Gary Miller
Rep. Gary Miller (R-CA), whose career was saved by California's open primaries in 2012.
If the man in the photo above is someone that you fail to recognize, you are forgiven. For over a decade now, Republican Congressman Gary Miller has been the epitome of the nondescript, archconservative Republican politician, plying his trade in the rolling hills and valleys in a tri-county area roughly 25 miles east of Los Angeles.

For most of his career, Miller's district was so conservative (two of the largest cities within the district were blood red communities in northern Orange County: Mission Viejo and Yorba Linda) that he would be carried to victory with minimal effort. From his initial election in 1998 until his final win under the old lines in 2010, Miller's average vote total (not counting an unopposed run in 2006) was 62 percent of the vote.

Then, in 2011, Miller's world got considerably worse. The newly created California Citizens Redistricting Commission carved up Miller's comfortable district, leaving him with the less-than-agreeable choice of diving into a neighboring district already held by a Republican incumbent, or moving into the one open district that had any of his previous district's constituents: the newly minted 31st district.

The problem? Miller could no longer count on a reliably conservative district. The new 31st district went 56-41 for Barack Obama in 2008, and Democrats immediately put Miller onto a document he had never seen before in his 14 years: the DCCC target list.

Alas, two years later, Miller is still a member of the House of Representatives. A citizen initiative (the redistricting commission) almost cost him his career. But it was another citizen initiative—the concept of holding "open" primaries—that saved him.

Read beyond the fold for how Miller's job was salvaged, how Republicans have almost benefitted from this elsewhere, and why they will almost certainly do so again.

In 2010, the voters passed Proposition 14, a measure to install a "top-two" primary system in California.

Under a "top-two" primary structure, all candidates for a particular political office, regardless of party, appear on the same ballot, which is distributed to all voters. Then, the top two vote-getters advance to the general election. Again, this is regardless of party, making it possible for the general election to be a faceoff between two Republicans, or alternately, two Democrats.

One of the chief authors of this measure was an organization called the Independent Voter Project. One of the stated purposes was to strengthen the hand of independent (or, as they refer to them in California, "Decline to State") voters:

The Top Two Open Primary forces candidates to face all voters, including independents, in both the primary and the general elections. In most communities, this means that candidates and elected officials will have to answer to, and appeal to, a broader electorate rather than to the more narrow interests that can dominate low turnout primaries.
With 27 percent of the electorate in California registered outside of the Democratic-Republican duopoly, and the popularity of the two parties at a low ebb even among their own members in many cases, the  measure passed in the spring of 2010 with 54 percent of the vote.

2012 was the first statewide election under the new primary structure, and just a few hours after the polls closed, the first palpable problems with the system became readily apparent. And the aforementioned Gary Miller was at the center of it.

Miller was not given a free ride from his fellow Republicans in his bid for a seventh term in the House. Veteran state legislator Bob Dutton challenged Miller in the reconfigured district, in which Miller retained only a fraction of his old district (the part that lies within San Bernardino County).

Miller's salvation, however, lay on the Democratic side. With the district being a legitimate Democratic target, a quartet of serious contenders decided to run for the seat, led by Redlands Mayor Pete Aguilar. Even in the GOP-heavy primary vote (47 percent of the primary vote was cast in the GOP presidential primary, versus just 51 percent in the Democratic presidential primary), the Democrats were very nearly at parity with the GOP in terms of total votes in the district.

And, yet, when the top two "golden tickets" were punched for November, there was not a Democrat to be found in the top two. In an ironic flurry of unintended consequences, two things that would ordinarily be seen as perilous for Miller wound up being his ticket to re-election.

The serious Republican challenger, in the form of former state Sen. Dutton, wound up being a godsend, because they almost evenly split the 52 percent of the electorate that voted GOP. When the official results were tallied, Miller had notched 27 percent of the vote, with Dutton hot on his heels at 25 percent of the vote.

Meanwhile, the renewed interest in the purple-to-blue district among Democrats also saved Miller's bacon, because none of the four contenders was utterly dominant on the Democratic side of the ledger. Aguilar was able to get nearly half of the votes cast among Democrats, but former Hill staffer Justin Kim did fairly well in his own right, while frequent state legislative candidate Renea Wickman and Rita Ramirez-Dean both scored in the mid-single digits. The net result? Aguilar wound up with 22.6 percent of the vote, good enough only for third place.

Thus, despite the fact that a majority of district voters had cast their ballots for Barack Obama in 2008 (and would do so again, even more decisively, in 2012), the general election for the U.S. House would give area voters a choice between ... two Republicans. Interestingly, one school of thought (which I share) is that this also worked in Miller's favor. Occasionally tinged with scandal (and also diminished by the general anti-incumbent mood), it seems likely that Democratic voters sided with him over Dutton in November, rationalizing that it will be easier to beat the damaged Miller in 2014 than the more benign Dutton, who Miller defeated 55-45 in November.

