California’s new primary system gets first statewide test

Republican Art Moore believes he captured enough votes in Tuesday’s primary to advance to an intraparty clash with Rep. Tom McClintock in the foothills-based 4th Congressional District.

“Honored to be in the November runoff to provide CA 4 with the representation it deserves,” he said in a message on Twitter on Wednesday morning.

The likely fall matchup between McClintock, a longtime legislator and conservative hero in California, and Moore, an upstart businessman and combat veteran, creates a contest that would not have occurred without the state’s new top-two primary system. A Democrat would be a long shot to defeat McClintock in a district with just 29 percent Democratic registration.

“That’s a competitive race where there was zero chance of that before,” said Steve Peace, an architect of the primary rules and co-chairman of the Independent Voter Project. “And that’s kind of the point.”

Across the Sacramento region, several fall contests will feature candidates from the same party, including Democratic Assemblymen Roger Dickinson and Richard Pan for state Senate, Democrats Jim Cooper and Darrell Fong for Assembly and Democrats Kevin McCarty and Steve Cohn for another seat in the Legislature’s lower house. The overwhelmingly Democratic districts proved too blue for poorly funded Republicans to emerge from the primary.

Statewide, voters will have a say in matches between Democratic Rep. Mike Honda and Ro Khanna in the Silicon Valley and Republicans Tony Strickland and Steve Knight in the Simi Valley-area race to succeed retiring GOP Rep. Buck McKeon. Even Sen. Kevin de León, the next leader of the Democratic-controlled state Senate, will face a general election fight against fellow Democrat Peter Choi.

This was the second election making use of the top-two primary and the first statewide contest to test the system. It was approved as Proposition 14 in June 2010 after then-Sen. Abel Maldonado, R-Santa Maria, agreed to cast his vote for a state budget. The process allows all candidates regardless of their party affiliation to appear on the ballot – with the two highest vote-getters, regardless of party, advancing to the fall election.

As election results rolled in early Wednesday, most of the bleary-eyed politicos refreshing their computers were focused on the down-ticket race for state controller, where four candidates – two Democrats and two Republicans – had a shot at a top-two position. One of the Republicans was David Evans, a certified public accountant who didn’t do much campaigning and would have been unlikely to win the party’s nomination under the old system.

Critics of the primary point to the controller’s race as the latest example of its chaos-causing flaws. They add that the voter-approved change has done little to force candidates to tailor their messages to the largest segment of the electorate.

“People are waking up to see just how undemocratic it is,” said Steve Maviglio, a Democratic strategist.

Proponents of the top-two primary believe it’s functioning as promised. They say organizations with a powerful grip on the old system – political parties, labor unions and business groups – have had that power decentralized.

Peace, a former Democratic state legislator and finance director, said he wasn’t concerned about Evans undermining the top-two format.

“He looks like the sort of indigenous, non-Sacramento-connected person that is the point of the reform,” Peace said. He said it will take a decade to assess the system’s impact.

Eric McGhee, a research fellow at the Public Policy Institute of California, studies the state’s electoral changes. In 2012, he counted 28 intraparty contests, including 18 for the Assembly, two for the state Senate, and eight for the U.S. House. All but one of the contests were for seats that likely would not have been competitive otherwise in the fall, McGhee wrote in a previous study. He recently released a new study that concluded the process did encourage participation of independent voters.

McGhee said the system’s propensity to produce “strange outcomes” could be remedied by allowing a write-in candidate that has met a high signature threshold to qualify for the general election ballot.

“There ought to be some kind of safety valve that would allow for a third candidate,” he said.

Thad Kousser, a political scientist and expert on state elections at University of California, San Diego, said general election contests between members of the same party show the system has already produced some change. But he said it has yet to create a new route to prominence for independent candidates. Dan Schnur, a Republican-turned-independent, finished fourth in the race for secretary of state.

The top-two primary has made the number of candidates and their party affiliation in each race more important, said Allan Hoffenblum, publisher of the Target Book in California. An extra Republican or Democrat on the ballot can affect which candidates make it out of the primary. It requires even those candidates likely to finish in a top-two slot not to take anything for granted. And, it keeps incumbents on their toes.

In McClintock’s district, centered in Placer and El Dorado counties, Moore was leading independent Jeffrey Gerlach by just 1,300 votes with 24,000 outstanding ballots, according to Moore strategist Rob Stutzman. Gerlach, who did not raise money, said he was surprised by his performance and that it was premature to concede. “In honor of everyone who voted for me, I have to make sure this count is right.”

McClintock received 56 percent of the vote. Jon Huey, his spokesman, said the campaign is “delighted with the results regardless of who eventually emerges.”

Stutzman said Moore’s campaign would spend the summer reaching out not only to Republicans but also the majority of district voters who align with another party – or no party at all. Jack Uppal, a local Democratic activist, lost to McClintock by 22 points in 2012 in a race he knew he was unlikely to win. He is looking forward to a race in which Democratic voters in the district would have a viable alternative to McClintock.

“I know I will not agree with (Moore) on every issue,” he said. “But I believe he is one that will listen to all sides and work with all sides.”

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