SACRAMENTO — The California Republican Party has been steadily shrinking and losing clout for years now, but the results of Tuesday’s “top two” primary election marked a new low for the state party.
GOP candidates failed to advance in many of the Bay Area’s premiere contests as well as the race for the Golden State’s first open U.S. Senate seat in more than two decades.
Two Democrats will compete in that contest as well as the races to represent the 14th Assembly District, which covers northern Contra Costa and southern Solano counties, the 24th Assembly District, which straddles San Mateo and Santa Clara counties, and the 27th Assembly District, which covers most of south San Jose and the Evergreen area, among others.
Billed as a way to force politicians to campaign toward voters in the middle rather than at the extremes, Californians endorsed the new primary system in 2010 when they passed Proposition 14. The rules require that the top-two finishers advance to the general election, even if they belong to the same party.
One analyst says the GOP’s unusually poor showing in the area’s down-ballot races could be an aberration connected to presumptive Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump. Having such a polarizing figure at the top of the ticket may have depressed turnout among moderate Bay Area Republicans.
“Republicans in this part of the state weren’t enthusiastic about this nominee, so it seems many of them just didn’t show up,” said Paul Mitchell, a Sacramento-based elections guru.
But other political experts think Tuesday’s results provided a glimpse of what most elections under the new primary system will look like — unless the Republican Party learns how to unite around a single candidate. If the party had done so in the Senate race, it would almost certainly have someone competing in November to replace Barbara Boxer.
“Together, the top-four Republican vote-getters won more support than Loretta Sanchez, who came in second place,” said Bill Whalen, a veteran GOP strategist and fellow at Stanford University’s Hoover Institution. “If Republicans can whittle down and control the field, they can finish second.”
State Attorney General Kamala Harris won more than 40 percent of the vote in the Senate race and easily secured a spot in the general election against Sanchez, an Orange County congresswoman who captured less than half as many votes as Harris but still managed a comfortable second-place finish.
The top-two primary system was the brainchild of Abel Maldonado, then a moderate Republican state senator from Santa Maria. In 2009, he ransomed his state budget vote to force legislative Democrats to put the system up for a statewide vote.
Despite Republicans’ poor showing in the Senate race and other key Bay Area contests, Maldonado said in an interview that the system is working the way it was designed because it’s allowing only candidates to advance to the general election who are “open-minded, pragmatic and reasonable.”
“Before Prop. 14, this U.S. Senate race would be over. Harris would have already won and our votes in November wouldn’t have mattered,” said Maldonado, describing the outcome of a hypothetical contest between Harris and a conservative Republican.
“Now, she’ll have to work to beat Sanchez,” Maldonado said, “and we’ll learn more about her record, and that’s great news.”
Other local races that will feature two Democrats in November include battles between state Sen. Jim Beall, D-San Jose, and Assemblywoman Nora Campos, D-San Jose, to represent the 15th Senate District; Assemblyman Bill Dodd, D-Napa, and former Assemblywoman Mariko Yamada, D-Napa, to represent the 3rd Senate District; former Assemblywoman Nancy Skinner, D-Berkeley, and former Assemblyman Sandre Swanson, D-Oakland, to represent the 9th Senate District; Anna Caballero and Karina Cervantez Alejo to represent the 30th Assembly District; and Tim Grayson and Mae Torlakson to represent the 14th Assembly District.
Larry Gerston, professor emeritus of political science at San Jose State University, said the top-two system has led to unintended consequences, especially when two candidates from the same party advance to the general election.
Not only is a voter’s choice limited, he said, but campaigns costs will soar even higher than before because each candidate must now spend more money to differentiate themselves from the other person from the same party.
And in the end, asking voters who are used to supporting a political party to choose among a sea of, say, Democratic candidates may just confuse them, he said.
“Oh my God, they are both Democrats,” Gerston said, describing what voters might think when they show up at the ballot box in November. “How do I separate them?”
Staff writer Sam Richards contributed to this report. Contact Jessica Calefati at 916-441-2101. Follow her at Twitter.com/Calefati.
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