California’s new “top two” election system is now having exactly the impact that its sponsors hoped it would. It is moderating the legislature. This can be seen in the remarkable success the business community enjoyed in this legislative session despite the fact that the Democrats enjoy a two-thirds majority in both houses.
At the beginning of the session, the California Chamber of Commerce pegged 38 bills – all by Democrats – as “job killers,” and pledged to stop them. Given the Democratic success at the polls in 2012 in which they won every marginal race for the legislature, in the process defeating several candidates backed by the Chamber, one might have expected an orgy of left wing legislation. Instead there was no lurch to the left in Sacramento, and indeed the Chamber managed to defeat 37 of the 38 job killer bills.
Two factors moderated the Democratic majorities. First, the 2012 election was not carried out in gerrymandered seats drawn to make every member safe; they were run in districts drawn by the Citizens Redistricting Commission. As a consequence, there were a number of Democrats elected in relatively marginal seats, and they were not inclined to go far left. In fact, the new marginal seats Democrats were crucial in defeating several of the Chamber’s “job killer” bills.
Even more important is the “top two” primary-runoff system. No longer can a Democrat win the primary in a safe Democratic seat, and coast to an easy election in November. Several safe Democratic districts saw runoffs between two Democrats, and there will be more of these in the future. While the business community had no luck electing Republicans in close contests in 2012, they did surprisingly well in the top two same party runoffs. In the safely Democratic 39th Assembly District, business got behind underdog Democrat Raul Bocanegra against Richard Alarcon, and Bocanegra won by 58 to 42 percent. In a special election primary just last month, Jobs PAC, the Chamber’s political arm, went with Democrat Matt Dababneh and he beat out six other Democrats in the heavily Democratic 45th Assembly district.
The 2012 election was a trial run for the top two system; but the success business enjoyed in funding more moderate Democrats in all-Democratic top two runoffs assures an even bigger push in 2014. This could lead to business money abandoning Republican efforts to win back some of the legislative seats they lost in 2012 and to bring the Democrats under two thirds in at least one house. There is no sign of a credible Republican candidate for governor, and if Gov. Jerry Brown continues his centrist approach on business and economic issues, he will reign in the more ideological Democrats, so why try to replace him.
In 2014, there will be five safe Democratic open Senate seats and 14 safe Democratic open Assembly districts. It is likely most of these will involve same party runoffs in November, a Democrat against a Democrat. That is where the action will be as business tries to find more moderate Democrats to support in the runoff.
The top two runoff system destroyed the ability of labor and its allies to control the Democratic caucuses by simply winning low turnout closed Democratic primaries in safe seats. Now these seats are being decided in higher turnout November elections where all the voters can participate in electing their legislator.
The success of the Chamber in defeating the ‘job killers” in the Assembly and Senate shows the power of the top two system in moderating the legislature. The jury is no longer out on top two, it is working just like it was supposed to.