Recently, Sen. Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., suggested that the California-style top-two primary can save the country, or at least its political system. He very well could be right.
“California, which probably mirrors the diversity of America more than any other state, was racked by polarization until voters approved a constitutional amendment in 2010 that adopted a ‘top-two’ primary system. The move has had a moderating influence on both parties and a salutary effect on the political system and its ability to govern,” Schumer wrote in a New York Times op-ed, calling for a national movement to push open primaries.
Though Schumer may be overstating how much open primaries have accomplished so far in California, there’s no question they have had had a moderating effect. Consider the June primary – the first time the open primaries have been tried in statewide races – and how things might have gone with traditional party primaries.
Republican Assemblyman Tim Donnelly, the gun-loving former Minuteman from San Bernardino County, very likely would be running against Gov. Jerry Brown in the November general election. Instead, a more moderate Republican, Neel Kashkari, a businessman and son of immigrants, is representing the opposition. Republicans who don’t like to be characterized as Cro-Magnons must be quite relieved.
The real change is being felt in legislative and congressional races in districts that are reliably red or blue, but have enough voters from the other side that a moderate has a shot at beating an extremist from the same party. That’s what’s happening to Democratic Rep. Mike Honda in San Jose and Republican Rep. Tom McClintock, who lives in Elk Grove but represents part of Placer County and the Sierra from Lake Tahoe to Yosemite.
Third-party candidates – Greens, Libertarians, etc. – hate open primaries because they don’t have much of a shot at advancing. But they don’t get elected in general elections anyhow, so it’s a moot point. Harsh, but if they want to win elections, they’ll have to come up with candidates who better resonate with all voters.
In fact, every party has to do that now, which is why top-two primaries are the best hope for politics in California – and everywhere else.