian American Democratic Club — and shares vaguely progressive-to-moderate policy positions: from “health care for all” to working with Congress “to implement better Immigration laws.”

Lee thinks “every single person living in the U.S. has fundamental human rights to healthcare regardless of citizenship status or ability to pay,” and says if a border wall works, he’s “all for it.” He supports the Trans-Pacific Partnership on trade and stricter gun control. His campaign did not respond to Vox’s request for comment.

But browse the Facebook page of Yuyan Vernon, the Chinese-American woman based in Nebraska who runs a page supporting Lee’s candidacy, and the message changes. Vernon has posted multiple pro-Trump videos and an anti-Clinton meme. She has pictures of herself at the Republican National Convention wearing a “Chinese-Americans for Trump” T-shirt. Vernon donated $750 to Trump’s campaign in 2016, according to a Donald J. Trump for President Federal Election Commission filing.

Vernon confirmed the campaign hired her to run the Facebook page and Lee’s social media. But she says her support for Trump has nothing to do with her work on Lee’s campaign. Lee is “really hard-working, and he is honest, and he is also from the Asian-American community, and we feel like he knows what the immigrants need,” Vernon told Vox.

When Lee told Vernon that he planned to run on his own money, she was sold. Yet some of the messaging in Lee’s social media posts, focusing on the “forgotten men and women,” reflect Trump’s political rhetoric.

Lee loaned his campaign $800,000, earlier this year. On May 28, he loaned an additional $200,000. He’s invested more than $625,000 in Spanish- and Chinese-language newspapers, TV and radio ads, billboards, signs and campaign mailer materials, voter information and postage, according to his FEC filings. The district Lee is running in is diverse — 32 percent white, 33 percent Hispanic, and 29 percent Asian — which means that such targeted ad spending in a crowded field could be surprisingly effective. And it has the potential to split the Asian vote away from the top Democratic contenders, an outcome Vernon didn’t seem concerned about. Her allegiances appear to be with Lee, not the Democratic Party.

Lee also cut a $160,000 check to the mysterious group Alpha Elephant Data, according to his FEC filings. It’s actually Elephant Data, Vox confirmed — Vernon’s “conservative campaign solutions” consulting company — which started work sometime in March or April. (Vernon said she didn’t remember when the consulting company began.)

What does Vernon’s consulting company do? “We run the ads, and we try to target the kinds of voter that would lean to Dr. Lee, and then we tried to target those voters,” she told Vox. “He wants to win this election — but he does not have any connection to get Democrat support.”

The race for the 39th District is important for Democrats

Lee is running for an open seat that Democrats think they can win. Anchored in Orange County, the district covers Fullerton and Yorba Linda. Politically, the district is a toss-up, with the Cook Political Report saying it leans Democratic. Hillary Clinton won the district by 8.5 points, making it prime territory to get swept up in a potential blue wave in 2018.

But there are six Democratic candidates. Needless to say, Lee is not the frontrunner.

For months, two other wealthy Democrats have been in an ugly battle for a spot on the November ballot. Gil Cisneros, a former Navy officer and 2010 lottery winner (he won $266 million) is on the DCCC’s Red to Blue list, which is as close as the national campaign arm gets to endorsing a candidate. He’s up against Andy Thorburn, a health insurance executive and former teacher.

The two have been in a mudslinging match including allegations of tax fraud and legal action over a voicemail. Cisneros is claiming Thorburn released a “fabricated” voice message in which a voice sounding like Cisneros warns Thorburn he’s going to go negative. There’s also another Democrat in the running, pediatrician Mai Khanh Tran, who has been endorsed by Emily’s List.

Meanwhile, the field of Republicans running in this race is just as deep as the Democratic side. Three stand out: Shawn Nelson, the Orange County supervisor; Bob Huff, who is the former state Senate minority leader; and Young Kim, who has served in the state Assembly.

The party infighting has opened up Democrats to the possibility of getting shut out of the general election altogether — which could take a toll on their hopes of retaking the House.

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