California is a deep-blue state, and Republicans have a permanent minority in the legislature. But because the state constitution until 2010 required a two-thirds supermajority for passing a budget, the GOP decided to hold up the budget each and every year. Because they could.
We were a blue state with an Alabama budget—whose passage required giving up any tax increases whatsoever, atrocious cuts to social services, and then whatever political blackmail was required to get a couple Republican votes from Fresno or Santa Maria to get two-thirds.
One of those Republicans was State Sen. Abel Maldonado, who in 2009 only agreed to vote for that year's budget—if they put the top-two primary on the ballot, permanently changing how we elect folks in California. That passed in June 2010.
In November 2010, voters passed Proposition 25, which restored majority rule for passing the budget (although tax increases still require two-thirds.) And in November 2012, as California’s changing demographics kept getting bluer, Democrats achieved a two-thirds supermajority in the legislature. That is why, Sen. Schumer, you don’t see the same dysfunction anymore.
The move has had a moderating influence on both parties and a salutary effect on the political system and its ability to govern.
That’s what Chuck Schumer wants us to believe, but the facts in California say otherwise.
Top-two primary means more corporate Democrats
The top-two primary in California was supposed to rescue “moderate” Republicans like Abel Maldonado from the threat of a Tea Party challenge. But as state Democratic chairman John Burton predicted at the state party’s 2010 convention in Los Angeles, it was really more about helping big business elect more of their Democrats—with cross-over votes from Republicans.
Four years later, Burton’s prediction has proven right—as we have witnessed the rise of the corporate Democrat in deep-blue districts that should be electing progressive champions.
The rise of what might be called the Corporate Democrat can only be partly explained by shrinking GOP delegations in Sacramento. It is also the product of redistricting and effects of the “top-two primary,” by which members of the same political party can win the top two primary positions and then face off in November. Since then, powerful corporations, agricultural associations and other political high rollers have been turning away from their traditional Republican partners and placing more and more of their chips on the Democratic end of the table – specifically, on candidates like Marc Levine [of Marin County.]
Under the new rules, Silicon Valley Rep. Mike Honda
may have easily bested Ro Khanna in the June 2014 primary—but the “top-two” primary means that corporate Democrat Khanna still has a second bite at the apple, and will attempt to beat Honda with Republican votes. Under the new rules, Republicans can even cross over and pick their Democrat.
We saw this happen in June in legislative races, such as California’s 4th Assembly district—a deep blue district in wine country (Napa County and surroundings), where Democrats enjoy a 20-point registration edge. Progressive champion Mariko Yamada was elected under the old system, and is stepping down due to term limits. But her replacement in November will now be a choice between a Republican—and an ex-Republican turned corporate Democrat.
That’s because there were 3 Democrats and 1 Republican on the June ballot, and the top two finishers regardless of party moved on to November. The Republican came in first with 26 percent of the vote, followed by Democrat Bill Dodd
—an ex-Republican Napa County Supervisor with heavy funding from the Chamber of Commerce, who benefited because Republicans could now choose which Democrat moved ahead. Progressive Democrat (and labor-backed) candidate Dan Wolk came in a close third, and a fourth Democrat in the race played spoiler.
California will still have a solidly Democratic legislature, but enough corporate Democrats elected under the top-two primary recently colluded with Republicans to kill a fracking moratorium. Expect more of these losses in Sacramento, as Democrats from even deep-blue districts side with their corporate donors.
Top-two primary means Republican vs. Republican races in purple districts
Sometimes, the top-two primary allows for what could be winnable seats for Democrats into a November match-up between two Republicans. GOP Rep. Gary Miller of California’s 31st Congressional District (San Bernardino) dodged a bullet in 2012, when a crowded field of Democrats on the June ballot meant that he ended up facing another Republican.
Voters in that district, by the way, preferred Barack Obama over Mitt Romney—so coat-tails could have netted the blue team an extra House seat. But there was no Democrat on the November ballot, so it was a wasted opportunity.
Miller is retiring this year, and we almost had a repeat in that district. But Democrat Pete Aguilar managed to score a second-place finish in June (by less than 400 votes), so the blue team will at least have a Democrat on the ballot and have a potential pick-up opportunity.
But in California’s 25th Congressional District, where another Republican (Buck McKeon) is retiring, what could have been a possible pick-up for Democrats is now assured GOP representation until at least 2016 (if not further) in a district that is trending blue.
No, Chuck, top-two primary does not mean higher voter turnout
While there are no guarantees, it seems likely that a top-two primary system would encourage more participation in primaries and undo tendencies toward default extremism.
Sen. Schumer alleges that a top-two primary would result in higher turnout. That's exactly what Arnold Schwarzenegger and Abel Maldonado promised back
in 2010 when California voters were asked to pass it.
But unlike Schumer, they didn’t have the hindsight to know its effects. Now we know the answer.
The 2014 California Primary Election will go down as the worst ever in terms of voter turnout.
Voter turnout in June was an abysmal 18 percent, which of course turns out the most committed and comfortable voters—who are disproportionately white, old and conservative.
In California’s race for state controller, we came dangerously close to another November run-off between two Republicans: Fresno Mayor Ashley Swearengin, and conservative David Evans—who spent practically no money, and benefited from a healthy Tea Party turnout.
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