California’s Primary Election Could Reshape November — And Democrats Are panicking

The House seat of Rep. Dana Rohrabacher (R-Calif.), shown here in 2017, is seen as vulnerable. But competition among Democrats could make flipping the seat less likely. (Aaron P. Bernstein/Reuters)

COSTA MESA, CALIF. (WASHINGTON POST)--In politics, beware of good intentions.

Eight years ago, Californians approved an idealistic new system for picking general election candidates — one that was billed as an antidote to polarization.

Instead of having voters of each party select a nominee to put before the overall electorate in November, the idea was to throw all the candidates onto a single June primary ballot. The top-two finishers, regardless of their political affiliation, would then be put on the November ballot.

In theory, Proposition 14 was to act as an incentive for moderation and inclusion, because it would force primary candidates to reach for the largest swath of voters they could across the political spectrum.

“It will take power away from the parties,” then-Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, a moderate Republican, promised. “There’s no two ways about that. That’s exactly what we wanted.”

What could possibly go wrong?

Pretty much everything, it turns out.

“When this started, I thought it was a good thing,” Jane L. Williams, a La Habra Heights city councilwoman who ran a local newspaper, told me. “But it doesn’t seem to have moved anyone closer together.”

Instead of statesmanship, the top-two system in California has this year fostered chaos and gamesmanship heading into Tuesday’s primary.

The problem starts with the fact that Democratic enthusiasm in the Trump era has brought in a flood of candidates, many running for the first time. In principle, that’s a healthy thing. But their numbers mean they are likely to slice the Democratic vote so thinly that it will help the Republicans.

The top-two system has also helped make primary battles extraordinarily expensive, on a scale normally seen in general elections.

In one Southern California race, the 39th district where 17 candidates will be on the ballot to replace retiring Republican Edward R. Royce, three Democrats have spent close to $8 million.Much of that money went toward beating up on each other, until the party stepped in to broker a truce between two of them, Gil Cisneros and Andy Thorburn. Meanwhile, leading Republican contender Young Kim — who will almost certainly finish in the top two — has spent less than $700,000.

In 2016, Democrats exulted when no Republican made it out of the U.S. Senate primary. But that probably did not change the result of the race. Then-Attorney General Kamala D. Harris would most likely have had an easy victory under any scenario.

Tuesday’s primary, on the other hand, could completely reshape the November outcome — and Democrats are in a panic over it.

California offers a large trove of potential Democratic pickups, because seven Republicans now represent districts that voted for Hillary Clinton in 2016. Those are some of the Democrats’ best hopes of gaining the 23 needed across the country to take back control of the House.

Unless the their best candidates get tripped up in the primary.

“I voted for the ballot initiative, and I deeply regret it,” said Sara Jacobs. She is a Democrat running for a congressional seat being vacated with the retirement of Republican Rep. Darrell Issa. That should be a ripe target for her party, given that Clinton won the district by eight points.

But Jacobs is one of four Democrats, all of them well-funded, who are contending in that San Diego-area district. Republicans have a clear front-runner in three-term state Assemblyman Rocky Chavez, while the Democrats are battling so intensely that it is possible another Republican could slide into the No. 2 spot.

Nor can Democrats look to their party leadership for guidance. So inept has it proven that in one race — a challenge to vulnerable GOP Rep. Dana Rohrabacher — the national Democratic campaign arm is backing one candidate, millionaire real-estate investor Harley Rouda, while the state party has endorsed another, stem-cell scientist Hans Keirstead. The result may be that neither Democrat makes it out of a primary in which the ballot lists 16 names — eight Democrats (of whom three weaker candidates have unofficially withdrawn from the race), six Republicans, a libertarian and a nonpartisan.

Republicans have a nightmare scenario of their own, one that will play out at the top of the ballot. It is possible that two Democrats — Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom and former Los Angeles mayor Antonio Villaraigosa — will advance to November, which no doubt would severely depress overall GOP turnout in the general election. So Republicans, including President Trump via tweet, are scrambling to boost their strongest contender, San Diego businessman John Cox.

A recent poll by the Los Angeles Times indicates that 50 percent of voters in this deep-blue state still approve of the system they voted into place in 2010. But they may feel differently after they see the results on Tuesday.

Elections should be about giving voters a choice. A well-intentioned experiment in the country’s most-populous state may end up doing just the opposite.