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For Democrats, California's top-two primary brings mixed blessings

The Daily Rundown's Chuck Todd is joined by the AP's Kasie Hunt, Stu Rothenberg,  Roll Call's Nathan Gonzales, and NBC's Kelly O'Donnell to take a look over noteworthy results from Tuesday's Senate and House primaries, as well as the a few notable initiatives facing American voters.

Updated at 5:04 pm ET In Democrats’ efforts to gain the 25 seats they need to retake control of the House, Tuesday’s primary election outcome in California was one step forward -- and one step back.

California was using a new primary system in which the two biggest vote-getters in each congressional district advance to the November ballot.

In some districts – such as the 8th Congressional district along the Nevada border – voters will pick from two Republicans in November, while in other places such as the 15th district in the Bay area, voters will have two Democrats from which to choose.

In one competitive district —the 31st in Ventura County – Democrats had run a risk that independent Linda Parks would finish second to Republican state Sen. Tony Strickland, leaving no Democrat on the November ballot.

But the Democrats averted that outcome due in part to an extraordinary $700,000 in spending – most of it for TV ads – by a Democratic super PAC, the House Majority PAC, helping boost Democrat Julia Brownley who finished second with 27 percent to Strickland’s 44 percent on Tuesday. Strickland now will face Brownley in November in a district that voted for President Barack Obama in 2008.

House Majority PAC Executive Director Ali Lapp said this “represents a prime Democratic pick-up opportunity in the fall.”

But Democrats suffered a surprising and costly defeat in the 31st District – identified by House race expert David Wasserman of the non-partisan Cook Political Report as “a must-win for Democrats.”

Their candidate Pete Aguilar won only 23 percent of the vote – leaving two Republicans, deep-pocketed seven-term incumbent Gary Miller and state Sen. Bob Dutton, to square off against each other in November.

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Aguilar’s failure was a “devastating blow,” said Daniel Scarpinato, a spokesman for the National Republican Congressional Committee.

“It’s looking like House Democrats’ road to 25 just hit a dead end,” said Dan Conston, spokesman for the Congressional Leadership Fund, a Republican Super PAC that has raised more than $5 million from casino mogul Sheldon Adelson and others to invest in House races. “With the California battlefield now set, House Republicans stand in a remarkably strong position in a state that was supposed to be the Democrats’ golden ticket to the majority.”

The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee had favored Aguilar, placing him on its Red-to-Blue list as a signal to donors. In April DCCC chairman Rep. Steve Israel said, “Pete is building a strong campaign to bring his common sense leadership to Washington and stand up for San Bernardino County's middle class and seniors, not millionaires and mega corporations."

Backed by contributions from Democratic House leaders Nancy Pelosi, Steny Hoyer and Jim Clyburn and raising more than $330,000, Aguilar also got support from a relatively small Sacramento-based Super PAC called Restoring Our Community which spent its money on phone-banking efforts and door-to-door field organizing to boost Aguilar.

In contrast, the House Majority PAC – which stayed out of the Aguilar race – waged the air war on television for Brownley and will likely do so again in the fall.

It’s worth noting that much of the funding for the House Majority PAC comes from public-sector labor unions – including the American Federation of Teachers and the American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees.

Those public-sector unions suffered a stinging defeat Tuesday in Wisconsin when Gov. Scott Walker overcame a recall effort. Walker had signed legislation curbing the unions’ bargaining power and impeding their dues collecting and thus their fund-raising.

Commenting Wednesday on Walker’s victory, DCCC Chairman Rep. Steve Israel said in a written statement, “The Wisconsin results should serve as a wake-up call for Democrats: on the ground organizing is critically important, but it must be coupled with an aggressive air campaign.”

Referring to Democrats’ loss of the majority in 2010, Israel added, “I’ve long said that Republicans didn’t beat Democrats in 2010, Karl Rove and (the) Koch brothers did after the Citizens United decision … Without robust air cover, the voice of the middle class will be silenced.”

Asked about Aguilar’s loss, DCCC spokeswoman Jennifer Crider said Wednesday, “It was disappointing but we have other opportunities that more than make up for that.”

Case in point: the San Diego/La Jolla based district now represented by Republican Brian Bilbray. In Tuesday’s primary Bilbray won 41 percent, compared to a combined Democratic vote of 46 percent. The DCCC has high hopes for Scott Peters who will be the Democrat on the November ballot. Crider called Bilbray “a poster child for what’s wrong with Washington,” partly due to his lobbying during the interim between his two tours of duty in the House.  Like the Ventura County district, Bilbray’s is one that Obama carried in 2008.

On the GOP side, Scarpinato pointed to what Republicans see as encouraging news from California in Rep. Mary Bono Mack’s race in her Palm Springs district. She won 58 percent to 42 percent for Democrat Dr. Raul Ruiz – they were the only two candidates on Tuesday’s ballot. “We now know that race isn’t really in play,” Scarpinato said, but Democrats say the November electorate will be much more favorable to Ruiz.

Yet here as in the other House races, money – and TV ads – will be crucial and the Congressional Leadership Fund’s $5 million is one indicator that Republicans may have the edge in resources.

Democrats will have to watch over the next several months as millions of additional dollars will be invested in the incumbent versus incumbent match between Rep. Howard Berman, the 15-term Democratic congressman who is battling rival Democrat, eight-term Rep. Brad Sherman. Redistricting put the two Democrats in the same district.

Next door in Arizona, Republicans have their own money pit, as Reps. Ben Quayle and David Schweikert battle each other. As of the end of March, Quayle had raised $1.3 million to Schweikert’s $1 million. That struggle will drag on until Arizona’s Aug. 28 primary.

Since incumbents have deep donor networks, such member vs. member races consume money that could probably be better used in competitive inter-party races elsewhere.

Note: The original version of this story said that two Democrats were the top two finishers in California's Second congressional district. In fact, the top two were Democrat Jared Huffman and Republican Daniel Roberts, according to the California Secretary of State's web site.