CA Primary Still Important for Down Ballot Contenders

Sherry Bebitch Jeffe & Doug Jeffe

Sherry Bebitch Jeffe, Professor of the Practice of Public Policy Communication, Sol Price School of Public Policy and Doug Jeffe, Communications and Public Affairs Strategist


As they say about opera, “it ain’t over until the fat lady sings.”

Well, in the 2016 Presidential nomination races, it isn’t going to be officially over until California votes. Both Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump appear to have a virtual lock on their party’s nominations, but neither is able to muster a convention-delegate majority until after the June 7 California Primary.

After being virtual bystanders in the modern presidential nominating process, California voters get to put a period on both the Democratic and Republican races. While the outcome in both presidential races seems pre-ordained at this point, a month is an eternity in politics. Moreover, Presidential politics can have significant impact in California’s down ballot contests.

As always, turnout is pivotal in contested races, particularly because of California’s top two primary system, which applies to all partisan offices except the presidency. This is where enthusiasm and interest comes in.   If either party has a large turnout advantage or disadvantage, that can make a difference in determining which two down-ballot candidates will run off in a highly contested district.

In 2012, when there was no Democratic Presidential primary race, two Republicans edged into the runoff for the 31st Congressional District, where Democrats had been favored to win in November. Subsequently, Pete Aguilar reclaimed the seat for the Democrats in 2014.

In the 24th CD on California’s Central Coast, where Lois Capps is retiring, there are at least two viable contenders from each party on the primary ballot. A skewed turnout in that district could produce a face off between two Republicans or between two Democrats—not likely, but possible.

In the U.S. Senate race, it is looking increasingly likely that two Democrats—California Attorney General Kamala Harris and Congresswoman Loretta Sanchez will face off in November, since the three leading Republicans are little known and underfunded. Only a lopsidedly heavy GOP turnout could change that dynamic—and Cruz’s departure from the GOP race makes that improbable.

While Republican turnout has outpaced the Democrats’ in this year’s primary season across the country, that isn’t likely to happen in California. The mood at last week’s Republican State Convention in Burlingame, where all three GOP Presidential contenders appeared, can best be described as tepid. The most enthusiasm seemed to be among the couple of hundred demonstrators who blocked Donald Trump’s entrance to the convention hotel, and forced him to be shepherded through a gap in a freeway fence, to be ushered into the meeting venue through a back door. (Still, the protestors seemed less than “enthusiastic,” too.)

In their speeches—Donald Trump (low energy), John Kasich (folksy and Ted Cruz (focused)—none of the combatants seemed to arouse much passion among the delegates. When the convention finally got around to hearing from the Republican U.S. Senate candidates, most of the seats were empty.

Under State Chairman Jim Brulte, the GOP has put together a well-run party operation and restored some semblance of financial stability, but that is hardly enough to resuscitate a brand that has been so badly tarnished in the Golden State. Apparently, new Democratic registration is outpacing new Republican registration for the primary—a good indicator of turnout. Conventional wisdom is that the GOP has the turnout advantage in a California Primary, but that may not hold in this crazy and unpredictable election year. Unless Bernie Sanders gives up the ghost in the next month, the Clinton-Sanders contest may keep California’s Democratic and Independent voters engaged.

One of the long-term hallmarks of campaigning in California, money spent on mainstream media, won’t necessarily have the impact on campaigning in the Golden State that conventional wisdom says it has. (Hear that, Meg Whitman?).

This time, delegate totals and the ground game will pack a bigger punch. And that will mobilize two of the Democrats’ most critical constituencies—labor unions and Latinos. Given the state’s current political arithmetic, can the state’s Republicans match the Democrats’ electoral edge? Or will the state’s Democrats march to the tune of the late humorist Will Rogers, who famously proclaimed: “I am not a member of any organized political party. I am a Democrat.”

At any rate, what once seemed like a sleepy California Primary remains in this election season’s spotlight. An old Chinese toast (curse?) presages where California finds itself: “May you live in interesting times.”

The next month is going to be an interesting time for the Golden State.

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