A similar scenario could well play out in 2014 in the very same district, among the bluest districts in America held by a Republican incumbent. Once again, there is already a quartet of legitimate Democratic candidates in place trying to claim the California 31st. Aguilar is back for a second shot at the brass ring, and to his credit, he is the only one that has raised serious cash. However, all three of his opponents have at least the potential to be players by next spring. Most prominent among these is former Rep. Joe Baca, who served in the House for well over a decade until his defeat last November at the hands of Gloria Negrete McLeod in the neighboring 35th district. Add local school board member Danny Tillman, and attorney Eloise Gomez Reyes, and the Democratic field in the 31st is taking on the appearance of a clown car yet again. Thus far, the only saving grace is that Miller appears to be the only other candidate running. If that holds, the Democrats will get a spot in the November runoff in spite of themselves, and Miller will be assuredly become a top-tier target for the DCCC.

The same scenario came dangerously close to occurring again on the state legislative level this past week. In a special election to replace Democrat Norma Torres (who was recently elected to the state Senate) in AD-52, seven Democrats filed for the seat, along with a Republican Dorothy Pineda and "Independent" candidate Paul Leon, the mayor of Ontario, who was last seen only a few months ago as the Republican challenger to Norma Torres in that state Senate special election.

Early in the evening, the folly of the top-two system was looming. Democrats combined for right around 60 percent of the vote, but because their votes were spread fairly evenly, and there were only two Republicans (open or concealed) in the mix, a scant 35 votes separated Democrat Freddie Rodriguez from Republican Dorothy Pineda, with "independent" Paul Leon well out in front. Rodriguez, thankfully, pulled away, coming in second in the open primary with 22 percent of the vote. He will be the strong favorite in the special general election, since Democrats combined for 60.3 percent of the votes in round one. But this could've been disastrous, and in defiance of popular will, yet again.

In fact, the ability for Rodriguez to make the runoff and face Leon was based largely on a raft of early money that had to be spent on his behalf. Rodriguez, a city councilman from among the largest cities in the district (Pomona), had over $350,000 in independent expenditures spent on his behalf in the closing weeks of the election. This wave of cash from party coffers and those of sympathetic groups like the teachers' union, which ordinarily would be reserved for a general election. But those organizations felt compelled to dump some early money into the race, in order to ensure that Rodriguez even made it to the general election.

Interestingly, I predicted that this might happen in a post-mortem that I wrote about the new California primary system over thirteen months ago:

If one of the rationales for this system was to weaken the influence of political parties, it may have failed miserably. Because one has to assume now that parties in 2014 will be working double time to clear the decks for their preferred candidates in the filing process. Whether it is indirect "take one for the team pressure," or a raft of party assistance being dropped in the laps of the favored horses in the field, one has to guess that the sting of losing a winnable district will compel the Democrats (and the GOP, if they were paying close attention) to interfere more in the primary process, not less.
Another inherent flaw in the "top two" structure is that it drains resources that could otherwise be used to further party goals. Nowhere, and I mean nowhere, was this more apparent than in Southern California's San Fernando Valley, where the epic "Shberman" showdown occurred last November between veteran Democratic incumbents Howard Berman and Brad Sherman. The two Washington stalwarts, both of whom have been there for over 15 years, were the runaway top-two votegetters in June in this heavily Democratic slice of Los Angeles County. That necessitated an ugly, and absurdly expensive, repeat in November, one easily won by Sherman with over 60 percent of the vote.

When all was said and done, however, these two Democrats had spent over $11.9 million trying to beat...each other. One suspects that money, donated by Democrats, could've been better used elsewhere.

Even the stated goal of trying to bring Independent voices into the mix seems to have failed. Among the staunchest critics of the new system, as it happened, were those who work with third parties like the Greens and Libertarians. Their complaint? The new system essentially knocks them out of the box in June, when only a fraction of the state's registered voters even bother to show up at the polls.

The open primary system was well-intentioned, but as the old saying goes, the road to Hell is paved with good intentions. If voters are not willing to scrap the primary structure all together, it needs several fixes to it, at a minimum. A party should never be penalized for encouraging multiple candidates to seek an office, so a logical starting point would be to eliminate the possibility of a single party holding both general election positions. Time will tell if the two major political parties, or merely those interested in solid representative governance, will try to put a measure to that effect on the ballot.

Originally posted to Daily Kos Elections on Sun Jul 28, 2013 at 08:59 AM PDT.

Also republished by Daily Kos.

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