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Is Antonio Villaraigosa potentially the state's first Hispanic governor since 1875, or is he a spoiler who will split the Democratic primary vote? We'll find out June 5.
Is Antonio Villaraigosa potentially the state's first Hispanic governor since 1875, or is he a spoiler who will split the Democratic primary vote? We'll find out June 5.

State's Top-Two Primary System Could Create Unintended Consequences on June 5

At ballparks, hawkers used to cry out, “You can’t tell the players without a program!”

The same holds true in California, especially when it comes to the June primary elections. While political consultants are poring over late poll and turnout numbers and campaign managers are dragging their candidates up and down the state, voters often find themselves wondering, “Who are these guys?”

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When voters go to the polls on Tuesday, June 5, they can expect thick ballots to dig through as they look to decide the finalists for 53 U.S. Congress seats, 80 state Assembly seats and 20 of 40 state Senate spots. Also on the ballot are state executive offices, including governor, six propositions, a Senate primary and assorted judicial and municipal elections.

This being California, some of the most fun can be found in the governor’s race. Although no adult film stars are on the ballot this year, a transhumanist lecturer and a puppeteer (not the same person) are in the mix for governor. The race features 27 candidates, including 12 Democrats and six Republicans, three write-in candidates and 26 formerly announced contenders who have since pulled out, according to Ballotpedia.

The political site also lists 32, count ’em, candidates for U.S. Senator Dianne Feinstein’s seat. That’s primary voting in all its whack-factor, free-for-all, this-is-what-democracy-looks-like tumult.

The heated political atmosphere — from anti-Trump sentiment to the #MeToo movement and immigration fears — has whipped up fervor among the Democrats’ rank-and-file and led to a situation where inexperienced candidates have been entering races, regardless of the preferences of party leadership. “In the long run, the number of candidates has had an impact and is an unforeseen consequence,” says political consultant Mac Zilber, of Jacobson and Zilber Strategies.

Leo Briones, a political consultant and president of Centaur North Communications, notes the potential for a one-sided primary. “For your traditional small-government Republican, there’s not a lot out there to be excited about,” he says. “Then you have a lot of pissed-off Democrats.”

Once the dust clears, it is an election that can have profound effects on the November general election. At play, in addition to local matters, are decisions that could decide what role California will play in the so-called “blue wave” national midterm election. The primary will decide whether Republicans will have meaningful candidates for the highest posts in state government and whether voters will have the opportunity to elect the state’s first Hispanic governor since 1875.

The state’s unusual “top-two” primary, which sends the top two vote-getters to the November election regardless of party, is partially responsible for the primary scramble. Voted into law in 2010, the system has turned the traditional Democratic-vs.-Republican general election on its ear. It also has pretty much pushed fringe parties off the field.

With the June whittling down, gone are the days when voters could walk in in November and simply vote their party. That’s because quite often what they see on the ballot are two guys from their own party or, worse, two from the other guy’s party.

In blue-hued California, that could be good news for Democrats, but it’s not a slam dunk. “Obviously the state leans Democratic, so in the top-two system you’re likely to come out with two Democratic contenders,” says political consultant and commentator Jasmyne Cannick. But not always. In their zeal to run out Republican candidates who may be vulnerable, large fields of Democratic candidates run the risk of splitting the vote and actually shutting themselves out of the November election.

In California, Republicans hold only 14 of 53 seats in Congress, but the CQ Roll Call has marked nine state races as competitive. Democrats hope to flip some of those seats, but in some cases the top-two system could work against them.

A number of the battleground districts are in the Southland, and two have Los Angeles connections. Longtime incumbent Republican Ed Royce, whose 39th District bleeds into eastern portions of Los Angeles County, is retiring, leaving an open seat. And while Hillary Clinton won the 39th District in the presidential election, Royce easily kept his seat. Although Democrats covet the spot, Republican candidates Young Kim, a former state assemblywoman, and Orange County Supervisor Shawn Nelson have emerged on the Republican side, while Democrats Gil Cisneros and Sam Jammal could cancel each other out and bounce Democrats from the general election.

Although not in Los Angeles County, Dana Rohrabacher’s attempt to hang on in the 48th District is another race where the top-two system could bite Democrats. Although Orange County was once “America’s Most Republican County,” the Grand Old Party now holds only a slim 2.8 percent margin and actually favored Clinton over Donald Trump in the presidential election. Meanwhile, the 15-term Rohrabacher has been stepping all over himself, drawing scrutiny for cozying to Russians and recently blurting that it was OK not to sell houses to gay people. Gaffes like that could certainly cost him a general election.

