What If All Primaries Were Like California’s?

What If All Primaries Were Like California’s?

- in House of Representatives


Attorney General Kamala Harris of California.Credit Nick Ut/Associated Press

What would happen to the makeup of Congress if more states used California’s non-partisan primary system? I wondered about that as I saw the news that two Democrats — Kamala Harris, the state’s attorney general, and Loretta Sanchez, a congresswoman from Orange County — will be running against each other in the general election in November to replace Senator Barbara Boxer, another Democrat who is retiring.

In California’s state and federal races, except for the presidency, the two candidates who get the most votes in the primary proceed to the general election regardless of party affiliation. Voters approved this top-two primary system in a ballot measure in 2010. It has resulted in other general election contests between Democrats in races for the state legislature and the House. The state’s two long-serving senators — Ms. Boxer and Diane Feinstein — are quite popular and have not faced a serious challenge in recent years.

Proponents of nonpartisan primaries say that the system has helped voters remove ineffective incumbents and elect more moderate lawmakers in California. That’s because many constituencies in the deep-blue state are a lock for Democratic candidates in general elections. And because primary voters are a small, highly motivated group, the results of those earlier contests are often not reflective of the will of the electorate as a whole.

A system like California’s might affect election outcomes in states like Texas, where I once lived. Republicans make up the majority of the population in Texas but Democrats make up a sizeable minority and dominate cities like Austin, Dallas, Houston and San Antonio. A non-partisan primary race for the Senate in the state would almost certainly send two Republicans to the general election, but the more moderate of the two could win by appealing to centrist Republicans and Democrats. In practice, that would mean someone like Ted Cruz, the ultra-conservative former presidential candidate, would probably lose to a more moderate, though hardly liberal, candidate like David Dewhurst, the former lieutenant governor, whom Mr. Cruz beat in a primary runoff in 2012. There was a runoff because Mr. Dewhurst got 45 percent of the vote in the first contest; Mr. Cruz got 34 percent.

You could run similar thought experiments for races across the country. In many places, the ultimate results might be not very different than what we have under conventional primaries. But it is reasonable to expect that some current members of Congress would have a hard time getting elected under a California-style system.


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