June 4, 2018 — In 2010, Golden State voters adopted a ballot proposition that changed the state’s primary system. As we have often noted in articles about the state’s political campaigns, the primary is now a qualifying election with the top two vote-getting candidates advancing to the general election regardless of percentage or political party affiliation. Looking toward the California preliminary vote tomorrow, the top-two jungle primary system may produce some unintended consequences.
When the initiative was first floated eight years ago, many pro-enterprise organizations joined in support because they correctly saw that business coalition candidates, and Republicans in particular, were headed for further downturns in California elections. The top-two format, many believed, would produce more centrist victors from both political parties. In practice, when analyzing the three election cycles since the process began and going into a fourth on Tuesday, such has not quite been the case.
As we know, Democrats have heavily targeted California in their 2018 bid to regain the US House majority, believing that their chances of winning the seven Republican districts Hillary Clinton carried in the last presidential election are strong. But Tuesday’s vote is providing them a new obstacle to overcome, a complication that could actually shut them out of even having a general election candidate in some of their top targeted districts.
Because of the large number of Democratic candidates running in the nominally Republican districts, the party is in danger of not qualifying a candidate in several situations. This would result if Republican candidates finish one-two on Tuesday, thus sending a pair of GOP standard bearers into the general election and assuring the party of victory no matter who wins.
Because of the Republican voter registration advantage in these places and large numbers of Democratic candidates fighting for what is generally a smaller pool of left-of-center June election voters, their strategists and party leaders are taking last-minute action to avoid what would be disastrous potential “lock-out” results.
Understanding the layout, Republicans have a mathematical chance, according to available polling, of qualifying two general election candidates in Orange County districts 39 (Rep. Ed Royce-R, retiring), 48 (vulnerable Rep. Dana Rohrabacher-R, seeking re-election), and 49 (Rep. Darrell Issa-R, retiring).
In the 39th, Republicans have three established candidates in former state Assemblywoman Young Kim, Orange County Supervisor and ex-Fullerton Mayor Shawn Nelson, and former state Senate Minority Leader and former local Mayor Bob Huff. Republicans have a slight 35.3 to 34.5 percent edge over Democrats in voter registration, with those declaring as NPP (No Party Preference) numbering 26.2 percent.
National Democrats are looking to retired Naval officer and lottery winner Gil Cisneros to advance into the November election. The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee (DCCC) has officially endorsed Cisneros, but the California Democratic Party refused to follow suit. Physician and Wall Street analyst Mai Khanh Tran has raised over $1.5 million, half of which is self-loaned, and she is a formidable candidate in a district where the Asian citizen voting age population is 28.6 percent. To complicate matters even further, businessman Andy Thoburn is the third credible Democratic candidate of six running, and his coalition is largely comprised of Bernie Sanders’ supporters.
In Rep. Rohrabacher’s coastal Orange County District, Republicans have a much larger registration advantage. There, the GOP advantage is 41-30 percent over Democrats, with 24 percent choosing the NPP category. The Democrats’ problem here is that former state Assemblyman and Orange County Republican Party chairman Scott Baugh is attempting to slip past the two key Democrats, biomed company CEO Hans Keirstead and businessman Harley Rouda. After originally recruiting Keirstead, the DCCC is now backing Rouda because of sexual harassment claims against the former man. Though Keirstead was cleared of the accusations, the DCCC still cast their lot with Rouda, though Keirstead is matching their spending thus causing a serious voter base split for Tuesday.
Institutional Democratic Party and outside liberal groups are also spending heavily to attack Baugh, hoping that they can dissuade Republicans from supporting him to the degree that one of the Democrats slips through. A total of seven Democrats’ names will appear on the ballot, despite three of them having already withdrawn from the race.
In the Orange-San Diego County 49th District, the Democrats have the problem of fielding four candidates who have substantial resources with which to compete. Among them is retired Marine Corps Colonel Doug Applegate, who held Rep. Issa to a 50.3 percent victory in the 2016 general election. Trailing in registration 37-31 percent with 26.5 percent NPP, the Democrats are in danger of not landing one of the four in the top two. The top Republican candidates are state Assemblyman Rocky Chavez (R-Oceanside), Board of Equalization Member Diane Harkey, and San Diego County Supervisor Kristin Gaspar.
Tuesday night in California will be interesting because so many congressional seats feature contested qualifying elections, and the top-two format could yield several wild-card finishes. Polling in all of the aforementioned campaigns reveals close races with most of the leading candidates all within the margin of polling error. Though the most likely scenario is one Republican and one Democrat advancing in all contested races, the mathematics do suggest that other conclusions are indeed possible.