State Watch

California’s primary system flummoxes Democrats, GOP

TRACY, Calif. — Eight years after California voters bucked party leaders to establish a “jungle” primary system, Democrats and Republicans alike have serious misgivings about the system as voters head to the polls on Tuesday for a critical day of voting.

Republicans accuse the open primary system, in which the candidates finishing one and two in voting will advance to the general election regardless of party affiliation, of seriously damaging their already wounded party in the Golden State.

{mosads}“It’s not doing what it was laid out to do. It’s making campaigns more expensive, it’s making it harder for people to run,” House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) said in an interview Sunday. “Everything about it is bad. I think it should be removed.”

Since the jungle primary was approved, the number of registered Republicans has fallen by about half a million, while the number of registered Democrats has risen by about 900,000.

The number of voters who register without a party preference has risen by 1.4 million; for the first time in state history, nonaffiliated voters outnumber registered Republicans.

“I think [the top-two primary] has destroyed the Republican Party,” McCarthy said. “You get fewer people running. You get fewer ideas debated.”

Democrats are worried that crowded fields, inspired by energy on the left, puts them at risk of missing out on key seats. So many candidates could divide the Democratic electorate enough that two Republicans might advance to the general election in November — as happened four years ago, when Rep. Steve Knight (R) and a fellow Republican advanced in what could have been a winnable seat for Democrats.

The jungle primary was supposed to incentivize moderate stands and bipartisan compromise, but this year’s contests showcase a bevy of contenders who have entrenched themselves even further into their partisan corners.

Democrats and Republicans opposed to the open primary argue it has lowered voter turnout, while third parties complain they’re being eliminated from the general election ballot altogether.

On paper, Josh Harder, a venture capitalist running as a Democrat for a seat held by Rep. Jeff Denham (R), seems the prototype of a candidate who could benefit from an appeal to centrists.

The fifth-generation district resident who graduated from a local public high school before shepherding companies such as Blue Apron now spends his time teaching business basics to community college students who want to open taco trucks or auto body repair shops.

But on a recent day knocking on doors in this commuter suburb of Stockton and Oakland, Harder is pitching voters on a much more liberal cause: universal health care. Some voters reacted with big smiles and hearty handshakes. Others, like three bearded men in Judas Priest T-shirts, politely declined to take Harder’s flyer.

“At the end of the day, the focus that we’ve had on the issues is exactly the same as it would be regardless of the primary,” Harder said. “What [the top-two primary] actually ends up doing is consolidating [Democratic] support behind the front-runner — which is us.”

Supporters of the top-two system say candidates like Harder are still evidence that the new scheme is working. Instead of holding partisan nominating contests on the taxpayer dime, they say, voters now get to pick the two best candidates regardless of party affiliation. Angst among party operatives is a feature, not a bug.

“This is how things should be. Political parties should be constantly worried about whether their message and their candidates and their standard-bearers are attractive to the people,” said John Opdycke, president of Open Primaries, a group that backed the original ballot measure to establish California’s system. “They’ll have to start being much more responsive and connected to the American people.”

Opdycke said the coalition that backed the jungle primary system — a group that included business organizations, most of the state’s largest editorial boards and then-Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger (R) — included some who believed the new system would incentivize moderation. But, he said, moderation is no clear-cut concept in a nation of 330 million residents.

“I think it’s one of these myths that people talk about. I don’t think people are middle of the road, I think they’re all over the road. The average American has views that are left, that are right, that are libertarian and socialist and all over the place,” he said. “Gov. Schwarzenegger was very clear in saying that it was about returning power to the people and taking it away from the parties.”

But those who opposed the measure initially, a bipartisan coalition of party operatives and campaign strategists, say the top-two system has shifted focus to the primary — making races too expensive, diminishing the role of third parties and putting more power in the hands of fewer voters who show up in primary elections.

There are few signs the system has led to more centrist candidates. None of the candidates in a crowded field for governor have cast themselves as a successor to outgoing Gov. Jerry Brown (D), a moderate fiscal hawk who has filled the state’s rainy-day fund.

Instead, the leading Democratic contenders, Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom and former Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, have pledged new spending on social programs. The leading Republicans, businessman John Cox and Assemblyman Travis Allen, are pitching themselves as Tea Party allies of President Trump.

John Pitney, a political scientist at Claremont McKenna College and a former spokesman for the Republican National Committee, said candidates are sticking with the old-school tactics that used to win primary campaigns — driving turnout among base voters, rather than appealing to independents — because those hardcore partisans still make up the bulk of the primary electorate. Independents, he said, still don’t vote in sufficient numbers to demand attention.

“Republicans are in a Republican silo. Democrats are in a Democratic silo. And independents don’t show up in the numbers that one might hope,” Pitney said.

Others point to a small coalition of business-friendly Democrats in the otherwise-liberal state legislature that has been able to nudge the agenda to the middle.

“Even critics who worry that the [jungle primary] is having unintended effects acknowledge that it has produced a Legislature that is more open to compromise,” the San Diego Union-Tribune’s conservative editorial board wrote this month. “The state has benefited from the emergence of an informal caucus of moderate, business-friendly Democrats.”

Pitney pointed to high-stakes gambits by supporters of Villaraigosa, who are attacking Republican Cox as a phony conservative, and by the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, which is running radio ads benefiting a little-known Republican in a district held by Rep. Dana Rohrabacher (R) to ensure a Democrat makes the runoff.

The top-two primary “is really encouraging a lot of gamesmanship,” he said. “It’s fascinating for political junkies to watch, but it’s just confusing for regular voters.”

Tags Dana Rohrabacher Donald Trump Jeff Denham Kevin McCarthy

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