When California reverted back to a June primary this year, it was a qualified risk. After all, it made it a near-certainty that the Golden State, and its 15 million voters, would in all probability be irrelevant to the presidential sweepstakes.
However, due to a change in state electoral procedure precipitated by a 2010 voter initiative, California will still manage to get a lot of attention on Tuesday night, as its "top two" open primary takes place for the first time.
Until this year, voters in California participated in what was best defined as a "modified closed" primary structure. Simply put, if you registered with a partisan identification, you were locked in to participate only in the primary elections for the party to which you belonged. The only people with freedom of choice, as it happened, were the roughly one in five California voters who declined to state affiliation with a party. Those folks were allowed to choose in which primary they wanted to take part.
Now, outside of the presidential ballot (a previous open primary law in the late 1990s ran afoul in court over presidential selection procedures), everyone gets the same ballot. For every other electoral contest, all candidates (regardless of party) will appear on one ballot. The two candidates receiving the most votes, regardless of partisan affiliation, then move on to the general election in November.
California is not the pioneer of this particular concept—Washington already has this structure in place. But, with 12 percent of the House up for grabs, the Golden State is going to naturally get a lot of attention.
That attention is surely merited, especially when one realizes that this new system of primary elections is coupled with another critical sea change in California politics prompted by voter initiative—the commission-based redistricting of the California electoral map. The net result is a series of maps across the board where incumbency and classic political calculations were seemingly tossed out the window.
The net result is that a state that had fewer competitive races than Iowa over the past decade suddenly has more than a dozen legitimately competitive races for November on tap in the House and even more downballot in the state legislature. California, without question, is going to matter a great deal in November
Before that, however, in-state political observers are keenly interested in how this new primary election structure will impact California politics. There are three questions, in particular, that will all get answered by this time Wednesday:
1. Will the new system embolden Independent candidates, or kill them off?
Little in this new electoral structure has been more hotly debated than how candidates outside of the Democratic/Republican two-party framework will fare in this new system.
We'll know for certain when the results roll in, but here is an early, educated guess. There will be fewer of them in the mix come November, but there will be an increased chance that they can actually find themselves in elected office after November.
For an object example, let us look at CA-26, which is centered in Ventura County. On paper, the district is a swing district, with perhaps a modest lean favoring the Democrats. The three leading candidates on Tuesday's ballot are Republican state senator Tony Strickland, Democratic state Assemblywoman Julia Brownley, and Republican County Commissioner Linda Parks.
But Parks is not running as a Republican. She is running as an Independent, working double time to emphasize that she is running to be a bridge between the two parties.
Whether that stance is the product of legitimate conversion, or political calculation, is an open question. There is no question that Parks is less conservative than Strickland, and that might actually have played into the political calculation. To put it bluntly, there is no way in Hell that Parks could have made the top two as a Republican. But she has an outside shot at doing so as an Independent.
A similar calculation was made by state assemblyman Nathan Fletcher in San Diego, where he is running for Mayor, and also by Chad Condit, the son of former conservaDem Central Valley Rep. Gary Condit. Condit is seeking a spot on the November ballot in the Valley's 10th district, where he appears likely to miss the cut behind incumbent Republican Rep. Jeff Denham and astronaut (and star DCCC recruit) Jose Hernandez.
If one of these three makes the cutoff, then perhaps this shows a path to relevance for candidates outside of the two-party "monopoly." If all three fall by the wayside, then it would seem that complaints that the new system emboldens the two existing parties have at least some merit, since the relevance of third-party candidates would end in June, denying them the chance to remain relevant into November, even in a spoiler role.
2. Will June be a predictor for November in key races?
It is very telling that Republican Abel Maldonado, who is challenging veteran Democratic Rep. Lois Capps in CA-24 along the state's central coast, has already spent over a million dollars in his congressional bid. It is equally telling that Capps has already spent over $900,000. Because of the "open" nature of the primary, these elections can serve a purpose of acting as a bellwether for which races will be competitive come the Fall.
It is not a perfect method, of course: primary turnout will be a fraction of the turnout in November, which would make it logical to assume that Republicans should do better in June than they will do in November, given that more casual voters tend to lean left.
However, the heavy spending in that race, and others (the CA-07 rematch between Republican Rep. Dan Lungren and Democrat Ami Bera immediately comes to mind), tells us that a lot of candidates are running a very different campaign in this primary cycle than we might expect in a typical primary, where leading candidates tend to stay dormant and hoard their resources for the stretch run.
3. Will this new system inadvertently screw Democrats?
With money being so critical to electoral success, one of the unintended consequences of this new structure of elections may well be to dry up resources for some Democrats, simply because candidates having to rerun primaries in November will siphon up monies that might otherwise go to other Democrats who are going heads-up against Republican opponents.
The golden case in point here could well be the huge incumbent-on-incumbent showdown in LA's San Fernando Valley. Yes, I am referring to the Shberman Showdown, as veteran Congressmen Howard Berman and Brad Sherman compete in CA-30.
Here is a quite likely scenario to consider: Berman and Sherman, in this overwhelmingly Democratic district, could quite possibly emerge from Tuesday night as the two leading candidates out of the 30th district. If that happens, then the two of them would face each other again in a November rematch.
To date, the two men have already spent (gulp!) north of $5.5 million in their bid to stay in office. Democrats have to shudder to think how much more these two men will be able to raise in the five months to follow, should they both make the cut on Tuesday night.
A similar, though slightly cheaper, scenario is liable to take place down the road in south Los Angeles County, where incumbents Janice Hahn and Laura Richardson are squaring off in CA-44. They've spent $2.3 million between the two of them (with Hahn crushing Richardson 6-to-1), and they are virtually certain to be the top two.
There is unlikely to be a comparable case for the GOP in California. There is an outside chance that the open seat in the High Desert region of California (CA-08) could yield two Republicans transferring to the general, but that is a comparably lightly funded affair. The top two spenders thus far in the 8th have spent a mere $570K in comparison. Plus, there are so many Republicans vying for this seat that one of the two Democrats in the field seems a pretty safe bet to make it to November.
Next Sunday, we will revisit California and see how the first open primary in the Golden State in over a decade played out. One thing already seems certain: even after the incredible excitement of the Wisconsin recall elections, to say nothing of the five other primaries on deck Tuesday night, California is going to give political junkies a bunch of reasons to stay up really late on Tuesday night.
As you'd expect, the crew here at Daily Kos/Daily Kos Elections will be all over it on Tuesday night. We certainly hope you'll be here with us as the biggest election night (other than that one in November, of course) plays out.