Ever since the 2010 passage of Proposition 14, Libertarians and members of other small but sometimes significant California political parties have griped about the lack of choices presented to voters in the state’s biennial November general elections.
Advocates of the “Top Two” primary election system set up by that eight-year-old initiative respond that it actually does provide runoff election choices, even if they’re often between different wings of the same political party.
Voters had just such a choice this fall in the contest between longtime incumbent Democratic U.S. Sen. Dianne Feinstein and former state Senate President Kevin de Leon. Feinstein represented moderate Democrats, de Leon the party’s more extreme leftist Young Turks.
This race ended up tossing a monkey wrench into Top Two, the first time the system has not worked as planned.
Top Two, known to some as the “jungle primary,” puts the two leading vote-getters in California primaries into the finals, regardless of political party. The major parties despise this system because it cuts their organizational influence, as it did last spring when the state’s Democratic Party apparatus leaned to de Leon, but 70 percent of Democratic primary voters went instead for Feinstein.
Top Two supporters enjoyed the fact that their rules reduced party influence. They don’t mind that dozens of district elections for Congress and the Legislature have been one-party affairs since 2010, some involving two Democrats and others matching two Republicans, depending on which major party was dominant in any particular district.
They have rejoiced in the fact that voters of the minority party, whose smaller numbers previously gave them little or no voice in district elections and a few statewide races, could moderate the way their representatives behaved once in office in Sacramento and Washington, D.C.
But then came the U.S. Supreme Court confirmation hearings for now-Justice Brett Kavanaugh, where Feinstein played a key role in getting #MeToo movement-style complaints about Kavanaugh’s alleged sexual misbehavior as a young man before the Senate Judiciary Committee, where she is the ranking Democrat.
Feinstein’s role infuriated many Republicans, who saw the claims about Kavanaugh as trumped-up falsehoods.
Rather than going for the more moderate Feinstein, who beat de Leon by a margin of more than 3-1 in the primary, Republicans by a margin of about 2-1 voted for de Leon. This was a real head-scratcher, as de Leon during the campaign often blasted Feinstein for her friendliness with some Republicans. De Leon is also the prime author of California’s “sanctuary state” law and his stances on everything from health care to climate change run diametrically counter to standard GOP positions.
Still, many Republicans came to detest Feinstein last fall and decided to vote for anyone over her. De Leon became their only possible fallback, allowing him to improve greatly on his primary performance, only losing by an eventual margin of about 9 percent.
Their sentiments were expressed by the editor of one small Central Valley newspaper, who wrote in his pre-election endorsements column, where he also blasted Democrats for their “often stupid ideas”: “Vote for Kevin de Leon. Incumbent Dianne Feinstein embarrassed herself and California by carrying the water on the phony and vicious campaign against…Kavanaugh. Her days in the Senate should be brought to a close.”
That did not happen, but GOP voters became strange bedfellows for the Democratic left and gave Feinstein some anxious moments.
Had de Leon won, he would have voted consistently for six years against almost everything favored by the Republican voters who so avidly helped him out.
That’s not how former GOP Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger and his fellow Republican sidekick, ex-Lt. Gov. Abel Maldonado, planned it when they helped create Top Two. Under their predicted scenario, the ultra-conservative voters who backed de Leon this fall were supposed to vote for the more moderate Feinstein.
If they were being rational, they would have done that. But they were governed by emotion, as many voters often are. So GOP-dominated counties like Shasta, Butte, Madera and Merced went big for de Leon.
If more monkey wrenches like this ever get tossed into Top Two, there’s a chance the same voters who opted into it will someday opt out.
Email Thomas Elias at firstname.lastname@example.org. His book, “The Burzynski Breakthrough: The Most Promising Cancer Treatment and the Government’s Campaign to Squelch It,” is now available in a soft cover fourth edition. For more Elias columns, go to www.californiafocus.net