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The Democratic Strategist

Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority

California Special Election Jungle

The day after California’s special election “jungle primary” to choose two candidates to compete for the vacant congressional seat of former Rep. Jane Harman, the precise outcome remains uncertain. Democratic Los Angeles city councilwoman Janice Hahn has definitely won a place in a July 12 runoff. But second place, and the other runoff spot, remains up in the air. In a big upset, little-known self-funding Republican Craig Huey ran 200 votes ahead of Democratic Secretary of State Deborah Bowen with all precincts reporting. There are enough absentee and provisional ballots out to theoretically erase Huey’s lead, and there’s also the possibility of a recount (though Bowen’s role as California elections chief makes that scenario tricky).
The district’s heavily-Democratic complexion means that Huey is very unlikely to prevail even if he does make the runoff. And regardless of who wins the remainder of Harman’s term, the district lines may soon be scrambled by California’s unique “citizens’ commission” redistricting system.
But the results have been watched carefully by political pros for signs of how California’s new “top two” electoral system will work. Imposed by a 2010 ballot initiative, and in place already in Washington State, the “top-two,” or “jungle” primary allows all candidates from any or no party to compete in a single primary contest, with the top two finishers proceeding to the general election ballot. So for the first time, general election contests in California could feature two Democrats or two Republicans, which might well happen in quite a few of today’s highly gerrymandered congressional and legislative districts in the Golden State.
Since this was a special election, the “top two” finishers proceed to a special runoff, not to the next general election. Additionally, had someone won a majority yesterday, he or she would have been declared elected; that won’t be the case in regular elections in the future (this is the one of two key differences between the California system and Louisiana’s, where a majority wins; the other difference is that Louisiana’s jungle primary only applies to elections for state offices).
Yesterday’s “special election” features make it difficult to draw any major conclusions about the impact of “top two” in the future. But one claim about the system–that it would make intraparty conflict a more visible feature of primaries–may already be coming true. According to one California political wizard quoted at Politico, Hahn helped lift Huey towards a primary spot by going after Bowen in a way that diverted Democratic votes to fourth-place finisher Marcy Winograd (an anti-war activist who twice challenged Harman). And let’s say Bowen does make it to the runoff: you can imagine that what is essentially an extended primary contest could get pretty abrasive if it were to run all the way to November, which will be the case in the future.
There are quite a few other questions about “top two” that remain to be answered; one in particular is whether primary contests on general election day in heavily D or R districts will boost general election turnout. Another is whether “true independents” will play a more visible role. But we’ll have to wait until 2012 for most of the answers.

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