With Barbara Boxer retiring from the Senate after two decades, California is looking at a potentially bad situation in the 2016 Senate race. I am talking about my state’s stupid top two primaries. These are where everyone runs in the primary and then the general election is just a runoff between the top two candidates. The problem with this is that the people can end up with two choices they hate in the general election. And as Jonathan Bernstein noted last week, the risk is even higher for this election.
The problem we have is that California has had two Democratic Senators (Boxer and Dianne Feinstein) since the beginning of 1992. The state is solidly Democratic, even though we have an annoying habit of electing Republican body builders as governors. What that means is that there are a lot of Democrats who want their shots at the Senate. So it is quite possible that the Democratic field will be swamped, allowing two relatively strong Republican candidates to win the primary with 20% each.
This is not just theory. As I discussed last year in California’s Stupid Top Two Primaries, this almost happened in the House of Representatives District 31. In that primary, Republican Paul Chabot got 26.6% of the vote. Democrat Pete Aguilar came in second with 17.4%. He only beat the second most popular Republican by 209 votes. Otherwise, it would have been a two Republican general election. Instead, the general election was between the Democrat and the Republican. And the Democrat won by 3.4 percentage points.
Bernstein explained that the system is supposedly intended to stop extremist candidates from getting in. But of course, it doesn’t work that way at all, “In reality, the rules force parties to game the system by adding an extra tier of pre-‘primary’ endorsements, either formally or informally.” But it also means that just by random chance, we can end up with a system that is profoundly anti-democratic. And this is not just an issue for Democrats. This problem can hurt Republicans in conservative districts. And it reminds me of what people always complained about in the Soviet Union: that people only got to vote for one party.
I think it is unlikely that we will end up with a two-Republican general election for the California Senate. The seat is too important to the Democratic Party and so it will, as Bernstein noted, “game the system.” Of course, this is its own kind anti-democracy. But it is a lot better than the other option. There is one thing that would be good about a two-Republican general election, however: it would mean the end of these top two primaries. I think the people of California would rebel at the idea that they only had two Republicans to choose from. But it would be a damned high price to pay.