In my first article of 2018, I wrote that California was the Democrats’ best shot for taking control of the House. A lot of Republicans were either retiring, or running in districts that had begun to trend blue thanks to both the state’s growing Latinx population and its left-leaning politics. Five months after writing that article, I’m not as confident as I was before that California can lead the way, because of a law that has the potential to crash the blue wave right on the Pacific coast: Proposition 14, the “jungle primary.”
Proposition 14 passed in 2010 with the endorsement of Governor Schwarzenegger. Originally, the plan was to create a more open primary system, less under the thumb of the two major parties, that would allow whichever two got the most votes to advance to the general in November, regardless of party. On the state level, this has worked out for Democrats: Gavin Newsom, the former San Francisco Mayor and frontrunner to replace outgoing governor Jerry Brown, may find himself competing against his SoCal rival, Democrat and former Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa. We may also see Dianne Feinstein run against Democrat State Senator Kevin de León instead of one of her Republican rivals.
However, just because races like these are safe for Democrats doesn’t mean the system works as a whole. In the 2012 election cycle, the first one after the law went into effect, 92 out of 154 state races suffered from vote-splitting. The law has also failed in its efforts to make primaries more inclusive, as independent/nonpartisan candidates have found themselves shut out in the midst of Republicans and Democrats jumping in. But most importantly, according to The New York Times, too many Democratic candidates have entered the House races and threaten to kill each other off in the primaries, allowing two Republicans to advance to the top of the ticket in November.
Although the law was passed to keep the major parties from exerting control over the races, national Democrats are now performing a rescue operation to save several Southern California districts between Orange County and La Jolla from remaining in Republican hands. These districts shouldn’t be as hard to win as the jungle primary has made them. California’s 48th district, held by Republican Dana Rohrabacher, has been ripe for the picking since Hillary Clinton became the first Democrat to win the district since FDR’s 1936 landslide who thinks gay people shouldn’t have houses (and because Rohrabacher is a Kremlin tool who says realtors can refuse to sell houses to gay people.) But eight Democratic candidates jumping in to challenge him have made it a tough one. Although three have withdrawn, there is still the possibility that Rohrabacher will face Republican rival Scott Baugh this fall. To avert that outcome, The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee has endorsed businessman Harley Rouda, and poured millions into TV ads in an attempt to drive down Republican turnout in the district.
The jungle primary also threatens the 49th district, where Democrats and Republicans fight to succeed outgoing congressman Darrell Issa, who led the Benghazi hearings and whose district voted for Hillary Clinton by seven points. There, it would seem the eight Republicans on the ballot might fall to vote-splitting more than the four Democrats, but they have not coalesced around a strong candidate. Doug Applegate, a retired former marine who challenged Issa for this seat in 2016, has been accused of abuse by his ex-wife, and while these allegations have not been proven, in the age of #MeToo they become more of a liability than ever before. Applegate’s closest rival, Sara Jacobs, would be the natural choice in this scenario, but she has been criticized for inflating her resume, and at 29, is seen as lacking the necessary experience for the job. The best Democrats can do at the moment is blanket the airwaves with TV ads attacking leading Republican candidate Rocky Chavez, and whether that is enough to dissuade his supporters from turning up at the polls remains to be seen.
This leads to one of the biggest problems with the jungle primary: it’s not driving voter turnout. Although primary turnout was an anemic 33% in 2010, it dropped to 25% by 2014, and the Los Angeles Times predicts that less than 30% of voters will participate next week. Fairvote.org has made the wise suggestion of instituting a system where the top four vote-getters go on to the November election and are elected via a preferential ballot, which could benefit California’s electoral system greatly – but whether or not this is ever instituted remains to be seen.
Taking back the House is critical for Democrats to stop Donald Trump and his insidious agenda. Losing California would block off one of our major pathways for doing so. If you have time in the next week, volunteer or phone bank for these districts. We cannot allow Republicans to have control in places where they should have been voted out long ago.
Jeremy Fassler is a writer and journalist living in Brooklyn, New York.