With the June primary election finally upon us today, the political chess games that have been played in the most competitive races are finally coming to an end. On the latest episode of PRI’s podcast, the “PRI All Stars” discuss the major statewide ballot measures and look ahead to November.
Democrats today are targeting 7 Republican-held Congressional seats in California this year that Hillary Clinton carried in 2016. They believe that the path to electing Nancy Pelosi as Speaker goes through the Golden State. But their efforts are complicated by the “Top 2” primary, where the two top vote getters – regardless of party – advance to the general election.
In three state Congressional races, Democrats fear that there may not be a Democrat on the ballot in November thanks to the Top 2. We’ve already seen this play out twice before with Democrats botching 2 chances to pick up congressional seats thanks to all-Republican general elections.
Hoping to prevent this, national Democrats are spending heavily to try and knock some of the Republicans running so a Democrat will advance to November.
Here’s a prediction – if Democrats fail to advance a candidate in one or more of these races, there will be a serious effort by them to repeal the Top 2 – and Republican leaders will join them.
Pelosi herself recently said that, “this is not a reform, it is terrible, it prolongs the process. It costs more money . . . it shuts out small parties.”
State Republican leaders have also loathed the Top 2 primary since it was enacted as part of a massive budget deal and later approved by voters in 2010.
Even though the Top 2 has helped Republicans at the congressional level, it has hurt them in statewide races. For the first time, no Republican appeared in the 2016 general election for U.S. Senate because no GOP candidate made the top 2. Party leaders have expressed their fear that if no Republican gubernatorial candidate finishes in the top 2 this year, it would depress GOP turnout in November.
The Top 2 has significantly impacted who has been elected to the State Legislature and Congress. While it hasn’t moderated the Legislature as proponents hoped, it has increased competition and the number of candidates running. Several lawmakers are serving today who would have never been elected before.
While party leaders and activists had more influence in closed primaries, the Top 2 has forced candidates to broaden their pitch, especially in same-party General Elections.
In 2012 alone, 2 Democrat state Assembly members were defeated in the General Election by fellow Democrats. The defeated legislators were party insiders who flourished under the old system. Under the Top 2, outsider candidates were elected in their place.
In their analysis of the Top 2 primary, researchers Jason Olson and Omar Ali note that just 2 incumbents for Congress or the State Legislature lost between 2002 and 2010. Since the Top 2 took effect in the 2012 election, 17 incumbents have lost.
While party insiders don’t like the Top 2 primary, it will be interesting to see how voters judge the inevitable repeal effort. After all, it’s voters who enacted the Top 2 at the ballot box and it’s their votes in these various races that have upset the apple cart in Washington and Sacramento.
Tim Anaya is communications director for the Pacific Research Institute.