An Unusual Voting Rule Is Turning California’s Senate Race Into a Three-Ring Circus

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Kamala Harris
Who will join Kamala Harris on the California U.S. Senate ballot in November? Hard to say. Photo: Ringo H.W. Chiu

Since 2010, when California voters approved a “Top Two” primary system by ballot initiative, the nation’s largest state has functioned without party primaries (except for presidential contests). Party registration still exists, and candidates’ party affiliations are still listed on the ballot. But the “blanket” primary election (held on California’s traditional June primary calendar spot) simply promotes the two candidates with the most votes for each office to the general election in November, regardless of party affiliation — meaning, for instance, that a general election matchup in a given race could easily be between, say, two Democrats. Unlike Louisiana’s somewhat similar system, winning a majority in the first round (which in the Pelican State coincides with the national general election) does not constitute victory. Washington State has a system pretty much identical to California’s. 

This is just the third election cycle held under Top Two in California, but the political parties are beginning to get used to it, and to the strategies associated with creating or avoiding general elections with two candidates from the same party competing. That can be a very big deal, since (so far at least) primary turnout under Top Two has been abysmal, and getting to the general election can no longer be taken for granted even if a party is united behind one candidate. 

In 2014, seven U.S. House races wound up with two candidates from the same party in November (five involving Democrats, two involving Republicans). This year’s contest to choose a successor to Barbara Boxer (the first open Senate seat in California since 1992) could fall into the same strange category.  

The uncontested front-runner is Attorney General Kamala Harris, who has a solid base in the San Francisco Bay area (she was district attorney in San Francisco before running statewide), a very good reputation among Democratic progressives, and an impressive identity-politics profile as the daughter of a Jamaican-American father and an Asian-American mother. She’s very media-savvy, and has led fundraising by a significant margin. 

The second-place candidate in every previous poll has been ten-term Orange County Congresswoman Loretta Sanchez, one of the state’s senior Latina elected officials, with a decent voter base in the Los Angeles area and in the Central Valley. But Sanchez is running far behind Harris in the polls and in fundraising, and is in danger — in theory at least — of being edged out by a Republican for the general election spot if the GOPers can unite behind someone and find some money to make waves. 

Two of the Republicans showing a pulse in the race are very obscure former state-party chairs. A third is a once-familiar name: Ron Unz, a wealthy software engineer who ran a credible if losing primary race for governor in 1994, and then sponsored a successful 1998 ballot initiative moving the state away from bilingual to English-immersion instruction for immigrants. Unz jumped into the race very late, and it’s unclear how much of his own money he can, or will, spend. There’s also talk of the national GOP jumping into the race with a big sack of money, but the party will first have to choose a favorite. 

Meanwhile, the temptation for California business interests normally aligned with the GOP is to abandon their relatively weak candidates and help Sanchez to a general election spot; she’s a charter member of the House New Democratic Coalition and also a long-time Blue Dog. Assuming she held onto her Latino and regional bases and got united Republican support, she’d be a tough match for Harris in November. 

In turn, that means Harris will be tempted to use some of her treasury to damage Sanchez and elevate a Republican into the general election spot; in a presidential year anyone riding an elephant is probably not going very far.

Whatever strategy the Republicans or Harris choose to deploy, they better get a move on. Primary day is less than three weeks away, but more importantly, thanks to California’s permanent vote-by-mail registration system, voting is already well underway. In 2014 over 69 percent of primary ballots were cast by mail; the percentage could hit 75 percent this year. When it appeared the Republican presidential nomination would be decided by the Golden State, it was reasonable to think that the already significant Republican tilt of primary voting under Top Two might balloon. But now it’s the Democratic presidential primary hanging fire, with Bernie Sanders trailing Hillary Clinton in every poll but needing a massive landslide win to keep his candidacy alive. Both Harris and Sanchez have endorsed Clinton, but if there is some huge Sanders push down the stretch it would probably benefit Harris, whose strongest areas are very similar to Bernie’s.  

All in all, it’s a three-ring circus with just two temporary winners emerging from the primary, and nobody safe in November. 

California’s Senate Race Is a Three-Ring Circus