CA120: Deconstructing California’s top-two primary

A political rally in southern California during the 2016 election cycle. (Photo: Joseph Sohm)

With the close of the 2018 primary election cycle, we get another chance to see how campaigns have evolved under California’s top-two open primary system.

The most noteworthy change appears to be the manner by which campaigns are extending their reach across the partisan aisle. But they are not doing it in the way that the authors of the Top Two Candidates Open Primary Act, which took effect in 2011, intended.

Advocates of the open primary envisioned campaigns appealing to all voters — including those with opposite political affiliations — to try and earn their votes.

In this utopian world, Republicans would appeal to Democrats on issues, Democrats would appeal to Republicans, and all campaigns would work to win independents.

But there’s a problem: Campaign professionals know that voters — especially those in primary elections — are tightly connected to their partisan camps. Campaigns are using the top-two system to attack across the partisan divide in order to get the general election opponent they prefer.

And they’re doing it openly.

If you’re looking for a moment in 2018 that clearly illustrated this overt strategy, look to the final debate in the governor’s race in early May. That’s when Gavin Newsom, who faced a number of rival Democrats, was asked who he wanted to run against. He responded by pointing to John Cox and Travis Allen, both Republicans. “Either one of these would do,” Newsom said.

This strategy of selecting your opponent wasn’t new in this year’s election, but the acknowledgement and embracing of it is.

In the 2002 primary election, incumbent Gov. Gray Davis was sailing to re-election within the Democratic primary. Yet, rather than sit idly by through the primary, Davis’ advisers decided to take a swipe at the top-polling Republican, Richard Riordan, who in the Field Poll had a 41-point lead. They attacked him for being a flip-flopper on abortion rights and repeated his statements that he was actually pro-choice right before Republican voters were going to the polls.

Under the top-two system, candidates and independent expenditure committees, or IEs, are now spending across party lines.

The million-dollar ad campaign, which even aired during the Super Bowl, ostensibly attacked him in preparation for the general election campaign. But it really was a play to hurt him among Republican voters for whom abortion was a major voting issue. This effectively helped his much weaker opponents, Bill Simon and Bill Jones, and made it more likely one of them would make it to November to face Davis.

Here’s a story that Davis adviser Garry South recently told: After the 2002 primary, a client sent him two identical bouquets of flowers. Thinking it was a mistake, South opened the card on the first bouquet and it said, “Congratulations on winning the Democratic Primary.” Then he opened the card on the second, and it read, “Congratulations on winning the Republican Primary.”

The strategy had worked, and while many knew the play, the campaign stayed mum in the press about it for fear that tinkering with another political party’s primary could have blowback.

Fast-forward 10 years, and the open primary gave the strategy new salience.

Under the top-two system, candidates and independent expenditure committees, or IEs, are now spending across party lines in an attempt to stave off an intraparty contest that could be more costly and/or disastrous.

The Newsom campaign and the IEs were actively working to get a Republican in the runoff, and the polling pointed to John Cox as the most likely to make it

In 2012, during the first run of the top-two primary, state Sen. Rod Wright, a Democrat, was up for re-election. There was real concern about legal issues surrounding his residency in the district.

The business community wanted to ensure that he returned to Sacramento, but depending on the status of that legal process, there wear fears that he could be beaten by another Democrat in the November general election.

So, to protect him, they invested $60,000 in an IE for Charlotte Svolos, a Republican you’ve probably never heard of, just to make sure she made it into the runoff. The strategy paid off when she won the primary (only to be abandoned by the IE that had gotten her there) and got trounced by Wright in November by a 3-to-1 margin.

This Wright strategy was a bit of a stealth mission. Consultant Matt Rexroad, like Garry South before him, would admit it privately, but he was never quoted in the media about the campaign expenditure or the strategy.

At the time, it seemed like a big risk to admit that a part of the strategy was to impact the outcome of the race from the other end of the partisan divide. But those days are over.

The Newsom campaign and the IEs were actively working to get a Republican in the runoff, and the polling pointed to John Cox as the most likely to make it. When Donald Trump endorsed Cox, it was the Newsom campaign that sent warnings to voters that “Pro-NRA John Cox” was endorsed by the president; an attack that most Republicans would wear as a badge of honor.

In some ways, this cross-party tinkering is a lot easier than trying to move voters within a candidate’s own primary.

And this wasn’t just the Newsom campaign that was playing these cards.

Democrats were terrified of two Republicans making the runoff in several congressional campaigns, and that gave the Democratic organizations the green light to attack Republican Assemblyman Rocky Chávez, a strong General Election candidate with proven cross-party appeal. And it allowed them to go after Republican former Assemblyman Scott Baugh in a neighboring district, ensuring that he didn’t make the runoff.

These weren’t stealth missions. And it appears that crossing partisan lines to try and influence the outcome for voters on the other side of the aisle was a consequence-free activity.

In some ways, this cross-party tinkering is a lot easier than trying to move voters within a candidate’s own primary.

For example, in the governor’s race, when the Newsom campaign attacked Antonio Villaraigosa, it was unclear where those voters would go. Do they come to Newsom, or do they move to John Chiang or Delaine Eastin? When attacking within your own partisan silo, the voters can go any number of directions that can be good or bad for you.

However, in the Republican race, the Newsom campaign could be pretty sure that any votes leaving Allen would go to Cox. They weren’t going to drive Republican voters into the arms of a Democratic challenger.

Or in the 48th Congressional District, Democrats knew that any attacks on Baugh would push voters to incumbent Dana Rohrabacher, not drive support to their intra-party opponent.

Each election cycle we seem to learn a new lesson about the top-two system, and this cycle’s primary lesson is clear: campaigns can run to be the top vote getter among their partisan voters, and they can openly campaign on the other side of the ballot to draw the opponent they want for the general.

Both are legitimate and successful strategies and can be pursued openly.

Knowing how to tinker to get the opponent you want is now a required tool in the arsenal for the state’s top consultants.

Editor’s Note: Paul Mitchell, a regular contributor to Capitol Weekly, is the creator of its CA120 column; vice president of Political Data; and owner of Redistricting Partners, a political strategy firm. 



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