Jungle Primary In The One-Party State
I filled out my absentee ballot to vote in California’s June primary yesterday. California has recently adopted a “jungle primary” law, in which all candidates from all parties appear on the primary ballot for most political offices. The two top vote-getters compete in a runoff election in November. I noticed that this did not apply to the Presidential primary — I only got one party’s slate of candidates.
It did apply to the election for U.S. Senator. There was an entire page of candidates, seemingly two-thirds of whom were Republicans, all randomized and taking up an entire sheet of the ballot book. “Confused” would understate my response. The cluttered, random mess that is the jungle primary has earned the ire of both lefties and righties in California as well as those who, like me, are disaffected with both flags. And it is simultaneously a symptom of the dysfunction of politics here in the Golden State, and a factor which will aggravate rather than mitigate the inability of Californians to govern themselves.
It also didn’ t help that I recognized only two names on the whole list: incumbent Dianne Feinstein, and über-birther and nearly-vexatious litigant Orly Taitz. What a woeful statement about the California GOP it is that Ms. Taitz the Republican with the most name recognition. Granted, Senator Feinstein has secured re-election to her fourth full term in a walk, and she has more money in her war chest than any other California politician, so it’s not really any wonder that no Republican of any significance has stepped up to challenge her. But then again… what Republican of significance is there, anywhere in California’s political landscape?
I had to do multiple steps of researching before I learned that the California Republican Party had made a pre-primary endorsement, choosing Elizabeth Emken of Danville as its preferred candidate and urging Republicans to vote for her in the primary. Ms. Emken is most famous for her role in the advocacy group Autism Speaks, a controversial (and seemingly misguided although well-intentioned) charity and advocacy group. According to the only poll I could find anywhere, Ms. Emken is running in third place, with the next-highest vote getter being southern California business owner Dan Hughes, who seems to have done more groundwork among the Tea Party types than Ms. Emken.
All well and good, but even here in a very conservative part of the state, one with multiple tea parties still active, I’ve seen zero campaign material for Mr. Hughes, Ms. Emken, or any other Republican running for Senate. It’s as though all the Republicans have managed to solicit votes and support from their families and circles of personal friends, post some campaign websites structurally identical to those sold by the Yellow Pages, and get a few photographs of themselves photoshopped to looknice. That is the apparent extent of any Republican’s campaign efforts.
The facts are that California is a one-party state. There are just enough Republicans to enable them, if they maintain near-perfect discipline in the Legislature, to prevent taxes from being increased because it takes a two-thirds vote to do that. Other than that, Republicans are effectively powerless here and apparently locked out of any meaningful position of power unless they can elect someone to one of the statewide Constitutional offices. The last Republican to do that was Arnold Schwarzenegger, someone who managed to make Republicans even madder at him than Democrats. Before that, Republicans had Secretary of State Bill Jones, a political not well known even in California anymore. The highest-ranking Republicans in California’s state government are George Runner and Michelle Steel, two of five board members controlling the entity that has authority over which products are subject to sales tax.
I’m not at all sure that the “jungle primary” is a help to the Republicans. To date, we’ve only had one election with a jungle primary, and that resulted in a Republican barely squeaking in to second place in a closely divided district, in what otherwise would have been a Democrat-versus-Democrat runoff. Here, statewide — who knows? Certainly there is no leadership or unity in the minority party. And if this Senate race is any indication, a leaderless party with no ability for anyone but an already-wealthy candidate willing to spend millions of his or own dollars to establish a public profile in a very large state by any measure of the word will never be able to offer any candidate with any kind of visibility.
Without a viable minority party against whom to compete, the majority party has no particular incentive to field competent or even attractive candidates, nor to craft policy solutions to public problems. It will continue to be on top politically through the use of gerrymandering and campaign money monopolization, but its governing strategy has been and will continue to be best defined by the word “inertia.” It would only ever get interesting if we do see a Democrat-versus-Democrat runoff, and then only if the intra-party runoff is between Democrats who have fundamentally different platforms, something which the political environment leaves effectively to the machinations of chance.
This state of political affairs strikes me as not at all good for policy. It leads to an (even more) apathetic electorate, with a (still more) diminished ability to send signals to officeholders of what they want from the government. And given the magnitude of problems facing the California state government, a primary election like this bodes very poorly for what will happen after the state elections in 2014.