Despite What You Read Feinstein Has No Primary Challenger

Joe Mathews
Connecting California Columnist and Editor, Zócalo Public Square, Fellow at the Center for Social Cohesion at Arizona State University and co-author of California Crackup: How Reform Broke the Golden State and How We Can Fix It (UC Press, 2010)

The New York Times, the Washington Post, Politico and much of the media is lying to you about Dianne Feinstein.

She does not have, as these publications keep reporting, a “primary challenger.” She is not running in a Democratic primary. Neither is the Democrat running against her, Kevin De Leon.

There is no Democratic primary this year in California, or in any year under our constitution. Indeed, there are no primaries at all, except for presidential candidates. California voters eliminated primaries back in 2010.

This being a digital age, word should have reached the East Coast. Perhaps we could send carrier pigeons.

To be fair to the national media, Californians make this same mistake too. Indeed, the state itself still mistakenly calls our June election a primary, even though it’s a general election – an election where candidates of all parties are on the ballot. The November election is a run-off with the top two candidates.

Even sophisticated groups repeat this mistake. The progressive Courage Campaign recently declared its intention “to play in Democratic primaries” in California, despite the fact that such primaries do not in fact exist. That’s a significant error because it misinforms voters the Courage Campaign needs to mobilize. Courage likely won’t be able to beat State Senator Steve Glazer, for example, in June, which they presumably think is the primary. The top two advances, so a Democratic challenger, will probably have to get in the top two in June and then beat him in the runoff in November.

I’ve asked my fellow media types about this mistake in publications, and the reason is not just laziness or ignorance. It’s stubbornness among those who know better. Media organizations have their form and rules, and they don’t bend easily to California realities.

The Washington Post has called California ballot initiatives “referenda” for years, even though they aren’t actually referenda, which is a different kind of ballot measure.

Still, I write this with the that the high-profile non-primary challenge to Feinstein will finally force people to get the very basics of California elections right.

My hope is based on this reality: our non-primary system is actually a pretty good story, if you’re a journalist interested in political gamesmanship and strategy. Political pros in California are still figuring out how to navigate our two-stage system, in which two contenders have to face off in both the first-round and the run-off. What’s the best way to assure a spot in the run-off? And can you pursue those run-off strategies without hurting yourself in the general election?

And this November, we may have the added drama of two, two-round, high-profile fights – between Gavin Newsom and probably Antonio Villaraigosa for governor, and between Feinstein and De Leon – at the same time that voters might get to decide whether to keep the new system. Political parties have been lining up to support an initiative for top two repeal.

So while Feinstein doesn’t have a primary challenger, this election year in California should be full of political challenges. Including the challenge of explaining our elections correctly.

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