Top-Two “Jungle Primary” Reverberations

By Jim Ellis

May 14, 2018 — Back in 2010, when initiators created the movement to change the California primary system to feature a jungle format — where the top two finishers advance to the general election regardless of the percentage of vote they attained or party affiliation — they had hoped their ultimately successful ballot initiative would favor candidates closer to the political center. Approaching the June 5, 2018 primary, however, we see that this top-two system might produce quite different and possibly unintended outcomes.

California Rep. Dana Rohrbacher (CA-480

California Rep. Dana Rohrbacher (CA-48)

In a pair of competitive Southern California Republican congressional districts, recent polling suggests that Democrats could find themselves on the outside looking in for the November election despite having high hopes of converting the two seats.

The districts are CA-48, where veteran 15-term US Rep. Dana Rohrabacher (R-Costa Mesa) seeks to be part of another two-year congressional session, and CA-49, the open Orange/San Diego County seat from which Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Vista) is retiring.

The pair of early May polls, one from Change Research (CA-48) and the other Benenson Strategy Group (CA-49), reveals that two Republicans could potentially advance to the general election in both districts, thus preventing Democrats from competing in the general election. Though it’s mathematically possible that two Dems could also progress to November in both places, the latter scenario is less likely because the GOP holds a voter registration edge in each CD.

California Rep. Darrell Issa (CA-49)

California Rep. Darrell Issa (CA-49)

In the 48th, Republicans have a 10-point 40.7-30.1 percent registration advantage over Democrats with an additional 24.5 percent declaring No Party Preference, meaning the latter are Independents. In the 49th, the GOP advantage is a lesser 36.7–31.1 percent with 26.6 percent not stating a party preference. Therefore, without coalescing the Democratic vote in each district behind one strong candidate, the chance plainly exists that Republicans could potentially slip two contenders in through the proverbial backdoor. In both the 48th and 49th, too many Democratic candidates are strong enough so as to prevent such a base unification.

The Change Research survey (May 2-3; 590 likely CA-48 jungle primary voters) finds Rep. Rohrabacher leading the field of four tested candidates (though a total of 16 candidate names will appear on the primary ballot, including three Democrats and one Republican who have withdrawn, but too late to erase their ballot positions). Rohrbacher is in front in the poll with just 27 percent of the vote, followed by Democratic scientist Hans Keirstead, who has 19 percent, and ex-state assemblyman and former Orange County Republican Party chairman Scott Baugh, with 17 percent. Democrat Harley Rouda, a businessman and attorney, garners 11 percent support.

Baugh, however, was sitting on $745,000 in his campaign treasury at the end of March. Keirstead had $642,000 during the same period, and could again write himself a major check if he needs further campaign resources, while others also have significant money. Therefore, further movement will begin to occur.

In the 49th, the Benenson Strategy Group (April 28-May 2; 901 likely CA-49 jungle primary voters) actually finds a pair of Republican candidates tied at the top: state Board of Equalization member Diane Harkey and Assemblyman Rocky Chavez (R-Oceanside). The two have 14 percent apiece.

Retired Marine Corps Col. Doug Applegate (D), who held Rep. Issa to a 50.3 percent win in 2016, follows with 13 percent, down eight points from the previous Benenson poll conducted in February. Right behind Applegate are two other Democrats — former US State Department political appointee Sara Jacobs and attorney Mike Levin, trail with 11 and 10 percent, respectively. Two other Republicans follow — San Diego County Supervisor and former Encinitas Mayor Kristin Gaspar, and San Juan Capistrano City Councilman Brian Maryott, who post seven and six percent, respectively. Finally, Democratic real estate investor Paul Kerr, who has already spent $1.6 million on his campaign, remains in last place with four percent support.

Interestingly, the Democratic candidates are spending heavily early. According to the Benenson poll analysis, the four major spending Democratic candidates: Kerr, Levin, Jacobs, and Applegate, have spent a cumulative $4 million while the Republicans are seemingly sitting on their money. Despite this, it is a pair of GOP candidates who still hold, by the slimmest of margins, the top two qualifying positions. This seems to bode well for them, since they have further room to grow once their spending begins in earnest.

As we enter the last month of the California primary cycle, it appears possible that virtually any combination of major candidates could emerge from the two SoCal qualifying congressional elections, meaning that we will soon see wild dashes to the finish in both of these important races.

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