California’s ‘top-two’ nonpartisan primary creates election dynamics that are much different than you see in most states because, instead of candidates vying for the hearts and minds of their party-base -- all voters, including independent voters, can cast their vote for any candidate they choose.
That means, this March, some Democratic candidates will need votes from independent and Republican voters to advance to the general election in November.
Candidates talking to all voters may generally be a good thing.
But just looking at the highest profile race for US Senate, the dynamics of the top-two primary also invite political gamesmanship.
In the big U.S. Senate race, for example. well-known Rep. Adam Schiff is facing opposition from two other viable Democrats and one Republican with significant name ID because of his long and successful career as a Major League Baseball player.
Polls show that “Republican Steve Garvey and Democratic Reps. Katie Porter and Barbara Lee in a dead heat (for second place),” according to POLITICO. “Garvey has positioned himself as a Trump-agnostic moderate, while Porter and Lee are more closely associated than Schiff with their party’s progressive wing.”
Now, Schiff is literally running ads to help Steve Garvey advance to the general election.
As his Democratic opponent Rep. Katie Porter points out: “Adam Schiff knows he will lose to me in November. That’s what this brazenly cynical ad is about — furthering his own political career … and boosting a Republican candidate to do it.”
These “top-two” political games are one reason why the Independent Voter Project has joined a number of local and national nonpartisan reformers who are advocating for four or even five candidates to advance to the general election, like the system adopted by the voters in Alaska.
For now, the State of California will feature just two candidates in the general election. In many districts this will set up election dynamics that could pit a Democrat v. another Democrat, or a Republican v. another Republican, or preserve a traditional Democrat v. Republican matchup.
With nearly a third of California’s electorate not registered with either major political party, many Democratic and Republican candidates are going to need to win their support to make it onto the November ballot. This gives independent voters in California a unique voting power that they only have in a few states: the power to shape the general election.
5 RACES TO WATCH CALIFORNIA’S INDEPENDENT VOTERS
ASSEMBLY DISTRICT 7, SACRAMENTO COUNTY
The race for California's 7th Assembly District is a compelling showcase of the state's political landscape, with three main candidates vying for a seat in a district known for its blend of urban and rural communities.
The race pits Josh Hoover, an incumbent Republican who is known to work across the political aisle, and two up-and-coming Democrats that will be vying for a seat at the table this general election.
With one of California’s most bipartisan voting records, Joshua Hoover has carved out a reputation as a pragmatic legislator with a focus on protecting taxpayers, making California more affordable, expanding mental health services, and enhancing public safety and education. Hoover's legislative achievements include his efforts to combat human trafficking and advocate for small businesses.
YK Chalamcherla, a Democrat first elected to the Folsom City Council in 2020, names fiscal accountability, education, homelessness, and public safety as top priorities for his campaign. Chalamcherla's background in technology and public service position him as a more moderate Democrat in the race.
Porsche Middleton, another Democrat in the race, was first elected to the Citrus Heights City Council in 2028, and has focused more on affordable housing, education, homelessness, and community-oriented policing. She has also received the endorsement of the Democratic Party.
The district is characterized by a slight Democratic advantage in voter registration, but with substantial independent and Republican representation. The outcome of this race will likely hinge on the candidates' ability to appeal across the political spectrum.
Hoover's moderate Republican stance, Chalamcherla's centrist policies, and Middleton's endorsement from the California Democratic Party each offer distinct choices to the electorate, underscoring the diverse political preferences within the district.
As voters in Northeastern Sacramento County prepare to cast their ballots, the AD07 race exemplifies the complex interplay of party affiliation, policy priorities, and candidate backgrounds that define California's political scene. With the potential to influence key state policies, the election presents a critical opportunity for AD07 residents to shape their representation in the Assembly.
SENATE DISTRICT 5, SACRAMENTO
In the race for California's State Senate District 7, voters from San Joaquin and Alameda Counties will have a significant decision to make on March 5, 2024. The race features former Congressman Jerry McNerney, who is making a return to politics to run for this seat. McNerney, known for his strong stances on climate change, gun violence, and women's rights, served in the U.S. Congress from 2006 to 2022 and sees this as an opportunity to effect change in California.
His main opponent, Carlos Villapudua, is a current State Assembly member with a more moderate stance within the Democratic Party. Elected to the Assembly in 2020 and reelected in 2022, Villapudua has focused on security issues such as the fentanyl crisis and public safety, including tackling retail theft.
Also in the running is business owner Jim Shoemaker, the sole Republican candidate and hardline conservative. His presence in the race adds another dimension to the electoral dynamics, especially considering the open primary system in California which allows voters of any party affiliation to vote for any candidate.
