Top two: Democrats feel the heat

A California ballot box. (Photo illustration, Hafakot, via Shutterstock)

California’s fledgling top-two voting system, which creates an open primary for statewide and other offices, could prove costly to Democrats in liberal districts while rewarding Republicans who lose.

Passed by voters in 2010 as Proposition 14 and intended to create more moderate winners in primary elections, top two is a system in which the two leading candidates in the primaries, regardless of political party, advance to the general election in November speeddating oslo. Top two applies to races for the Legislature, Congress, constitutional offices and the U.S. Senate.

What this means for heavily liberal areas in Northern California is that voters could be presented with the choice of two Democrats and no Republicans in the general election.

In one-party towns like San Francisco, the top-two system makes the race twice as long, twice as expensive and twice as volunteer-intensive

For the first time in history, California’s June 7 primary election could produce two female democrats for U.S. Senate— state Attorney General Kamala Harris and U.S. Rep. Loretta Sanchez.

Of the dozens of legislative seats up for grabs, several races could pit two Democrats against each other in the general election. Those include the Bay Area’s Senate District 9, held by Loni Hancock, D-Berkeley, and SD 3, held by Lois Wolk, D-Davis.  Both are termed out.

An example of a liberal district that hasn’t elected a Republican for decades is SD 11 in San Francisco. Incumbent Mark Leno, California’s first openly gay state senator who captured more than 80 percent of the vote in 2012, is termed out and a political battle is now under way for his seat.

Scott Wiener

Scott Wiener

Two well-known Democrats, Scott Wiener and Jane Kim,  are running against lesser-known Republican Ken Loo, a firefighter and business owner. Kim and Wiener, both members of the San Francisco Board of Supervisors and both flush with hundreds of thousands of dollars in campaign contributions, don’t seem to be sweating the June vote.

“We have a very strong campaign and I am certain I will be in the top two going to the general election this November,” Kim said.

Wiener said that in one-party towns like San Francisco, the top-two system makes the race twice as long, twice as expensive and twice as volunteer-intensive because the two leading Democrats essentially repeat the same race.

“You are putting much more pressure on candidates to raise money because you have to raise it twice,” he said.

So why would a Republican even run in a district with less than 10 percent registered party voters?

“I think there are a lot of undercover conservatives in San Francisco.” — Ken Loo.

One reason, Wiener said, is that under party rules, the highest vote-getting Republican automatically gets a seat on the party’s central committee for the next four years. These committees, which exist throughout the state, are responsible for shaping party policy by making official endorsements in local races.

“I could see someone running in order to assure themselves a seat on the party central committee,” Wiener said.

Loo, a third-generation San Franciscan, was a last-minute replacement for another Republican who had dropped out of the race, potentially leaving no GOP choice for voters. He said the San Francisco Republican Central Committee is a secondary concern for him and that he could win the race if he hits his target of just over 33 percent of the vote.

“I think there are a lot of undercover conservatives in San Francisco,” he said. “At first I was really skeptical but [conservative] candidates [in District 11] almost always double the Republican registration on a shoestring budget.”

Jane Kim

Jane Kim

In more contested districts, a different dynamic is more likely to play out if enough democratic candidates split the vote, said Paul Mitchell, vice president of Political Data Inc. Mitchell sees 35 percent conservative voter support as a key threshold for a lone Republican candidate running in a highly liberal district.

“If the counter party gets 35 percent, it’s mathematically impossible for them to get beaten by two Democrats,” Mitchell said. “That person would really have to screw up not to make it to the general election.”

Of the 20 state Senate races in June’s statewide primary, only seven districts even meet that level of registered Republicans.

State Controller Betty Yee, who ran for office in the 2014 top-two primary, said the top-two voting system also affects the strategy of each campaign.

“Candidates will have to make a decision, essentially, about whether to reach out more broadly to the electorate at the very outset of their campaigns, or whether they just want to get through the primary, which will mean being sure their base supporters come out and get them to qualify for one of those top-two slots,” she said in an interview. “It takes money to do broader outreach.”

Another wild card in the primary, Yee said, is the mass of unaffiliated voters who may identify less closely with extreme party politics. As of January 2016, an average of 24 percent of the registered voters across all state elections are not affiliated with a political party.

“We have a growing number of decline to state voters—that’s really our largest growing voting population right now,” she said “So, perhaps the best strategy is to do the broader outreach.”

Editor’s Note: Ted Andersen is a student at UC Berkeley’s Graduate School of Journalism.

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