How California’s top-two primary could wind up saving a vulnerable Republican

The Daily Kos Elections Morning Digest is compiled by David Nir, Jeff Singer, Stephen Wolf, and Carolyn Fiddler, with additional contributions from David Jarman, Steve Singiser, Daniel Donner, James Lambert, and David Beard.

Leading Off

● CA-48: Ugh. This is some very frustrating news—and yet another reason why we hate top-two primaries with a passion. GOP Rep. Dana Rohrabacher is looking decidedly vulnerable next year after his Southern California House seat swung from a 55-43 win for Mitt Romney to a 48-46 win for Hillary Clinton, and no fewer than four notable Democrats have jumped in to challenge the incumbent, who has only won by less than double digits once in his three-decade career.

But a new candidate in the race could screw everything up, and that’s because businessman Stelian Onufrei is a Republican. In any normal state, Onufrei, who’s pledged to self-fund $500,000, would simply run in the GOP primary against Rohrabacher, while Democrats would go about nominating their own candidate—no problem.

In California, though, all candidates from all parties run together on a single primary ballot, and the top-two vote-getters advance to the November general election—regardless of what party they belong to. That means that two Democrats or two Republicans could win any given primary, something that happens with some frequency. Most of the time, one-party races take place in dark blue or dark red districts and no one really complains. But sometimes, when dark stars align, they happen in swing districts, and it’s always been to the detriment of Democrats.

The most poignant example took place in 2012, when GOP Rep. Gary Miller faced five opponents: one fellow Republican, then-state Sen. Bob Dutton, and four Democrats. While the 31st District was decidedly blue, turnout in California primaries always tilts more Republican. That allowed Miller and Dutton to neatly split half the vote while the four Democrats fought over the other half. In a catastrophic outcome, the leading Democrat, Pete Aguilar, wound up 2 points behind Dutton in third place, completely locking Team Blue out of the general election in a seat Barack Obama won 57-41. (Dutton wound up losing to Miller, who retired a cycle later and was belatedly succeeded by Aguilar.)

You’ll notice that the arrangement of candidates on each side in the 48th is the same as it was in the 31st: a Republican incumbent, a non-Some Dude challenger, and four seemingly credible Democrats. That’s a formula for disaster, especially since the 48th, located in Orange County, is more Republican than the 31st. That means the primary pie for Democrats to squabble over starts out smaller—and the biggest slice could very well not be big enough.

Even when they’ve managed to avoid calamity, California Democrats have had to spend time, money, and resources in order to do so. A good illustration came last cycle when the Democratic-held 24th District was open: The DCCC had to shell out over $450,000 to make sure at least one Democrat would advance. If Onufrei really follows through, and if Democrats don’t unite behind a single standard-bearer, the party may have to do something like that again.

But it shouldn’t have to. To give voters a proper choice in November should not require political parties to limit the choices they give to their own members in June. And Republicans should hate top-two just as much as Democrats. Last year, in the most high-profile breakdown yet, Republicans wound up with no candidate in the general election for Senate, which almost assuredly hurt them downballot as well—and the same thing could happen to them again next year with the governor’s race.

Not only has the top-two system failed to reduce partisanship, as its naïve proponents had argued it would, but it introduced a major flaw into California’s elections, one that’s very unhealthy for democracy. But it’s one we don’t have to live with: Voters approved this change at the ballot box back in 2010, and they can get rid of it the same way.


● 2Q Fundraising: Be sure to check out our second quarter Senate fundraising chart, which has now been updated to include the numbers for nearly every noteworthy candidate. We’re also including the totals for House members who are publicly or reportedly considering Senate bids. Daily Kos Elections will publish its big board of second quarter fundraising for every competitive House race on Monday.

● HI-Sen: Observers of Hawaii’s political scene have long speculated that Democratic Rep. Tulsi Gabbard wants to run for higher office, and with $2.1 million now stockpiled in her House campaign account, her most obvious target would be the Senate, since she could use her funds for such a race as well. However, Gabbard ruled out what would have been the quickest possible route to a promotion—a primary challenge to Sen. Mazie Hirono next year—when she endorsed Hirono for a second term last month.

Hirono is currently battling kidney cancer, though she has said she is running again “without question.” If Hirono’s plans should change, however, Gabbard would be a likely candidate to succeed her.


● HI-GovThis is weird. Some random blogger at Huffington Post’s community section named Robert Wintner recently claimed in a rambling, semi-unhinged post that Rep. Colleen Hanabusa had told Gov. David Ige she might challenge him in next year’s Democratic primary, allegedly as part of an effort to pressure Ige to veto a bill that would phase out the collection of tropical fish for aquariums. This is obviously not the kind of thing Digest entries rely on, but for whatever reason, Hanabusa felt compelled to respond and released a lengthy statement denying that she’d ever contacted Ige’s office in connection with the bill.