Even with a 17-percentage point registration advantage for Democrats, the MAGA-aligned Republican may win a spot on the November ballot. However, he is extremely unlikely to actually win the seat.
This means independent voters would be the deciding factor between whether McNerney, the long-time congressional representative and more partisan Democrat, advances to the general election or Villapudua, the moderate Democrat who has made law enforcement a priority in the California legislature.
Independent voters -- and even Republicans -- could play a crucial role in the outcome.
ASSEMBLY DISTRICT 48, SAN GABRIEL VALLEY
The race for California’s 48th Assembly District is not just a two-way contest. Alongside incumbent Assemblymember Blanca Rubio and Mayor Pro Tem Brian Calderon Tabatabai, Republican candidate Dan T Tran, a real estate businessman, is also in the fray. However, his campaign appears to lack the typical markers of a competitive electoral bid including a website or campaign funds.
Rubio, a more fiscally-conservative Democrat, has a track record that appeals to a broad spectrum of voters. A former school teacher elected to the Assembly in 2016, Rubio has focused on critical issues like education, housing, homelessness, public safety, and crime prevention. Her moderate approach, coupled with her experience in educational leadership, may make her a more attractive choice for less-partisan voters.
On the other side, Brian Tabatabai represents the progressive wing of the Democratic Party. Serving on the West Covina City Council since 2020, Tabatabai's campaign focuses on public education, working families, and affordable housing. His focus has included addressing homelessness, renter protections, racial and economic justice, and Indigenous and LGBTQ rights.
Tabatabai's positions, including controversial comments about defunding the police (coupled with his support for District Attorney George Gascon), has drawn criticism from less-progressive constituencies, potentially alienating moderate and conservative voters.
While Dan T Tran’s presence in the race gives voters a Republican option, Tran has not demonstrated significant fundraising prowess, lacks a campaign website, and there are no visible signs of the robust campaign infrastructure typically needed to compete effectively in a state assembly election. This lack of visibility and campaign activity suggests that Tran may not be a significant factor in influencing the race's outcome -- but he might garner some votes from Republican party-line voters who could otherwise have more impact on the race.
In this politically diverse district, the outcome may hinge on the ability of either Democratic candidate to appeal to the voters outside of their party.
ASSEMBLY DISTRICT 53, LOS ANGELES
The race for California's 53rd Assembly District is unfolding as a diverse and crucial contest. With several Democrats and a Republican candidate in the race, the election is set to be a battleground reflecting a range of political ideologies and voter preferences.
But as a district with a nearly 25% Democrat voter registration advantage, a Democrat is all-but-certain to win the race. Three Democrats -- two progressives and a moderate -- have shown the most viability, drawing significant institutional support.
Javier Hernandez calls himself the “progressive champion”, drawing support from several progressive organizations, including the Working Families Party, and labor unions, including the California Federation of Teachers.
Robert Torres is the Democratic Party’s endorsed candidate and has drawn his support from numerous labor unions and elected officials.
Michelle Rodriguez, a public safety officer, is the more moderate Democrat in the race. She draws her support from other more moderate Democrats and a number of law enforcement and public safety organizations, including the California Police Chiefs Association and the Los Angeles Deputy Sheriffs.
If Democrats split up their votes, the lone Republican, Nick Wilson, may attract enough Republican votes to make it to the November ballot. This would mean that the Democrat who draws the most votes in the primary is essentially the next representative for California’s 53rd Assembly District.
In that case, the race's outcome could hinge on independent and Republican voters, and whether they cast their vote for one of the three top Democratic contenders in the primary.
ASSEMBLY DISTRICT 76, NORTHERN SAN DIEGO
The race for California’s 76th Assembly District is shaping up to be a pivotal showdown that could sway the balance of power in the state legislature. With the district's unique blend of urban and suburban landscapes, AD76 serves as a microcosm of California's diverse political and social fabric.
At the forefront of the race are Democrats Dr. Darshana Patel and Joseph Rocha. Dr. Patel, endorsed by the Democratic Party, is known for her work on the local school board and her commitment to issues such as education reform, healthcare access, and environmental sustainability.
Rocha, endorsed by several labor organizations, is a military veteran who was discharged under “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” and rejoined the military after its repeal. Previously, he ran an unsuccessful campaign for Congress against Darrel Issa.
But the race is not a shoo-in for Democrats. As a competitive district between Republicans and Democrats, Kristie Bruce-Lane is a moderate Republican who has drawn considerable support from San Diego’s public safety organizations. Bruce-Lane is a former businesswoman who has served on several boards, including as the Founder of a non-profit that aids homeless children impacted by domestic violence.
With Democrats holding a slight majority in voter registration, the influence of independent and Republican voters cannot be overstated. In a district where political affiliations are increasingly fluid, the ability of candidates to appeal across the aisle could very well tip the scales.