California's Top-Two Primary System Faces First Statewide Test
When voters go to the polls in California's primary on Tuesday, instead of only being able to vote for candidates in their own party, they will be able to vote for anyone they please.
Tuesday will be the first statewide test of California's new open primary system, where the top two candidates move on to the general election, regardless of party. Backers hope this system will favor moderates.
In California, there aren't very many purple areas. The state has strongly Democratic regions and strongly Republican regions — and the Democrats dominate.
"The Republican Party is no longer a statewide party," says Allan Hoffenblum, a Republican and publisher of the California Target Book, which handicaps congressional and legislative races in the state. "It's a regional party. There's huge areas of this state where the Republican Party has all but ceased to exist."
What this means is that for years it's been all about the primary, which usually rewarded the extremes on both sides. Former state senator and current congressional candidate Abel Maldonado says he hopes the new system will change that.
"Now as a candidate, you have to talk to everybody, not only the hard hyperpartisan right or the hard hyperpartisan left," Maldonado says. "You have to talk to everybody, and I hope that we get more reasonable elected officials."
Maldonado has always been an outlier in California politics, a moderate Republican who was willing to cross party lines. In 2009, during a particularly tough budget battle, in exchange for his vote, Maldonado pushed for changing to the top-two primary system, modeled after one in Washington state.
He says he thinks this will do away with what he calls the political party two-step.
"You had to vote party line because they're the ones that give you your budgets and so forth," he says. "And if you didn't do that, they'd primary you in the next election and it wouldn't be pretty.
"Under the new system, you can change the behavior of the elected officials, and it's one where, to me, they'll be more open-minded and more reasonable."
It could be quite a few years before it's clear whether Maldonado's utopian vision has become a reality. What is clear, according to a Target Book analysis, is that there could be as many as 30 races where two people from the same party face off again in the general election.
The most prominent is a fight between Democratic Reps. Brad Sherman and Howard Berman in the 30th Congressional District race in Los Angeles' San Fernando Valley.
"That's where I think you're really going to see something going from a boxing match to a knife fight to a gun fight," says Josh Pulliam, a Sacramento-based political consultant who mostly works for Democratic causes and candidates.
For consultants like Pulliam, this new system — in combination with a pretty dramatic redistricting — means the rules have changed. And there's a whole lot of guessing about how to play the game.
"Anybody that says they're an expert on it is just simply an expert on spin, because everybody is sort of walking around with blindfolds on and hoping that they can be right one or two places and then they can go and take a victory lap afterwards or something and talk about how smart they were," Pulliam says.
He's running a couple of independent expenditure efforts in a heavily Republican district in Orange County, trying to make sure a moderate Republican makes it through to the general election. The key swing voters in this Republican district are Democrats and independents.
Matt Rexroad, a Republican political consultant, says during this election cycle, he was sending mail to Inglewood — a very Democratic city in Los Angeles County, where fewer than 7 percent of voters are Republican.
"I kind of like that," he says. "That doesn't happen very often."
The thing about this new top-two primary system, Rexroad says, is that even in lopsided districts, every voter, regardless of party affiliation, could now make a difference in the primary.
"You know, traditionally my universes for mail have only been Republicans, but now we're saying, 'Well, we need to include conservative Democrats or those sorts of people as we're looking for votes,'" he says. "Everyone's out looking for votes."
At this point, no one knows whether what they're trying will work.