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Race For Second Place Gets Ugly In California

[ Posted Tuesday, June 5th, 2018 – 16:43 PDT ]

Eight states are holding primary elections today, making it the biggest election day until November. One-eighth of the entire country lives in California, making it the biggest primary contest for House races by far. But what people will be watching from the California returns isn't so much who will win each district as who will come in second. This is because of California's bizarre "top-two jungle primary," where only the two top vote-getters in the primary advance to the general election ballot no matter which party they are from. This sets up the possibility of voters being presented with two candidates from the same party, which is inherently unfair to all other political parties. But this time around, the campaigning has gotten downright weird, because people are attempting to game the top-two system like never before.

The most blatant and obvious case of this is the astonishing fact that the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee (House members whose job it is to get other Democrats elected to the House) is now paying to run ads in a House contest -- for a Republican. Yes, you read that right. Donations which were made to a political party for the express purpose of trying to get more members of that party elected to Congress are being spent on ads for someone from the other party. It's hard to find the right words for this astonishing turn of events, but Bernie's "rigged system" comes close. Democrats are attempting to rig the system, because it is such a bizarre system to begin with that it almost invites such rigging.

Here's what the D.C.C.C. is hoping will happen. Republican Representative Dana Rohrabacher is running for re-election. He has one strong Republican challenger that may have even been a plant, because Scott Baugh used to be best friends with Rohrabacher. It is speculated that Baugh is running to game the system -- because if two Republicans get the most votes, then there won't even be a Democrat on the ballot and Baugh can then campaign so badly that it guarantees Rohrabacher's election. If this is true, then it's a little more understandable why Democrats would play dirty pool here, since the GOP is also trying to rig the game in advance. Democrats -- both the D.C.C.C. and a super PAC from a powerful union (S.E.I.U.) -- are buying ads to promote Republican John Gabbard. Their hope is that Gabbard gets enough votes to deny Baugh the second spot on the general election ticket. This would allow the favored Democratic candidate to come in second and run against Rohrabacher in the general election.

Paying money to support your party's political opponents is pretty blatant gamesmanship, but there are more subtle ways the system is being gamed as well. Gavin Newsom is the frontrunner in the governor's race in California, and he is being accused of essentially doing the same thing -- helping a Republican candidate in the hopes of gaming the second spot on the ballot. There is a tight race for second place happening between Democrat Antonio Villaraigosa and Republican John Cox. If Villaraigosa places second, Newsom will have to face a Democrat in November. If Cox beats Villaraigosa, Newsom's path to victory becomes a lot easier (Republican voters are somewhat of an endangered species, statewide). So Newsom ran a bunch of ads that, on the face of it, are anti-Cox ads -- but that his critics charge are really subtle dog whistles that promote Cox. The message in the ads is that Cox will "stand with Donald Trump and the N.R.A.," which is a slur to a Democrat but is also an asset to a Republican -- so the ads that seem to be anti-Cox are really boosting Cox among Republican voters. It cannot be denied that Newsom is spending a bunch of money that is helping Cox to gain name recognition with the voters, whether the rest of it is true or not.

These are the sort of shenanigans that the top-two system almost invites. Far fewer people vote in the primaries, so it's easier to rig the process from the beginning, assuring the top candidate gets the challenger he or she desires for the November race. Either by locking the opposition party out of the November ballot or by locking a strong challenger from your own party out of the November ballot, the game can indeed be rigged. This election cycle has seen more of this manipulation then ever before, but perhaps that's just because the parties have now figured out how to effectively rig the game (the top-two system has only been around since 2012, so it's still fairly new).

Even without blatant attempts at rigging, the top-two system can still lead to bizarre results. I've been writing about the inherent flaws in the top-two primary system for years (even to the point of calling it unfair to Republican voters), and I've written specifically about how it could backfire on Democrats last summer (and again, a few months ago). Sadly, this prediction now could become reality in up to three House districts. If one party has multiple candidates (four or five) and the other party has only two candidates in the primary, then the multiple-candidate party might split the vote so thin that they lock themselves out of the November ballot. This means that even if the vote total for all the Democratic candidates (taken together) is 60 or even 65 percent, two Republicans could advance to the general election ballot with only 35 or 40 percent of the total vote between them. That is patently unfair, but it could happen tonight in Orange County.

This brings to mind the old saying: "For want of a nail, the shoe was lost; for want of a shoe, the horse was lost; for want of a horse, the rider was lost; for want of a rider, the battle was lost," which shows how small things can have wider ripple effects. What if Democrats lock themselves out of three House districts in California because of the top-two primary? What if the margin for the House majority hinges on those three seats in November? It might take just such a fright for California Democrats to decide that the top-two system is a failed political experiment and go back to a normal primary system, where the winner in each party appears on the general election ballot in November. It's pretty hard to defend a system where valid political parties are denied a ballot slot, after all. Because Democrats are so dominant in the state, they have so far ignored calls for change, because up until now when one party gets both slots on the November ballot, it has been the Democrats. Having it backfire in their faces is what it might take to convince them that the experiment is a failure and needs replacing.

If Democrats do manage to make it onto the ballot in those close three races, then an outcry to change the system might not happen. What this guarantees is future contests where one side or the other comes up with Machiavellian schemes to rig the outcome for an easier contest in November. Get your buddy to run, so he can hand you the election in the fall. Run ads against your opponent which secretly boost his appeal among his supporters. If that fails, then just start flat-out paying for ads which support the other party's candidates. This is what the top-two primary has begot, and it'll only get worse over time, as the political operatives get better and better at rigging this bizarre system.