Hanabusa also demanded Wintner (who runs an ocean-sports business and supported the bill, which Ige did ultimately veto) retract his post and apologize, but her real beef appears to be with Ige. Hanabusa seemed to accept Wintner’s claim that his source was an Ige staffer named Brandon Asuka, warning that she “questions the appropriateness of anyone from Governor Ige’s office mentioning her name” in connection with the governor’s deliberation over the fish bill. The final paragraph of her statement was the strangest, though:

If as portrayed in the article, Congresswoman Hanabusa also respectfully requests Governor Ige’s office refrain from using her name and/or her potential to challenge Governor Ige with respect to any official discussion regarding executive decisions of the Governor’s office.

The phrasing is very awkward, but it sure sounds like Hanabusa is notruling out a gubernatorial run, based on that line about “her potential to challenge” Ige. The governor has looked potentially vulnerable, and a number of names have popped up as potential opponents, including Hanabusa’s. Until now, though, she hadn’t said anything publicly, but this is certainly one of the oddest ways to float a bid for higher office we’ve ever seen.

● NJ-GovMarist: Phil Murphy (D): 54, Kim Guadagno (R): 33. Chris Christie job approval: 16-73.

● TN-Gov: Rutherford County Property Assessor Rob Mitchell, a former Democrat who switched parties three years ago, says he will not join the GOP primary for Tennessee’s open gubernatorial race next year. Mitchell had been considering a bid and promised a decision by July 1, but announcing three weeks late practically rates as prompt for a politician. The Republican field to succeed termed-out GOP Gov. Bill Haslam is already jam-packed, likely dissuading a smaller fry like Mitchell, though some other big names are still weighing the race.

● WI-Gov: State education superintendent Tony Evers had been publicly considering a bid against GOP Gov. Scott Walker, and on Fridayhe filed paperwork to run … but he insists that he still hasn’t made a “final decision,” nor did he offer a timetable for making one. However, if Evers goes through with it, he’d be by far the most prominent candidate Democrats could put up. So far, the only notable announced Democrat is wealthy businessman Andy Gronik, who said he has the “utmost respect” for Evers but added that he “love[s] competition.”


● AZ-02: Former Democratic Rep. Ann Kirkpatrick, who’d been considering a bid against GOP Rep. Martha McSally, officially entered the race on Thursday. Kirkpatrick represented northern Arizona’s 1st District for three terms but moved south to the 2nd after losing to Sen. John McCain last year, apparently sensing an opportunity that McSally could be vulnerable.

But despite her experience winning tough House races, Kirkpatrick does not have the primary to herself. Her most notable opponent is former state Rep. Matt Heinz, who was Team Blue’s unsuccessful nominee here last year. However, Heinz recently announced that he raised a quick $180,000 in just the last two weeks of the second quarter, and he previously released a PPP poll conducted in May that showed him leading Kirkpatrick 40-30 in what was then a hypothetical primary.

Arizona’s primary is a long way off, though, and Kirkpatrick has barely begun to get her name out in her new hometown of Tucson, so this is as good an example as any that showcases how polls are only snapshots in time, not predictions of the future.

● IA-02: Iowa’s 2nd District, like the rest of the state, swung sharply toward Donald Trump last year, so Rep. Dave Loebsack, the last Democrat in Iowa’s congressional delegation, ought to be a natural target for the GOP. So far, though, the only candidate to emerge is physician Christopher Peters, who lost 54-46 to Loebsack last year and just announced he’d seek a rematch. But despite the somewhat close nature of his race last year, Peters doesn’t have the makings of a strong challenger, since he raised just $217,000 for his entire campaign. A couple of Republican state legislators haven’t completely ruled out bids of their own, but one of them, state Rep. Bobby Kaufmann, said he’d be less likely to run if Peters did so himself, so he’s probably out.

● WV-03: State House Majority Whip Carol Miller, who’s served in the legislature for a decade, just became the latest Republican candidate to join the race for the House seat left open by GOP Rep. Evan Jenkins, who is running for Senate. She joins one current and one former member of her chamber: Del. Rupie Phillips and ex-Del. Rick Snuffer, who was the GOP’s nominee in West Virginia’s 3rd Congressional District back in 2012, when the seat was still held by Democrat Nick Rahall.

Interestingly, while this once-blue region has lurched to right to an almost unparalleled extent—Trump won the district 73-23—several notable Democrats are also running here. Still, despite the fact that Democratic Gov. Jim Justice carried the 3rd en route to victory last year, Republicans are the overwhelming favorites to keep this seat.

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