Compared to the 2010 election cycle, California would not appear to figure prominently in terms of national interest: After all, there will be no hotly contested presidential primary, and Sen. Dianne Feinstein is so invulnerable that the best known Republican who dared to file against her is Orly Taitz. Even so, many eyes will be on California this June—not only because California could be the key to a Democratic takeover of the House of Representatives, but also because how California voters respond to recent changes in election law could be the factor for whether such attempts at reform succeed or fail in other states.
Two recent major changes to California's elections have shaken up the way the state's politicians and candidates usually do business. Traditionally, the Democratic-controlled legislature had the power to draw new decennial legislative and congressional boundaries after every census. This process ensured that Democratic incumbents would, for the most part, have safe districts to run in, with the districts that were drawn to be Republican ending up competitive once in a blue moon, depending on demographic shifts and voter attitudes. In 2008, however, voters passed Proposition 11 by less than two percentage points. This measure took the power to draw legislative districts out of the hands of the legislature, and put it in the hands of an independent redistricting commission (a later measure expanded the mandate of this commission to redraw congressional district lines as well). In drawing its final maps, the commissioners are not allowed to consider party affiliation or the residence locations of individual legislators.
For a variety of reasons, the new configurations promise better results for Democrats overall, especially in races for Congress and the state Senate: Even though the partisan advantages are not as strong, there are more seats that Democrats should win. The wrinkle, however, comes in the fact that unlike redistricting jobs done by the legislature, the redistricting commission designed maps that did not take incumbents' residency into consideration. In some cases, more than one incumbent was drawn into the same district, forcing some to either scramble for new districts, or run against each other.
But that's not the only wrinkle. In 2010, the state's voters also passed Proposition 14, which abolished partisan primaries in favor of a so-called "top two" primary in which all candidates from all parties appear on the primary ballot and declare their party preference, or no preference at all. The only reason Proposition 14 made it onto the ballot at all was because of our former state Sen. and Lt. Gov. Abel Maldonado. During his time in the state Senate, Mr. Maldonado, who realized that he would likely never win a Republican primary in the state because of Republican racism, was the one Republican vote Democrats were targeting in order to meet the requisite two-thirds vote to pass a budget. In exchange for his "aye" vote, a deal was struck to put Proposition 14 on the ballot.
The theory behind Proposition 14 was that since candidates are now required to appeal to all voters in the primary as opposed to merely the ones in their own party, moderates and centrists will do better. But the most tangible effect could be very negative for Democrats. Because the top two candidates advance to the general election regardless of party, hotly contested Democratic districts could face a situation where two popular Democrats advance to the general election and are forced to fight through November what in normal circumstances would have been resolved in June.
Combine the first go-around with the top-two primary and all-new districts, and it adds up to a very unpredictable election. With that in mind, here are some races to watch on June 5th, as well as some potential implications.
- Democratic congressional pickups: If Democrats are going to have any chance at retaking the House of Representatives, they will need to clean house in California. While redistricting has made certain Republican incumbents more vulnerable, the key opportunities are in the open seats. The more traditional race is occurring in the 41st district, centered around Riverside County in the southeast part of the state. Situations arising from redistricting forced long-term Republican Congressman Jerry Lewis to retire, leaving an open, Democratic-leaning district. The top Democrat is openly gay community college board member Mark Takano, who will likely be facing off against Republican John Tavaglione. A strong performance by Takano in the primary would bode well for his chances in November.
Further to the northwest, Republican Congressman Elton Gallegly's 24th District, centered around coastal Ventura County, was redrawn to lean Democratic. This prompted Gallegly to retire, leaving the seat (numbered the 26th) open. Unlike the 41st, however, the dynamics of this race are more complicated. The leading Democrat is progressive Assemblymember Julia Brownley, who will be opposed by conservative Republican state Sen. Tony Strickland. The wild card in the race, however, is Ventura County Supervisor Linda Parks. Formerly a moderate Republican who received bitter challenges for her seat from Tony's wife Audra, Parks recently left the Republican Party and is running for Congress under the banner of "no party preference" (while making the weirdest ad so far this cycle). This is exactly the situation proponents of Proposition 14 had in mind: Will the avowedly centrist and non-partisan campaign of Linda Parks propel her into the top two, or will Brownley and Strickland face off against each other in a more traditional matchup?
Among challenges to incumbents, perhaps the top race will be in the 7th District, where Dr. Ami Bera will be issuing his third straight solid challenge to Republican Dan Lungren—but this time, on more favorable turf.
- Clash of the titans: No matter what, two Democratic incumbents will lose their seats in November, but not because of Republicans. Rather, in two Los Angeles area Congressional Districts, two Democratic members of Congress will be squaring off against each other. By far the higher-profile battle is occurring in Congressional District 30 in the San Fernando Valley (yes, that valley) between powerful Congressman Howard Berman, ranking member of the House Committee on Foreign Affairs, and follow valley Congressman Brad Sherman. This race is pitting friends against friends in Democratic activist circles, and is a contrast in styles: Sherman is well-known personally in the district and is banking on support from grassroots Democratic activists, while Berman is campaigning on his history of accomplishments in Washington. Interestingly, Berman's allies are also taking advantage of the top-two primary system by courting Republican votes: An allied SuperPAC is running ads touting an endorsement from arch-conservative Darrell Issa. Both campaigns are extremely well funded, and are likely to emerge as the top two finishers and advance to the November primary; but who finishes in first will be a good test as to whether voters prefer grassroots endorsements or more institutional support.
