Retiring Senator Boxer Puts Top-Two Primary in Prime Time

Monday, January 12, 2015
Senator Barbara Boxer

California Republicans have not fared well in statewide races since the state switched to open top-two “jungle” primaries after 2010. Democrats won every contest in November. Then again, the GOP didn’t fare too well in the state before, either. 

But the race to replace Senator Barbara Boxer, who announced last week she would not seek a fifth term in 2016, could be different. It will be the first U.S. Senate race using an open primary and the roster of candidates could be dramatically different.

The list of possible Democratic candidates with money, track records and name recognition is already long. Some of them may have preferred to queue up for the governor’s race in 2018 or angle for 81-year-old Senator Dianne Feinstein’s seat that year. Others have just been elected to statewide offices and may need to stay humble for awhile.

A crowded field of Dems in a top-two race could split votes and allow a Republican—or two—to slip in. The possibility of two Republicans squaring off for a Senate seat in the bluest of blue states is not far-fetched.

Most likely Democratic candidates include: Attorney General Kamala Harris; Lieutenant Governor Gavin Newsom; billionaire Tom Steyer; former Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa; newly-elected State Treasurer John Chiang, Secretary of State Alex Padilla and Insurance Commissioner Dave Jones; Representative John Garamendi; former state Senate leader Darrell Steinberg; and former Representative Ellen Tauscher. Darkhorse candidates include: former Representative Jane Harman; Representatives Jackie Speier, Loretta Sanchez and Raul Ruiz; 

On the Republican side, Fresno Mayor Ashley Swearengin, who ran a very credible race for State Controller in November, has expressed interest. But yet to be heard from are San Diego Mayor Kevin Faulconer; former state Insurance Commissioner Steve Poizner;  former gubernatorial candidates Meg Whitman and Neel Kashkari; and former U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice.

And those are just the politicians. Since its California, there is a long list of Hollywood/Silicon Valley/sports celebrities who have either expressed political aspirations or inspired others to mention them. ABC News name eight of them: George Clooney, Mark Zuckerberg, Eva Longoria, Kevin Johnson, Ben Affleck, Maria Shriver, Sheryl Sandberg and Clint Eastwood. (Sacramento Mayor Johnson actually holds an office.)

If the GOP keeps their slate of candidates to Rice and one other Republican at most, the nation could get an updated civics lesson on the two-party political system.        

Right now, the curriculum for top-two is still being written. Senator Charles Schumer (D-New York) wrote a New York Times op-ed last July that sang its praises as a way to reduce polarization and partisanship. He cited the loss of conservative House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Virginia) in a primary to an even more conservative Republican as evidence of pernicious partisanship. “Primaries poison the health of that system and warp its natural balance,” he wrote, blaming the system for voters too lazy or uninterested to vote.

Schumer cites California as an example of the soothing effect primaries can have the beastly partisan spirit infecting America: “The move has had a moderating influence on both parties and a salutary effect on the political system and its ability to govern.” He called for it being adopted everywhere.

Harry Enten, writing at Nate Silver’s statistics-driven Five Thirty Eight, says that Schumer got it wrong. First, he pointed out the obvious. Top-two hasn’t been around long, so studies are limited. But there does not appear to be a trend toward moderation in California.

Enten cited a study by assistant professor Boris Shor that crunched the numbers from the 2012 election and found the state Legislature “incredibly polarizing.” If anything, it was more polarized after the election than before. Enten also pointed to a study by political scientists at the University of California, Berkeley, which indicated moderate candidates were not faring any better in open primaries than closed.      

Those researchers seemed to get at the heart of the problem constructing a political arena that encourages intelligent dialogue in a civil fashion. Voters don’t know the difference between moderate and extreme candidates. They might vote for moderates if they knew who they were, but they don’t. They are most likely to vote by party affiliation, but top-two can take that off the table.

Here’s a nightmare primary scenario for Democrats that isn’t too hard to conjure up:

20% R-Condoleezza Rice—Top-two winner

19% R-Ashley Swearengin—Top-two winner

18% D-Kamala Harris

15% D-Gavin Newsom

10% D-Tom Steyer

18% D-scattered among four other Democratic candidates

The Rice-Swearengin race may be too close to call right now, but it wouldn’t be hard to predict a reappraisal of top-two and its ability to distill the electorate’s true political will from the mixed messages it sends. But it’s just as easy to imagine the Calbuzz scenario: Governor Brown runs for the Senate and wins; Gavin Newsom is elevated to governor and runs for re-election in 2018; and Kamala Harris runs for Feinstein’s seat.

–Ken Broder


To Learn More:

Here’s Who’s Poised to Fight for Barbara Boxer’s Senate Seat (by John Wildermuth and Carolyn Lochhead, San Francisco Chronicle)

Who Could Run to Succeed Barbara Boxer? Try Everyone (by Jeff Singer, Daily Kos)

California’s Boxer Rebellion (by Steven Hayward, Powerline)

Dems Risk a Big Loss if Some Don't Curb Ambitions (by Thomas Elias, The Californian)

Chuck Schumer Is Wrong About the Top-Two Primary (by Harry Enten, Five Thirty Eight)

Can California’s New Primary Reduce Polarization? Maybe Not. (by John Sides, The Monkey Cage)

8 Famous Names Who Might Run for Senate in California (by Veronica Stracqualursi and Ben Siegel, ABC News)

Did Ballot Weirdness Lead to Upset Election Win in the Assembly? (by Ken Broder, AllGov California)

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