Have we ever had a more dismal election? For the first time in 60 years there is no serious race for governor, nor any other partisan statewide office. Voters in competitive districts are exposed to the usual swarm of campaign mailers. But one thing is new this year; candidates in same party runoffs are making serious appeals across party lines, further evidence that our new “top two” primary is working as it should.
Because of our new primary system, California no longer nominates partisan candidates for state or federal office, instead the top two primary finishers run off in November. As a consequence, this year there are 25 same party runoffs for Assembly, Senate and Congress. Not all, of course, are serious campaigns, but those that are have found a magic bullet in appealing to members of the party that has no candidate on the ballot.
Consider the heavily Democratic 6th Senate district that covers mostly the city of Sacramento. The top two finishers in the primary were the two Assembly members overlapping the Senate district, Assemblymen Roger Dickinson and Richard Pan, both Democrats.
Together they accounted for 71 percent of the primary vote, but that leaves 29 percent of voters who cast a ballot for one of the two Republicans who did not make the runoff. There is some evidence that in 2012 members of the party with no candidate on the ballot simply left the race blank. But this year, some candidates are making a direct appeal to these voters.
Assemblyman Pan, a pediatrician, is strongly supported by an independent expenditure committee called Californians Allied for Patient Protection. It is flooding Republican mailboxes in the district with direct appeals for these voters to cast a ballot for Democrat Pan.
“California’s open primary law allows the top two vote getters to face off in the November election,” explains one pro-Pan mailer. “In this Senate seat, the choice is between two Democrats. Study the records of Dr. Richard Pan and Roger Dickinson before voting. Which Democrat shares some of your values?” The mailer goes on to clearly play to Republican “values” by pointing to Dickinson’s heavy support from trial lawyers, a reliable GOP bugaboo.
Another mailer features a strong endorsement for Pan from retiring Sacramento County district attorney Jan Scully, a well known and well respected Republican, while others stress that Pan is the candidate of law enforcement. Pan trailed Dickinson in the primary, and his chances of winning in November depend on getting the votes of the 29 percent who did not cast a ballot for a Democrat in June, and especially making sure they do not skip the race because there is no Republican candidate.
Pan’s campaign has also bought onto virtually all the Republican and conservative slate cards voters are getting in this district, noting his support from law enforcement. Pan’s opponent, Roger Dickinson, is not making direct issues appeal to Republicans; instead he is accusing Pan of being a hypocrite for doing so. One Dickinson mailer accuses Pan of telling Democrats one thing and Republicans something else. Dickinson also accuses “big tobacco” – a reliable Democratic bugaboo – of funding the Pan campaign against him.
In the overlapping 9th Assembly district, again two Democrats, who between them received 70 percent of the primary vote, are facing off in November, and both are appealing to Republicans. Sacramento Councilman Darrell Fong points out to Republicans that his opponent, Elk Grove Councilman Jim Cooper, is endorsed by the state Democratic Party, while Cooper has sent out a mailer saying he is the candidate whom Republicans can trust. The Cooper mailer also includes a “fellow Republicans” letter from two former Sacramento county sheriffs that are well known Republicans.
Among the most interesting, and most controversial cross party mailers, appeared in the 25th Congressional district in the Antelope Valley where former GOP Sen. Tony Strickland is facing off against a fellow Republican, current Sen. Steve Knight. The Democrat who ran third in the primary had initially endorsed Knight, but then pulled his endorsement when it turned out that Knight was one of only three votes against a bill to ban sales of the Confederate flag in state stores.
Worrying about the sale of Confederate flags would seem to be proof the legislature has too much time on its hands, but Strickland has seized on the issue. In a mailer to Democrats titled “Some Things Democratic Voters Need to Know About Steve Knight”, he accuses Knight of cavorting with extremists by voting against “removing the Confederate flag from state property.” The mailer shows a smirking Knight superimposed on a Confederate stars and bars flag that looks like it was left over from “Gone With The Wind.” Exactly how Democratic voters will feel about the fluttering flag remains to be seen.
It will be interesting to see if these mailers lead voters to take the opportunity of the cross party choices the top two gives them; and even more interesting if some candidates end up owing their elections not only to the voters of their own party but voters of the opposite party as well.