Meanwhile, in the 44th Congressional District in South Los Angeles, freshman Congresswoman Janice Hahn, who first won a seat in the special election to replace Jane Harman after her retirement from the 36th District, will face off against Congresswoman Laura Richardson. There are unavoidable racial dynamics in this district: It is a majority African-American district, but Janice Hahn, who is white, used to represent a substantial part of it on the Los Angeles City Council and remains popular here. Hahn won the overwhelming endorsement of the California Democratic Party over Richardson, who has been under a constant cloud of ethics violations for some time. This one could get ugly: Richardson has shown that she is not above using identity politics to win a seat. Whether that will work against Janice Hahn remains to be seen.
- Winning the Senate: Democrats are just shy of winning the two-thirds majority necessary to pass whatever they want in the state Senate (according to our constitution, a two-thirds supermajority is required to pass anything that raises revenues). In order to do that, though, they absolutely must have a solid Democratic vote in the 19th Senate District, but that might be easier said than done. This is another race where the top-two primary could have a significant effect. The endorsed candidate of the Democratic Party is Hannah-Beth Jackson, a progressive former Assemblymember who nearly beat current state Sen. Tony Strickland (who is now running for Congress) back in 2008, but fell a few hundred votes short. On the Republican side, she is opposed by Mike Stoker, who ran unsuccessfully for Assembly in 2010. The widespread expectation is that whichever Democrat makes the general election will defeat Stoker in November. That makes it important to have the right Democrat. Unfortunately, there's another Democrat, Jason Hodge, who is trying to use the top-two primary to his advantage. He is running to the right of Jackson, labeling himself as the "Democrat who doesn't think you need higher taxes" and undermining the Democratic Party as it unites behind a crucial revenue measure destined for the November ballot. In apparent appreciation, conservative interests are running mailers supporting Hodge, apparently realizing that Stoker has no chance and that a Hodge victory is the best way to advance their agenda. While a Democrat will win this seat regardless, which Democrat it is could make a huge difference as to whether progressive legislation advances through the state Senate.
- Significant Assembly races:
There's an outside chance that Democrats could achieve a two-thirds threshold in the state Assembly as well, but everything would have to go right. The main priority for Democrats is in the newly created 66th District, which encompasses the so-called South Bay in the greater Los Angeles area. This is a very swingy district with a marginal Democratic registration advantage. The leading Democrat in this race, Al Muratsuchi, is being opposed by two tea party Republicans, including Craig Huey. For those unfamiliar with Craig Huey, he ran unsuccessfully against now-Congresswoman Janice Hahn in the aforementioned special election, and his allies are responsible for what could be considered the most racist, sexist and generally reprehensible campaign ad of all time.
But the Assembly race that many locals are observing more than any other is a Democratic dogfight in Assembly District 50. This deep blue seat in West Los Angeles and Malibu is expected to be a battle royale between current Assemblymember Betsy Butler and longtime progressive activist Torie Osborn. Butler represents much of the turf that is now in the aforementioned district 66; however, her residence was redistricted into a third district that already contained a sitting Assemblymember who represented a much larger portion of their mutual district. Rather than face a more difficult fight in the 66th, Butler chose to move to the new 50th District, even though she only represents about one percent of it currently. Problem? Torie Osborn, who is a legend in the LGBT and social justice movements, had been running for whichever seat emerged for that region for a long time, and had already garnered a broad fundraising base and important local endorsements. What has followed is a classic "activists versus institutions" slugfest that is straining friendships and dividing traditional allies. While Butler has the official support of the California Democratic Party, Osborn has gained the support of nearly every single local Democratic club in the district. Local progressives are hoping to propel Osborn to victory to have a progressive activist who is unafraid to challenge the orthodoxy, while Butler has raised a large portion of her money from fellow politicians in Sacramento. There is a third Democrat running who is going to gain some support, as well as one Republican. While the ideal outcome of this race in June from a generic Democratic perspective would be to have the three Democrats split the vote in such a way that the lone Republican advances to the runoff in this deep blue seat, the likelihood is that Butler and Osborn will advance to the general election and slug this out through November. Who wins this could have significant ramifications on future candidacies in redistricting years: If Osborn is able to take this seat despite the full power of Sacramento supporting Butler, it might provide impetus for other challengers to buck the system in redistricting years. But if Butler is able to move into a district she doesn't represent and have Sacramento money and endorsements carry her to victory over a powerful candidate like Osborn, it might similarly dissuade others from making such challenges in the future. Therefore, while most other people might be wondering what the big deal is, the results of this race will resonate deeply within the halls of power here in California.
These are just some of the things to watch for as the California returns come in on June 5th. How will it end up? Stay tuned. On June 10th, I'll analyze the carnage—live from Netroots Nation in Providence, Rhode Island.
DISCLOSURE: I have endorsed both Brad Sherman and Janice Hahn. In addition to endorsing Torie Osborn, I have also volunteered extensively for her campaign.