This is an even-numbered year, which means it’s an election year, which also means it’s open season for political tricksters to ply their shadowy trade.
Who are those tricksters? They are highly paid political consultants who specialize in dreaming up ways to lure voters into doing something that they would not otherwise be likely, or even willing, to do.
This year’s most obvious bit of political gamesmanship is exploiting the state’s top-two primary system to freeze out some candidates.
Under the system, the top-two finishers in the June primary election for statewide, legislative and congressional offices face each other in the November election, regardless of party.
Democrats are so eager to repudiate President Donald Trump and punish Republican congressional members that candidates have lined up to challenge GOP incumbents in districts that voted against Trump in 2016.
The proliferation of candidates—and the failure of Democratic leaders to winnow the field—allowed Republicans to offer up token GOP opposition to the incumbents. That, in turn, raises the possibility, or probability in some districts, that June’s top two vote-getters will be an incumbent Republican and what some are calling a “shadow candidate” of the same party, thus frustrating Democratic hopes of gaining some seats.
It’s not only a California issue, because if Democrats fail to pick up at least three or four seats in this state, their prospects for retaking control of Congress dim markedly.
That, however, is not the only political game in town.
Calmatters political analyst Dan Morain wrote recently about an odd ad posted on the website of an entity calling itself the Asian American Small Business Political Action Committee. It attacks Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom, a leading candidate for governor, citing an affair that Newsom had with the wife of a top aide in 2005, when he was mayor of San Francisco.
The committee receives donations from a who’s who of powerful political interest groups, some of which support Newsom. And if aired more widely, it would potentially benefit Newsom’s major rivals, former Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa or Treasurer John Chiang, as the Democratic hopefuls vie for one of the top-two finishes in the June primary. The organization contributed $20,000 to Chiang’s campaign in 2016.
It isn’t, as Morain noted, the committee’s first foray into spoiler politics. Three years ago, it spent $124,000 on mailers to Republican voters, trying to defeat Democrat Steve Glazer’s bid for a state Senate seat in Contra Costa County and help a more liberal, union-oriented Democrat. Glazer won anyway.
The committee’s current effort and the one aimed at Glazer in 2015 demonstrate how misleadingly named “independent expenditure” organizations can operate without their motives being apparent. They are also reminiscent of what happened in 2002, before the state had a top-two primary system.
Interest groups, particularly unions, backing Democratic Gov. Gray Davis in his re-election campaign that year spent heavily on pre-primary ads attacking Republican Richard Riordan, the former mayor of Los Angeles, who was seen as Davis’ most electable rival. The campaign’s goal was to help another Republican, businessman Bill Simon, win the GOP nomination, and it succeeded.
Davis, who was very unpopular at the time, narrowly defeated Simon, confirming that had Riordan been the Republican nominee, Davis would have been ousted. And, in fact, a year later, Davis was recalled by the state’s voters for multiple failures of governance.
The top-two system may change the methodology of political trickery, but it’s always with us, and voters should be ever vigilant.