State Issues

State’s top-two primary puts California in national spotlight

Gavin Newsom is the Democratic front-runner candidate for governor in California.
Gavin Newsom is the Democratic front-runner candidate for governor in California. AP

It had been 50 years since a California primary election had national political consequences and drew national media attention.

For a few minutes, Bobby Kennedy’s dramatic victory in the state’s June 5, 1968, presidential primary propelled him into serious contention for the Democratic nomination – then an assassin’s bullet ended his life.

Repealing the top-two system would require a constitutional amendment approved by voters. But polls indicate that voters like the system and any repeal would face well-financed opposition from the business community.

The circumstances that drew the nation’s political media to last week’s non-presidential primary were, of course, far different. But they still had potential to change the nation’s balance of political power. Republican President Donald Trump lost badly in California two years ago – so badly, in fact, that Hillary Clinton won in half of the state’s 14 Republican-held congressional districts.

That buoyed Democrats’ hopes of flipping several GOP districts as a centerpiece of their national efforts to retake the House and thwart Trump’s agenda. Journalistic interest was whetted by such a scenario, but it morphed into one of those only-in-crazy-California stories so beloved by East Coast-based media because of the state’s unusual primary voting process.

Under the top-two system, dismissively dubbed a “jungle primary,” all candidates appear on the same ballot and the two highest vote-getters, regardless of party, face off in November. So many Democratic candidates, motivated by their disdain for Trump, filed in some of the targeted districts that they threatened to cancel each other out, providing a 1-2 finish for Republicans and dashing Democratic hopes.

That possibility alarmed Democratic leaders, leading to last-minute efforts to thin the herd and spend heavily to boost favored Democratic candidates and attack Republicans. Ultimately the Republican’s freeze-out threat disintegrated.

Still, the situation’s heavy media coverage focused new attention on the top-two system and raised, not for the first time, questions about its future.

California voters adopted the system in 2010 at the urging of then-Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger. He used a state budget stalemate to force the Legislature’s Democrats to put it on the ballot, insisting it would reduce political polarization by forcing candidates to appeal to wider audiences.

That’s open to debate, but but top-two has allowed the state’s business community to cultivate a bloc of friendly Democrats pivotal in going after what the California Chamber of Commerce considers “job-killer” bills.

The leaders of both parties openly despise top-two because it reduces their ability to shape outcomes. However, it does empower voters by giving them more choices, and that’s not a bad thing.

That said, it also encourages a new kind of gamesmanship, as we saw in the race for governor. With clever advertising, groups supporting Democratic Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom clearly helped Republican John Cox finish second, putting him on the November ballot and making Newsom’s election a virtual cinch.

Repealing top-two would require a constitutional amendment. But polls show voters like the system and any repeal would face well-financed opposition from the business community. Chances are it will be around for a long time, and at some point will once again bring the national media to California.

Dan Walters writes on matters of statewide significance for CALmatters, a public interest journalism organization.