California’s new “top-two” primary system has some Golden State Democrats worried. Though they’re confident about holding onto the seat being vacated by departing U.S. Senator Barbara Boxer in 2016, Democrats may come to rue the new set-up, which allows the two top vote-getters to advance to the general election, regardless of party affiliation. In a low-turnout primary crowded with vote-splitting Democratic candidates, it’s not out of the question that two Republicans could lead the field. That almost happened in one of last year’s statewide primaries.
In the June 2014 primary for state controller, two Republicans squared off against three Democrats and a Green Party candidate. Republican David Evans, an unknown accountant from Central California, spent just $600 on the race but managed to garner 850,109 votes thanks to his bare-bones ballot statement—“Most qualified for Controller”—and the clever ballot designation he put after his name: “Chief Financial Officer.” Fresno mayor Ashley Swearengin (a Republican) eventually won the primary, but Evans held the second-place spot for several days while votes were counted—putting him ahead of the two leading Democrats—until he was finally edged out. He finished fourth, with less than one percentage point separating him from the second-place finisher, Democrat Betty Yee. If Evans had held on, two Republicans would have competed in the general election, ensuring the first statewide GOP victory in almost a decade. Yee went on to beat Swearengin in November.
For Democrats, it was an uncomfortably close call. Democratic political consultant Garry South summarized the implications: “One of the lessons we’ve learned in ’12, and now in ’14, is that in a very low turnout primary, which this was, with a disproportionate share of Republicans turning out, Democrats have to be careful they don’t overload the ballot with candidates splitting too few Democratic voters.” These are the conditions of almost every California primary, however.
Reformers had hoped that the top-two primary structure would put more moderates on the general election ballot. It’s not yet clear that this is occurring. What’s certain is that the system is proving problematic for California’s Democrats, who have long dominated statewide offices. The reasons are two-fold. First, as South describes, with lower turnouts and higher percentages of Republicans participating, primaries are more challenging for California Democrats. Total voter participation figures still favor Democrats in these races, but it’s a much closer split than in the general election. Second, with a deeper bench of potential candidates, California Democrats have too many contenders for a limited number of statewide offices.
Even in traditional primaries, operatives of both parties have long practiced the art of “clearing the field” to limit the number of candidates on the ballot. The top-two primary amplifies the importance of field-clearing. Paradoxically, the new system was meant to weaken the political parties’ sway over the primary process, but it may wind up strengthening it. A reform intended to increase options for voters might actually reduce them.
The 2016 Senate primary is already exposing potential cleavages on the Democratic side. The first Democrat to declare for the seat being vacated by Boxer is state attorney general Kamala Harris, a woman of Jamaican-American and Indian descent. But discontent is mounting among Latino Democrats. The California Latino Legislative Caucus recently made a public call for a Latino to run for the Senate seat. Former Los Angeles mayor Antonio Villaraigosa contemplated a run but bowed out this week. Latino attentions have shifted to Orange County congresswoman Loretta Sanchez and Los Angeles congressman Xavier Becerra.
As Los Angeles Times Sacramento columnist George Skelton recently wrote, “Latinos feel insulted by blacks. Angelenos are suspicious of San Franciscans. Democrats are squabbling. It’s inevitable. It’s the unintended consequence of a one-party dominated state.” And the unintended consequence of a top-two primary system may well be to exacerbate these conflicts.