This month’s state Democratic Party convention was a speed-dating event for politicians seeking statewide offices next year.
One by one they paraded to the podium to deliver brief speeches touting their credentials, made the rounds of the party’s many ethnic, ideological and gender caucuses, and staged social events themselves to woo delegates.
That’s standard for such conventions in pre-election years, but there was another factor at play this year – the state’s top-two primary system.
All candidates for an office, regardless of party, will appear on one primary election ballot next year, and the top-two finishers, regardless of party, will advance to the November runoff.
Since its adoption by voters, it’s been in effect for three legislative and congressional election cycles and has sharply altered their dynamics – among other things, giving business interests opportunities to elect friendlier Democrats in duels with liberal rivals.
It had a pale statewide test in 2016, when Democrats Kamala Harris and Loretta Sanchez faced each other for a vacant U.S. Senate seat, but the ill-financed and somewhat erratic Sanchez never had a chance.
The governorship and four other statewide offices will be open, without incumbents, next year, not counting Dianne Feinstein’s U.S. Senate seat should she decide to retire, and chances are high for Democrat vs. Democrat runoffs.
It means that a Democrat need not finish first in June to advance, as the previous closed primary system required. Coming in second gets you a spot in the November election, whose much-higher voter turnout provides a second chance to come in first.
The dynamic is best illustrated by the attorney generalship, arguably the state’s second-most important office.
When Harris gave up the AG’s position to take her seat in the Senate, Gov. Jerry Brown appointed Congressman Xavier Becerra as her successor, passing over Insurance Commissioner Dave Jones, who had planned to run in 2018 when Harris’ second term ended.
Becerra will, therefore, be running for a full term as an incumbent. That would seem to be that in a heavily Democratic state.
However, the very ambitious Jones, mindful of the top-two system, isn’t giving up and could win a place on the November ballot.
Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom is the leading Democratic candidate for governor, but unless a viable Republican makes the run next year, he’ll likely wind up facing another Democrat in November. Simple arithmetic says that non-Democratic voters – Republicans and independents – will cast the decisive votes on who will succeed Brown.
Were Feinstein to retire – the betting is about 50-50 on that point – several Democrats are potential candidates, including billionaire environmental activist Tom Steyer, Secretary of State Alex Padilla, Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti and Congressman Adam Schiff, who’s raised his profile as a caustic critic of President Donald Trump.
A multicandidate Senate race would be a serious test of the top-two system, with perhaps 20 percent of the primary vote enough to win a place on the November ballot.