It happens every two years during the spring primary election season: One major party or the other feels wronged by the Top Two primary system Californians adopted in 2010 and whines for months about its plight.
In 2016, the griping came from Republicans whose vote splintered in the primary run for the U.S. Senate and left the eventual November runoff field to two Democrats, Kamala Harris winning the seat previously held by three-termer Barbara Boxer.
This year Democrats did the complaining. Their rush of candidates seeking to knock off seemingly vulnerable Republican members of Congress created the possibility of extremely fragmented Democratic votes, especially in three Orange County-based districts carried two years ago by the party’s presidential candidate Hillary Clinton.
As Republicans did two years earlier, Democrats made much of the Top Two system’s “jungle primary” nickname.
But as it turned out, counts in the first post-election week indicated Democrats will likely make the runoffs in all those districts, the chief remaining doubt coming in the 48th District, represented for decades by Republican Dana Rohrabacher.
In that coastline district, Rohrabacher had tallied just over 30 percent of the vote, with the possibility of going higher when all provisional and late absentee ballots are counted. Former Orange County Republican chairman Scott Baugh trailed a bit behind two Democrats for the district’s second November ballot slot under Top Two, which allows only two candidates to appear on runoff ballots for each position: the two highest primary election vote-getters regardless of party.
If Baugh eventually makes the runoff (and chances are he will not, as he was more than 1,400 votes behind Democrats Hans Kierstead, an M.D. and a stem cell researcher, and businessman Harley Rouda – separated by just 87 votes), Democrats should blame it on their own disorganization, not on the system. Kierstead was supported by the state Democratic Party, while Rouda was funded in large part by the national Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee.
Their circumstance evokes a 1930s-era remark by philosopher/comic Will Rogers, who famously observed that “I don’t belong to any organized political party. I’m a Democrat.
Meanwhile, in the 49th District just to the south, former Orange County Democratic Party executive director Mike Levin, a lawyer, pulled 17.1 percent of the vote, beating out two other significant Democrats for the right to take on Republican political veteran Diane Harkey for a seat long occupied by the GOP’s Darrell Issa.
And in the 39th district, represented more than a decade by retiring Republican Ed Royce, Democrat Gil Cisneros – winner of a $266 million Powerball lottery prize in 2011 – easily beat back several other Democrats and will take on Republican Assemblywoman and former Royce aide Young Kim in November.
Further north, late counts indicated Democrat Josh Harder had emerged from yet another crowded Democratic field to take on veteran Republican Jeff Denham this fall.
It began to dawn on Democrats only in late April that their surfeit of eager hopefuls could produce two GOP runoff candidates in districts that seemed ripe for turning from red to blue. This happened once before, in 2012, when Republicans placed two candidates into the runoff in a San Bernardino County district with a large Democratic voter registration edge.
But most likely not this time, because the party put significant money into all these districts to assure that voters knew there could be such distortion.
In the end, the more moderate Democratic candidate won out in all districts where the outcome has been determined, precisely the intent of Top Two when it passed as a ballot initiative.
If a party was actually wronged this year, it was probably the GOP, which for the second straight November will apparently have no candidate for the U.S. Senate, longtime Democratic Sen. Dianne Feinstein to be opposed by fellow Democrat Kevin de Leon, who barely beat out a field of almost completely unknown and unfunded Republicans.
The fault here lies not with the system, but with the GOP for failing to recruit and support a significant candidate. Now Republican voters may decide the race between the moderate Feinstein and the far more leftist de Leon.
All of which means Top Two worked just as designed, no matter what the whiners said before Election Day.