-- Chris Weigant

 

Follow Chris on Twitter: @ChrisWeigant

 

11 Comments on “Race For Second Place Gets Ugly In California”

  1. [1] 
    Don Harris wrote:

    When I looked at my primary ballot, I noticed there was an office for member of the county committee (male) where there was no petition filed for a candidate.

    As I usually write in my own name when there are no suitable candidates on the ballot I wrote in my own name for that office.

    I wonder if I can win with one vote. (I also wonder what I would win because I don't know what the county committee is.)

    If I do win, since I am currently registered as a Democrat as I must declare Dem or Rep to vote in the primaries in NJ, would I qualify for maybe an honorable mention in the MIDOTW for running such a short campaign (about half an hour between reading the sample ballot and voting) and for running that campaign without raising or spending any money?

  2. [2] 
    Don Harris wrote:

    If going back to the old system in California means going back to where the winner of each party getting on the general election ballot with the definition of "each party" being just the Democrats and Republicans then there is no point in going back to the old system.

    Move forward instead and put the winner of any party or any independent candidate getting 10% of the primary vote on the general election ballot.

  3. [3] 
    Kick wrote:

    Don Harris
    1

    I wonder if I can win with one vote.

    No.

  4. [4] 
    Paula wrote:

    Not sure what will happen to the primary system in CA, but overall it looks like Dems did quite well yesterday.

    I'm seeing stats indicating terrific Dem turnout; we won the Missouri Special Election and it's appearing we won't be shut out of races in CA. Women did very well too.

    Separately, here's a terrific screed about the pustule that is Blotus, and the NFL: https://deadspin.com/the-nfl-is-too-dumb-to-realize-that-donald-trump-is-nev-1826558748

    But Trump also hasn’t changed his broader position; he is not listening or learning or changing, because those are not things he does. He is pushing and pushing and pushing at this issue because that is what he does, and because he is nothing without something to push against. There is no compromise to make. Trump wants to become the world, to erase and expunge everything from it that is not him or about him. A generation of the worst and most hard-hearted people that this country has ever produced are lined up outside the church he has opened, and they are willing to leave everything outside in order to gain entry. It’s the only way in. It’s the only way there will be enough room.

  5. [5] 
    Paula wrote:

    AND: Our Revolution/Bernie endorsed candidates appear to have all lost.

    Bernie's value was always that he could help push Dems into more progressive positions. And that is valuable. But he is not the builder of a revolutionary movement - he evidences no taste for that kind of work. And when he goes out and hisses at "the establishment" these days he just renders himself irrelevant. The message doesn't resonate when "the establishment" is all you have holding back authoritarianism, christofacism and white supremacy.

  6. [6] 
    Paula wrote:

    AND it looks like Nancy Pelosi and Diane Feinstein both did quite well in their primaries. Yay!

  7. [7] 
    Don Harris wrote:

    Despite the depressing claims in 5 and 6, there is at least one bright spot in California- according to Kenneth Mejia, the Green Party candidate in the 34th district, he made the November ballot against the establishment Democrat.

    It's too bad for Democrats that their message of we're not as bad as the Republicans and there is no other choice no longer resonates outside the primaries and the party faithful.

  8. [8] 
    Kick wrote:

    Paula
    4

    I'm seeing stats indicating terrific Dem turnout; we won the Missouri Special Election and it's appearing we won't be shut out of races in CA.

    Flip 42 at the state level. :)

  9. [9] 
    Kick wrote:

    Paula
    4

    Separately, here's a terrific screed about the pustule that is Blotus, and the NFL.

    This is dead on... and really describes some of them to a "T"... and not just BLOTUS and some of the "NFL oligarchs" but many of the grieving old white guys living in their double wides who genuinely believe they're not getting something they're entitled to because of the "others" whom they believe aren't genuflecting enough to their self-perceived superiority.

    This is the thing that comes after politics, a tangy slurry that fills the vacuum with ancient and inchoate and unreasoning grievance. Trump and his people believe themselves to be, separately but not in any meaningful way together, synonymous with America. Everything and everyone outside their understanding—which is, respectively, a lot and basically everyone—is something else, something smaller and other. An abstraction, but also a distraction from What Really Matters—not you, but me, me, me. There is no deal to make with people like this, because there is no limit to what they want.

    Absolutely brilliant and dead on accurate... every word. Thank you for posting it. :)

  10. [10] 
    Paula wrote:

    [9] Kick: You're welcome!

  11. [11] 
    Kick wrote:

    Paula
    5

    AND: Our Revolution/Bernie endorsed candidates appear to have all lost.

    The revolution will not be televised. :)

    Bernie's value was always that he could help push Dems into more progressive positions. And that is valuable. But he is not the builder of a revolutionary movement - he evidences no taste for that kind of work.

    Work being the operative word there. Bernie failed to gain the nomination because he quite simply didn't put in the work in the South and therefore lost on Super Tuesday and never could catch up, even with all the caucuses that favor candidates like "the Bern." It ain't rocket science.

    And when he goes out and hisses at "the establishment" these days he just renders himself irrelevant. The message doesn't resonate when "the establishment" is all you have holding back authoritarianism, christofacism and white supremacy.

    So true... and also falls fairly flat on its face when you've been a card carrying member of that "establishment" for nearly three decades. :)

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