The 2016 US Senate race will be the first serious statewide contest under the new rules of the open primary-top two runoff. If politicians have not figured out how much it has changed California politics, they will soon.
In a one-party state like California, the dominant pols generally don’t like elections, and the retirement of Sen. Barbara Boxer has not set off a land rush of candidates for her seat. In fact, the Democratic establishment is trying to rally everyone around Attorney General Kamala Harris and to clear the field for her.
They might succeed, but the new primary system argues against it, it is simply too easy to run under the new system. If this were 2010, all Harris would need to do is win a closed primary dominated by loyal and liberal Democratic base voters, easily done. But now running first is meaningless because there is a guaranteed run off between first place and second place.
California’s minor parties recently lost a court case challenging the new system on the grounds it denies them a place on the November ballot. Among California’s minor parties is the once dominant Republican Party; it can no longer compete for federal office (or any statewide office for that matter). If there are two or more well funded Democrats in 2016, it is probable none of the penniless Republicans will make the run off.
The 2012 US Senate race is a good primer. Despite the fact 2012 was a presidential election year, the primary turnout that year was just 31 percent, an historic low, and only exceeded by the even lower 2014 primary and general election turnout. It is unlikely California will play a role in the 2016 presidential race; it will be decided for both parties well before June. And thanks to legislation, there will be no high interest ballot measures to drive out turnout. While the US Senate race will be of interest to political junkies, there is no reason to expect that it will boost turnout.
Consequently, the 2016 primary turnout will not be especially beneficial to Democrats; it will be much more heavily Republican than the November turnout. In June 2012, 25 candidates ran for U.S. Senate, 14 Republicans, six Democrats and five minor parties, with incumbent Democrats Dianne Feinstein leading the pack with 49 percent of the vote. Her GOP runoff opponent, Elizabeth Emken, was second with 13 percent.
So count on a huge list of Senate wannabes in 2016. The only way a Republican will make the runoff is if, as in 2012, there is only one strong Democrat. That explains why the Democratic establishment is trying so hard to clear the field for Harris; they want her to face a hapless Republican in November 2016.
Part of the establishment push is to keep major Latinos from running, as evidenced by former San Francisco Mayor Willie Brown’s forceful argument that former Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa should “defer” to Harris. The California Democratic Party is driven by gender and racial identity; Harris checks two boxes, woman and non-white. But a Latino in the race will gum things up.
Although, there is little likelihood of a Latino making the runoff against Harris, a serious Latino would take some minority votes away from her. Latino turnout has peaked in the past few elections and voting bias against Latinos is becoming more apparent. Villaraigosa will get few if any Republican votes; and he will probably not get Democratic votes beyond the 15 percent or so of the primary electorate that is Latino.
The anti-Latino voting bias among Democrats was apparently in the 2014 primary when heavily favored Controller candidate John Perez could not make the runoff. The bias among Democrats is more subtle than the brutish anti-Latino bias among Republicans. Latino Democrats are generally anti-abortion and anti-gay marriage; that puts them at odds with the dominant progressive thinking on these issues. Latinos form a large part of the blue collar manufacturing base in the state; they don’t want to ban fracking to fight climate change. Finally, high Latino birth rates run counter to the Democrats’ environmentalist ethos.
Sensing that both parties dislike them for different reasons, Latinos have been staying home in droves in recent elections, that was apparent in 2014 and even in local elections in 2015. The bias against electing Latinos we saw in 2014 plus a feeling that elections really do not improve their lives make it hard to see a Latino moving to the Senate runoff in 2016, whether it is Villaraigosa or Rep. Xavier Becerra (D-Los Angeles) who is also thinking of running.
I wrote last month that the Democratic establishment would keep wealthy white environmentalist Tom Steyer from running, and indeed they did. But the real opportunity in the 2016 open primary is for a white Democrat to emerge to take on Harris. One to watch is Rep. Adam Schiff (D-Burbank) who is also thinking about jumping in. The filing deadline is not for another 13 months, and much will happen.