Across televisions in Orange County, a flashy ad slams GOP congressional candidate Rocky Chavez for supporting a California climate change program and a massive state budget.
But it’s not one of Chavez’s Republican rivals who’s criticizing him for siding on issues with Democrats such as Gov. Jerry Brown. It’s Democrats themselves.
Welcome to Tuesday’s “jungle primary,” where the top two vote-getters, regardless of party, advance to the general election. That means neither Democrats nor Republicans are guaranteed a spot on the November ballot. Candidates and parties are scrambling to avoid potential shutouts.
Democrats worry two Republicans could make the runoff in several U.S. House contests, which explains why a national Democratic campaign organization is airing ads aimed at undermining Chavez with the GOP base. Republicans are all but guaranteed to be locked out of the U.S. Senate contest and are fighting tooth and nail to win a slot in the governor’s race.
“It’s definitely been a disruptive force in California politics, and we’re just learning about some of the pros and cons,” said Mark Baldasarre, president of the nonpartisan Public Policy Institute of California.
Californians voted to create the top-two primary system in 2010 at the urging of supporters such as then-Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, who said it would encourage candidates to adopt more moderate positions rather than appeal to their party’s most extreme voters.
But there’s little evidence that’s happening, according to PPIC researcher Eric McGhee, who found GOP candidates aren’t becoming more moderate. Democrats are in some cases, he said, but that could be due to factors such as redistricting.
Only Washington state uses a similar system, which some call the “jungle primary” because of the free-for-all nature of having all candidates running against each other on one ballot.
In the governor’s race, San Diego businessman John Cox is courting hardcore conservatives. He is promoting his endorsement from President Donald Trump and promising to scale back protections for immigrants living in the country illegally, though such stands don’t appeal to a broad segment of California voters.
Cox is fighting for the second slot against former Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, a Democrat whose backers are portraying Cox as a secret Democrat in order to depress his support among Republicans. At the same time, front-runner Gavin Newsom is running ads aimed at boosting Cox, presuming he’ll be an easier general election rival.
This type of cross-party tangling isn’t new. Candidates long have tried to boost their weakest potential general election opponent. But the top-two system has elevated the stakes and added a more chaotic, less predictable element to the contests.
“With a closed primary, it’s a little bit of chess. With a jungle primary, it’s more like three- or four-dimensional chess,” said Jim Brulte, chairman of the California Republican Party.
In the Senate contest, 26-year incumbent Dianne Feinstein is shifting to the left in the face of a challenge from state Sen. Kevin de Leon, who argues she hasn’t done enough to stand up to Trump. In recent weeks, she reversed her long-held support for the death penalty and softened her opposition to legal marijuana.
In the past, a strong incumbent such as Feinstein could have largely ignored a lesser-known foe from the left, knowing she would make it through the primary and face a Republican. But with the top-two primary system and no serious Republican challengers, de Leon is likely to be a thorn in her side all the way into November.
With Republicans’ clout rapidly fading in California, failing to have general election candidates for the Senate and governor’s races could prove disastrous for the party’s hopes of keeping control of House seats and winning state legislative contests.
Democrats need to pick up about two dozen seats to flip the majority in the House, and three to have a majority in the Senate. In 2016, when no Republican was in the Senate race, about 2 million Californians who voted for president took a pass on the Senate race, Baldasarre said.
“You’ve got a much larger group of people who feel alienated because they’re not represented,” he said.
But Garry South, a longtime adviser to former Democratic Gov. Gray Davis and a staunch advocate of the top-two primary system, said general elections with candidates from only one party can actually benefit voters. The state leans so heavily Democratic that, in statewide races, forcing two candidates within that party to debate each other can be more productive than letting one Democrat cruise unscathed to victory, he said.
“In a one-party state, which we have basically become, having same-party runoffs is kind of what you have to do to protect the voters’ right to make a decision,” he said.
While such a system benefits Democrats at the statewide level, it has its perks for Republicans, too.
Take Orange County, where polling indicates Republicans could see two candidates in the November election in three House seats that Democrats badly need to win if they want to take back the House.
That’s led a scramble to take down candidates such as Chavez, even with messages that are seemingly anathema to the party’s priorities.
“Human nature is very inventive,” South said. “And particularly when it comes to politics, there will always be people gaming the system.”