California’s Jungle Primary Will Change Election Outcomes this November

Maine’s new instant runoff voting system has been getting a lot of press, but California’s untraditional jungle primaries deserve attention, too. After all, their existence may shift the balance of the House come January.

For those unfamiliar, California utilizes an open primary system for its elections. All candidates, regardless of party, are on the same primary ballot, and the top two-vote getters advance. This system, like Maine’s, was passed by ballot measure, though it’s been around since 2010. Supporters argue that it yields better candidates by encouraging those running to appeal to broader swaths of people. Opponents say it presents a prime opportunity for spoilers, as a crowded field for one party can benefit the other; if four Democrats each receive 15 percent of the primary vote and two Republicans get 20 percent each, the two Republicans advance to the general, even though the Democratic Party received more votes in total.

Record numbers of people are running in districts across the country, including in California. This trend has worried some California Democrats who fear Democrats crowding each other out in competitive districts.

California’s 39th District: A Case Study

While this possibility has scared Democrats in a few districts, perhaps the best case study comes from CA-39. There, incumbent Rep. Ed Royce (R-CA) announced his retirement, presenting Democrats with a prime opportunity for a pickup in a district Clinton carried by 8 percent and which is less than 30 percent white. The problem is that the Democratic field is quite crowded, while Republicans have one clear frontrunner who could potentially spend money propping up Bob Huff, who currently sits in second place among Republicans.

In January, California Democrats met for a so-called “pre-endorsement conference,” where delegates vote on who they want the party to endorse. Seven candidates split the vote in the 39th district, all-but blocking the party from making an endorsement there. Without a recommendation in their hands, voters will have to rely on their own intuition in deciding between several very similar candidates.

A poll from Fight Back California PAC found that when presented with a list of the three Republicans and four Democrats with some name recognition, the top two vote-getters were both Republicans. Republican Young Kim led the pack with 21 percent of the vote, followed by Republican Bob Huff (19 percent), Democrat Gil Cisneros (16 percent), and Democrat Andy Thorburn (16 percent). Though the poll’s methodology is unclear and the group did not respond immediately to a request for comment, it sheds light on the legitimate possibility of two Republicans advancing into the general election.

A former state assemblywoman, Kim is running as a moderate, mostly emphasizing the need for more business-friendly economic policies and the importance of preserving public safety. She can appeal strongly to moderate voters and especially to Asian voters, who make up almost one-third of the district. Meanwhile, former State Senator Huff is running as a more conservative option; he received a 9 in the 2009 Capitol Weekly scorecard, where 100 is the most liberal score and a 0 is the most conservative. These two candidates have clearly staked out positions, allowing for differentiation and presenting a legitimate possibility for both to perform well.

Among Democrats, however, the story is quite different. None of the seven candidates has previous experience holding public office, and most are running as progressives.

Many have been endorsed by different unions and progressive groups, further complicating things. Cisneros touts endorsements from SEIU California, End Citizens United, and BOLD PAC. Thorburn’s website proudly displays endorsements from Our Revolution and the California Nurses Association. Mai- Khahn Tran, another Democrat on the ballot, lists Emily’s List and 314 Action among her supporters. Others feature their fair share of endorsements, many from labor unions, too.

Endorsements aren’t the only thing making it difficult to draw distinctions between candidates. Nearly every potential distinguishing characteristic applies to at least two applicants. Two are veterans (Cisneros and Tran). Two are Asian American (Tran and the lesser-known Suzi Park Leggett). Two are former teachers (Thorburn and Janowicz). And virtually all of them come from outside the realm of politics.

The only Democrat who really stands out in this race is Ted Rusk, and it’s only because of the sheer ridiculousness of what’s on his website. His “About Ted” section features a photo gallery with photos of every car he’s ever owned, plus one of him making his apparently famous “cottage cheese pie.” His home landing page features remarkably simple policy suggestions, with gems like “IMMIGRATION – GREENCARDS NOW,” “AFGHANISTAN – GET OUT,” and “BUDGET – BALANCE IT.” His political platforms [sic] section features suggestions like selling Amtrak to Carnival Cruises and submitting a bill to make “Viagra-like” pills available without a prescription for $1 per pill. In defense of that second policy, he posits, “Remember, for every man who takes a blue pill there should be one more lady (or another guy) who is a bit happier.”

California Democrats are working to encourage some candidates to drop out, but their efforts are being met with resistance. And the story in California’s 49th district is largely the same, as Democrats work to narrow a crowded field which may allow two Republicans to advance to the general.

Not all Bad News

California’s primary system is cause for concern in the 39th and 49th districts, no doubt, but it may not be all bad news for Democrats. That’s because there is a legitimate chance that both the Gubernatorial and Senate races will be between two Democrats, suppressing Republican turnout statewide. This just follows logically: if Republicans are faced with four bad options at the top of the ballot, there is less of an incentive for them to vote at all.

The Senate general election is all-but decided. Only one of the eleven Republicans seeking Feinstein’s seat has even a Wikipedia blue link, and it’s perpetual candidate Rocky de la Fuenta. As the Democrats have two viable candidates on their side, it would take a miracle to avoid a Feinstein/de Léon general.

Kevin de Léon, president pro tempore of the California State Senate, is running to the left of Feinstein. De Léon has sought out support among unions and immigrant communities, attempting to capture the support of the party’s progressive wing. Republicans will be faced with a choice between longtime punchbag Diane Feinstein and a true progressive, two uninspiring choices for most conservatives.

Polling data shows this partisan gap playing out, as a March PPIC poll found that 73 percent of Democrats were satisfied with their options, while 72 percent of Republicans were dissatisfied with theirs.

Meanwhile, Californians might also be deciding between two Democrats for their next governor. Despite a crowded Democratic field, that same PPIC poll found two among the three biggest vote-getters. Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom (D) takes 28 percent of the vote, followed by MIT Professor John Cox (R) with 14 percent and Former Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa (D) with 12 percent. With 24 percent of voters undecided and 71 percent of Democrats satisfied with their options in the race (compared to just 44 percent of Republicans), there is plenty of room for growth, and an enthusiasm gap might be enough to push Villaraigosa into the second position.

If Villaraigosa and de Léon advance to the general, voters across California will be presented with ballots without any Republicans atop them. The effects could be massive, as there exists a wealth of evidence that races atop ballots drive turnout for down-ballot races. Most people simply do not follow House races in the way that they do races for Senate or Governor, so California’s unique primary system might actually end up helping some.

While many in the media seem to be focusing on the potential harms of the jungle primary to Democrats, there seems to be an equal chance that it’ll end up boosting their chances.

Single-party Senate and Governor’s races would be huge for their party’s chances in down-ballot races, but it won’t matter much if they don’t have Democrats on the ballot in many districts in the first place. The party should work to build up Villaraigosa, and more importantly, encourage some Democrats running inviable campaigns in the 39th and 49th to drop out. California’s jungle primary encourages an additional element of political strategy, but with a little work, California Democrats can make it work for them, rather than against them.

Previous: The Ives of March: How Bruce Rauner was nearly taken down by “fringe candidate” Jeanne Ives

Next: Death and Taxes: Will the GOP’s tax bill hold off Democrats in 2018?