National media were drawn to California by its top-two primary election system and its effect on congressional races. Political party leaders hate the system, but voters like it and it’s likely to remain in place.
It had been 50 years since a California primary election seemed to have national political consequences and drew national media attention.
For a few minutes, Bobby Kennedy’s dramatic victory in the state’s June 5, 1968, presidential primary propelled him into serious contention for the Democratic nomination – and then an assassin’s bullet ended his life and changed the course of American history.
The circumstances that drew the nation’s political media to last week’s non-presidential primary were, of course, far different from those in 1968. But they still had the potential of changing the nation’s balance of political power.
Republican President Donald Trump lost badly in California two years ago to Democrat Hillary Clinton – so badly, in fact, that she won half of the state’s 14 Republican-held congressional districts.
That buoyed Democrats’ hopes of flipping several GOP districts as a centerpiece of their national efforts to retake control of the House, thwart Trump’s agenda and perhaps even impeach him.
Journalistic interest was understandably whetted by that scenario, but it morphed into one of those only-in-crazy-California stories so beloved by East Coast-based media because of the state’s unusual primary voting process.
Under the top-two system, dismissively dubbed a “jungle primary” by some, all candidates appear on the same ballot and the two highest vote-getters, regardless of party, face off in November.
So many Democratic candidates, motivated by their disdain for Trump, filed in some of the targeted districts that they threatened to cancel each other out and allow Republicans to finish 1-2, dashing Democratic hopes.
That possibility alarmed Democratic leaders, leading to last-minute – and successful – efforts to thin the herd and spend heavily to boost favored Democratic candidates and attack Republicans. Ultimately the freeze-out threat disintegrated.
Nevertheless, the situation’s heavy media coverage focused new attention on the top-two system and raised, not for the first time, questions about its future.
A little history: California voters adopted the system in 2010 at the urging of then-Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger. He and Abel Maldonado, a Republican state senator, had used a state budget stalemate to force the Legislature’s dominant Democrats to place it on the ballot, asserting that it would reduce political polarization by forcing candidates to appeal to wider audiences.
Its effect is open to debate.
Republicans have continued to lose political ground, but it has allowed the state’s business community to cultivate a bloc of business-friendly Democrats that has been pivotal on many issues, particularly bills designated as “job killers” by the California Chamber of Commerce.
The leaders of both parties openly despise top-two for the simple reason that, as this month’s primary demonstrated, it reduces their ability to shape outcomes.
However, it does empower voters by giving them more choices than the closed primary system it replaced, and that’s not a bad thing.
That said, it does also encourage a new kind of gamesmanship, as we saw in the multi-candidate field for governor. With clever advertising, groups supporting the leading candidate, Democratic Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom, clearly helped Republican John Cox finish second and thus win a place on the November ballot, making Newsom’s election a virtual cinch.
Repealing the top-two system would require a constitutional amendment approved by voters. But polls indicate that voters like the system and any repeal would face well-financed opposition from the business community.
Chances are, therefore, it will be around for a long time, and at some point will once again bring the national media to California.