When then-state Sen. Abel Maldonado forced a measure onto 2010's statewide ballot that would enact a "top-two" primary system, the Republican Party establishment turned him into a pariah, arguing that it would destroy the party.

But now some political experts believe the top-two system -- meant to boost voter turnout and encourage more moderate candidates -- achieved at least the latter on Tuesday, and in doing so might have saved Republicans from themselves.

"It's the top-two primary dynamic that allowed the California Republican Party to escape almost certain death in this election," said veteran political analyst Sherry Bebitch Jeffe, a University of Southern California senior scholar.

Jerry Stark votes at his polling place at the First Presbyterian church in Castro Valley on June 3, 2014. (Laura A. Oda/Bay Area News Group)
Jerry Stark votes at his polling place at the First Presbyterian church in Castro Valley on June 3, 2014. (Laura A. Oda/Bay Area News Group)

Under the old partisan primary system, Republican voters often chose the more conservative candidate. So moderate Neel Kashkari's victory over tea party favorite Tim Donnelly was telling, Jeffe said. And though she doubts Kashkari has a chance of beating Democratic Gov. Jerry Brown in November, "he doesn't have to" for his candidacy to be a success to California's GOP.

"The primary gave the Republican Party a pulse -- it's still weak, but the establishment of the party won last night," Jeffe said Wednesday. It's not just with Kashkari, she said, but also with Fresno Mayor Ashley Swearengin -- the top finisher in the still-too-close-to-call controller race -- and civic participation scholar Pete Peterson, who placed second in the secretary of state race.


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"They are now the face of the party, not Tim Donnelly," Jeffe said. And no matter what happens in November, she said, the GOP now has the makings of a diverse farm team for election cycles to come.

Perhaps this primary's wildest result was the controller race. Former Assembly Speaker John Perez, D-Los Angeles, as of Wednesday evening was only a tenth of a percentage point ahead of Republican David Evans in a battle to place second behind Swearengin, the top finisher.

If Evans, a CPA and former mayor from Kern County, edges out Perez and fellow Democrat Betty Yee, the two Republicans will advance to November, shattering the Democrats' monopoly of statewide offices. It would be the first time since 2006 that a Republican wins statewide office; that was the year Arnold Schwarzenegger was re-elected and Steve Poizner was elected insurance commissioner.

But Bruce Cain, director of Stanford University's Bill Lane Center for the American West, cautioned that experts "will have to analyze how many independents voted for Kashkari and whether they put him over the top" before deciding how much the top-two system really contributed to his win. California, he said, might have been a little different from other races around the country in which establishment Republicans like Mitt Romney and Jeb Bush intervened against tea-party favorites. Both endorsed Kashkari.

And the top-two primary certainly didn't generate much excitement. The decisions Tuesday were made by a dismally tiny share of California's electorate.

Four years ago, 33 percent of California voters turned out for the primary election. This year, as Bay Area county registrars kept tallying tens of thousands of vote-by-mail and provisional ballots Wednesday, Alameda County estimated its total turnout will be around 25 percent, Contra Costa County guessed about 28 percent, and Santa Clara County estimated about 32 percent -- the latter driven by higher interest around San Jose's mayoral race and the sizzling Dem-on-Dem congressional race between incumbent Mike Honda and upstart Ro Khanna.

Political experts say when a ballot offers little excitement and turnout is low, partisan true believers make up a bigger share of those who bother to show up -- even with the top-two system.

"Independents for whatever reason were not motivated to turn out in sufficient numbers in this primary," said Bill Whalen, a Hoover Institution research fellow and longtime GOP consultant.

And in the heavily Democratic Bay Area, that produced a mixed bag.

Sometimes the most moderate candidates didn't win. In a hard-fought, often ugly battle in the East Bay's 16th Assembly District, Dublin Mayor Tim Sbranti -- the most liberal and union-supported candidate among three Democrats -- finished second behind the race's lone Republican, Catharine Baker. Orinda Councilman Steve Glazer outspent Sbranti as he tried to present himself as a moderate not beholden to unions or his party, yet Sbranti, supported by unions' massive spending, prevailed comfortably.

Then again, Rep. Eric Swalwell took almost half the vote in the East Bay's 15th Congressional District by dominating the middle. His coalition of Democratic, nonpartisan and maybe even a few Republican voters crowded Senate Majority Leader Ellen Corbett to his left and Alameda County GOP vice chairman Hugh Bussell to his right. As of Wednesday night, Bussell led Corbett by about 1 percentage point.

In the neighboring 17th District, however, Khanna took an unexpected drubbing from more liberal incumbent Rep. Mike Honda, D-San Jose: Honda finished with 49 percent of the vote in a four-way race in the deep-blue district.

"If the choices are dull, the open primary becomes excruciatingly dull," Whalen said, and California's ever-growing number of independent voters are "a mindset, not an organization" -- they can't be predicted to move in any particular direction, especially regarding independent candidates, he said.

Whalen cited as an example Dan Schnur, the independent candidate for secretary of state with a good-government, anti-establishment message -- who still finished fourth behind indicted state Sen. Leland Yee, D-San Francisco.

"He's just out there lost as an independent because he's doesn't have a party establishment behind him," Whalen said. "And he doesn't have the financial support to get noticed."

Josh Richman covers politics. Contact him at 510-208-6428. Follow him at Twitter.com/josh_richman. Read the Political Blotter at IBAbuzz.com/politics.