However, name recognition alone may get Rohrbacher into the final, which he won by more than 16 points in 2016. Whether he would face a Democrat, or fellow Republican and former Orange County Republican chairman Scott Baugh, is an open question. Nine Democrats jumped into the pool, led by Harley Rouda and Hans Keirstead,  to oust Rohrabacher, and although four have withdrawn, three unofficially, it remains to be seen if the waters have been sufficiently muddied beyond repair.

A district where the Democrats have a chance to take on the Republicans the old-fashioned way is in the 25th Congressional District, which includes parts of the Simi, Santa Clarita and Antelope valleys. Incumbent Steve Knight is the lone Republican candidate there. He has been labeled a “Trump enabler” for hewing close to the president’s positions on issues ranging from health care to foreign relations. His adherence to Trump on a variety of immigration issues also has angered Latino constituents.

Democrats hold a slight numbers advantage in the district, which voted for Hillary Clinton, and have earmarked the district as a prime flip possibility. However, Knight defeated Bryan Caforio 53 percent to 47 percent in 2016. Caforio, along with fast-rising 30-year-old candidate Katie Hill, who ran the nonprofit People Assisting the Homeless (PATH), lead the four-candidate Democratic pack.

“In the Antelope Valley, there are a lot of Republicans that hold seats that are prime for the taking,” Cannick says. The reason, she says, is that many Democrats have been priced out of Los Angeles into areas such as Palmdale, San Bernardino and Riverside and are challenging the Republican holds there.

In November 2018, voters nationally will elect more than 6,000 state legislators, 435 U.S. representatives, 33 senators and 36 governors. California became the third state to adopt the top-two primary system, joining Washington and Nebraska, where the state Legislature is technically nonpartisan and does not list affiliation on the ballot. The system has been in place in California since voters approved Proposition 14 in 2010.

According to Peter Gemma of the Daily Caller, a political website, the effect of the top-two system in 2016 was to put a number of Republicans on the sidelines in the general election. Seven of 53 U.S. House races, five of 20 state Senate contests and 15 of 80 Assembly races became single-party contests in the general election.

When Democrats Kamala Harris and Loretta Sanchez squared off in the U.S. Senate race, it was the first time since 1914, when direct election of U.S. Senators began, that a Republican candidate was not on the ballot.

While such results may be good for a single party, they are not necessarily the best thing for voters and the democratic process, according to some. “It runs the risk of shutting out one group,” says Jennilee Brown, a consultant with Thomas Partners Strategies. “If you disengage Republicans, it tempers their outlook,” she says, which can lead to one-sided voter turnouts.

Political consultant Briones says of the system, “I think it’s doing what it was intended to do,” which is to make candidates more moderate.

Brown contends the overly large primary fields have the opposite effect and are polarizing because they force candidates to “swing hard left or right to carve their own lane.”

The gubernatorial run by former Los Angeles mayor Antonio Villaraigosa shines an interesting sidelight on the top-two system, Briones says. While Democratic favorite Gavin Newsom is the clear frontrunner, Villaraigosa is scrambling to vault over the Republican favorite, Trump-endorsed John Cox, and Democratic state Treasurer John Chiang.

In a different time, when the general election would be Democrat vs. Republican, Villaraigosa may not have even run. And if he had, his odds would be a lot longer in a Democrat-only primary. However, Latino voters, knowing they have a historic chance to put a Hispanic candidate in the general election, are expected to show up in strong numbers for the primary. The ripple effect of that could be considerable and is something Democrats believe augurs well for them elsewhere. “He has run a robust campaign,” Briones says of Villaraigosa. “Has it been enough to get into the runoff? I think so.”

If Republicans are shut out of the governor’s race and Kevin de León succeeds in joining fellow Democrat Feinstein in the Senate showdown, it may force a reckoning among Republicans. “Republicans have a structural problem,” Briones says. “I don’t know what’s going to happen. They’re going to have to remake it.”

From Brown’s perspective, President Trump’s rebounding approval numbers will help Republican candidates in the state and spur voters out to stop the “blue wave.” “I think Republican turnout will be good,” she says.

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