One in every eight or nine earthquakes is followed by an even more powerful aftershock, officially making the first quake into a foreshock.
And the farther we get into this year’s political season, the more it seems that the stunning 2012 effects of the “Top Two” primary election system voters approved two years earlier were merely a foreshock.
Two years ago, the new system giving runoff election slots to the two leading primary election vote-getters for California posts produced 28 runoffs matching members of the same party. In most cases, the more moderate candidate won, as voters from the other party often decided these contests.
This year, even if intraparty runoffs should be less numerous, the effects of Top Two are already even more profound. Start with the run for state controller, where current Assembly Speaker John Perez and Board of Equalization member Betty Yee figure to contest an all-Democratic runoff in November.
There are also the spate of veteran members of Congress who chose this year to retire, some because their once-safe districts would no longer be so safe for them, the competition coming from within their own parties.
The retirements will produce several dramatic contests. But most emblematic of Top Two’s effects may be the re-election attempt of Democrat Mike Honda in the Silicon Valley’s 17th District, and races to succeed retiring Democrat Henry Waxman and retiring Republican Buck McKeon in Southern California.
Honda, once entrenched in a heavily Democratic district, now has a very well-financed opponent in former Deputy Commerce Secretary Ro Khanna, a fellow Democrat whose appeal to the district’s large Asian-American populace may match Honda’s. Seeing this, it’s common to assume the two will face off in November.
But not so fast. The virtually unknown Stanford University anesthesiologist Vanila Singh may well enter this race with a GOP label after her name on the ballot. Unless another Republican gets in at the last moment, that tag alone could produce enough votes to knock Khanna out of the runoff.
Things look similar in the 33rd District, covering much of the Los Angeles west side and several nearby South Bay cities. Eyes are watering among droves of Democrats who spy an office without term limits. Already declared as candidates are former Los Angeles mayoral hopeful Wendy Gruel and state Sen. Ted Lieu, while Secretary of State Debra Bowen (formerly a state lawmaker from the area) and former Assemblywoman Betsy Butler consider running.
Independent and former Republican Bill Bloomfield, who picked up 45 percent of the 2012 vote when facing Waxman, could benefit from all that. If the gaggle of Democrats fractures the party’s votes, Bloomfield or fellow independent Marianne Williamson, a bestselling author, could sneak into the runoff with 30 percent or so of the primary tally.
This very kind of splintering happened two years ago in the San Bernardino County district of Republican Gary Miller, who faced another Republican in that year’s runoff despite his district’s large Democratic registration margin. Miller may not be so lucky this year.
In McKeon’s 25th District, covering a wide arc from Lancaster and Palmdale to Simi Valley, former Republican state Sen. Tony Strickland, who lost a bid for Congress in a different district two years ago, is widely expected to face fellow GOPer Steve Knight, a state senator from the Antelope Valley. But if Knight and Strickland split the Republican vote, likely Democratic candidate Lee Rogers, a podiatrist who drew 45 percent of the vote last time against McKeon, could oust one of them.
One statewide race – the run to succeed the termed-out Bowen as secretary of state – figures to be similar. Prominent Democratic state Sens. Alex Padilla of Los Angeles and Leland Yee of San Francisco (and suburbs) have expected for months to face off in November. A third Democrat, Derek Cressman, former director of the good-government lobby Common Cause, and independent Dan Schnur, director of USC’s political studies institute, are also running.
But don’t bet against Republican Pete Peterson, the only one here with the GOP label, making the runoff as the others splinter non-GOP votes.
Even if all these races don’t end up as intra-party battles – and they all could – the effects of Top Two grow stronger every election year. As it did last time, this will probably have a moderating influence that can help end government gridlock at both state and federal levels.
Thomas Elias is a California author. Reach him at email@example.com.