It sounded so nice. The top performing candidates, regardless of party, would move past the primary to the general election. “The people” would be empowered to choose the candidates they like best, and the power of “party bosses” further diminished.
As we head into the 2018 elections in California, this quaint idea is creating even bigger challenges for Republicans.
To recruit quality candidates, prospective contenders need to believe they have a reasonable shot of at least making it to the November ballot. In the past, November voters were guaranteed the ability to choose among each party’s nominee. Now, there is no assurance at all that at least one candidate from each party can even make it past the primary.
This is due to the combined effects of the top two primary, Republicans being the statewide minority party, and a dose of game theory.
Let’s take a look at statewide offices, where last week San Diego Republican Mayor Kevin Faulconer, who would far and away be the strongest contender for governor, bowed out.
This point is key to understanding the statewide dynamic: For most statewide offices, many voters never get to know the candidates. It’s simply too expensive for most statewide contenders to build a serious profile with tens of millions of voters, especially in the primary, making the party label by far the most influential factor in a voter’s choice.
In each statewide race, all the Democrat candidates combined will likely receive the largest share of the votes, and the Republican candidates combined will receive the second largest share of votes. Yet, depending on how many contenders of each party file for each office, we could have two Democrats (more likely) or even two Republicans (unlikely) in the general election. The odds greatly favor the Democrats because their share of the pie is larger, and their candidates are more likely to have the funding necessary to amass larger shares of their slice of the pie.
Again, the key point is that for statewide downticket offices, most voters are voting for a party, not a name they don’t know. When I faced Gavin Newsom in the 2014 election, most voters outside of the San Francisco television market didn’t know either one of us. They voted for a party, hence the nearly identical share of the November vote won by my Republican colleagues Ashley Swearengin (for Controller), Pete Peterson (for Secretary of State) and me, even though Swearengin spent far more than either Pete or my self.
California’s top two system doesn’t put voters in charge – it puts random chance in charge.
Worse, the system begs political hacks to come up with ways to rig the system. In 2014, now-Congressman Ro Khanna’s campaign schemed to induce multiple Republican candidates to file in his Bay Area district to bleed votes away from Republican contender Vanila Singh, who was by far the strongest GOP contender. The goal was to rig the system to create a Democrat-only general election matchup between Khanna and then-Congressman Mike Honda. The scheme worked.
Now, Republicans will struggle to recruit quality statewide candidates to run in a system which proved less than two years ago that there is no guarantee a Republican can even make it to the November election – an obvious prerequisite to actually winning the office.
Proving fate has a sense of humor, the irony is the California Republican Party under the leadership of Sen. Jim Brulte is in a better position now than at any time since 2010 to provide serious support to nominees for statewide office. Already facing declining Republican enrollment, the top two system’s putting Lady Luck in charge of who can make it to the November ballot makes recruiting quality candidates from the for statewide office even tougher.
It’s time to recognize the failed experiment that is the top two primary system. Voters should have the ability to choose among each party’s nominees from a traditional primary system that allows any voter to participate.