Bill Whalen

Top-two primary hinders Republicans in bid for U.S. Senate seat

Bill Whalen
Bill Whalen

To Will Rogers’ observation that Congress is America’s only distinctly criminal class, I give you California’s two U.S. senators.

This isn’t to imply that either gentlelady is a criminal. Yet in California, getting elected to the Senate has felony status: instead of one six-year term, you get 25 years to life.

Barbara Boxer and Dianne Feinstein have been on the job since the days leading up to Bill Clinton’s first inauguration. In the nearly 25 years since, California is the lone state not to have traded in at least one of its two senators. In fact, the other 49 states have sent 150 freshman senators to Washington during the Boxer-Feinstein era, which now spans three two-term presidencies.

That era comes to an end in November, with Boxer stepping down after four terms. However, this once-in-a-generation chance to send a new senator to Washington has created little stir.

For two reasons:

First, there’s the long shadow of California’s presidential primary, which shares the same June 7 ballot space as the Senate primary. Yes, the Republican contest may have deteriorated to a Donald Trump coronation. Still, there’s the prospect of Bernie Sanders and his idealistic McCarthyism (Eugene, not Joseph) absorbing what oxygen remains in the walk-up to the primary.

The other culprit: California’s “top-two” open-primary system.

The new rules – the top two finishers advance, regardless of party affiliation – are in effect for a third election cycle. For the first time, it could have a dramatic impact: two Democrats moving on to the general election.

Which is sad, but not for reasons you might assume.

In the days before California’s open primary, with the two parties holding separate nominating contests, Attorney General Kamala Harris and Rep. Loretta Sanchez wouldn’t merely be vying for the most Democratic votes.

The two would be on opposite sides of a rift that divides the majority party geographically (Harris made her mark in Northern California; Sanchez calls Orange County home) and by loyal voter blocs (Harris is multiracial; Sanchez has suggested that California needs “a Latina in the U.S. Senate”).

As for a California Senate Republican primary, it would resemble the GOP presidential race in this respect: three candidates with decidedly different philosophies.

Tom Del Becarro, a former state party chair, is a conservative who wants a flat tax and opposes comprehensive immigration reform. Duf Sundheim, likewise a former party chair, is the field’s centrist: he’s pro-choice and favors a deal on immigration.

The third prominent Republican is Ron Unz, the field’s libertarian voice. His motivation? Unlike his rivals, it’s not to move the GOP needle. Unz wants to draw attention to an effort to repeal Proposition 227, the 1998 ballot measure he sponsored that ended bilingual teaching in the Golden State.

Ordinarily, I’m a fan of the open primary and other like-minded proposals that seek to move the Golden State to a more common-sense middle ground.

But in 2016, the open primary fails us.

Sundheim and Del Becarro should be engaged in a referendum over whose vision of inclusiveness better suits a California existence. Instead, Sundheim has focused on Harris’ record.

And that’s what logic dictates for a Republican with low name recognition at this point. For Sundheim, the goal is the finish second at worst. Engaging with Harris is his best shot at sorely needed media attention.

Such is the true frustration with the open primary, from a Republican standpoint. Two Democrats are likely to face off in November, assuring Democrats a victory.

For Republicans, the real defeat is a lost opportunity to talk about a path forward – ironically, the same problem for Republicans writ large these days. The 2016 election should have been a reboot for the national GOP – if not the new Reagan, at least an updated version of Reagan’s conservative vision.

But that’s not what Republicans got. In terms of principles and vision, there’s more than a letter’s difference between Ronald and The Donald.

And California’s process for choosing a new senator: so far, not exactly a red-letter event.

Bill Whalen is a Hoover Institution research fellow and former speechwriter for former Gov. Pete Wilson. Contact him at