History almost repeated itself in California’s 31st Congressional District. In 2010, California voters approved a nonpartisan, top-two open primary system whereby qualifying candidates of any political affiliation appear on a single primary ballot accessible to any eligible voter. The two candidates who receive the most votes then appear on the final general election ballot.
Following redistricting in 2010, the demographics in CA-31 shifted the district to “leaning Democratic,” making Republican U.S. Rep. Gary Miller one of the most vulnerable incumbents in Congress.
In 2012, 4 Democratic challengers for Miller’s seat announced their candidacy and promptly split the primary vote, which left Miller and another Republican, Bob Dutton, with the two biggest shares of the vote. DCCC-backed Pete Aguilar came in third. Miller went on to defeat Dutton by 10-percentage points in the general election.
Meanwhile, Barack Obama won 57 percent of the vote in the district. In short, the 2012 CA-31 elections were a debacle for the Democratic Party and, ironically, for voters in the district, the majority of whom would have voted for a generic Democratic candidate had one managed to appear on the final ballot.
Miller announced his retirement in early February undoubtedly because of the proverbial writing on the wall: his district was polling even more in favor to the Democratic Party, the DCCC singled out the 31st district as one of its top priorities and re-poured resources into Pete Aguilar’s renewed campaign, and Miller probably thought that not even the Democratic Party could be incompetent enough to repeat the same mistake and enable him to be miraculously re-elected.
It couldn’t possibly happen again –- but it very nearly did.
Like in 2012, 4 Democrats announced their candidacy and vigorously campaigned. Like in 2012, Pete Aguilar showed little passion as a candidate and a fundraiser, relying on his DCCC-backing to carry him. This enabled the more determined Eloise Reyes Gomez to catch up in polls and to lead in the fundraising circuit.
Meanwhile, 3 Republican candidates ran, though only two were serious contenders: Paul Chabot, a current Navy reserveman, and Lesli Gooch, a former aide to Gary Miller.
Chabot came away the clear winner in the primary with 26.7 percent of the vote, but Gooch came within 200 votes of Aguilar and coming in second place, which would have placed her on the final ballot in November. Seen the other way, Democrats were nearly shutout of the CA-31 election again.
|U.S. Representative District 31 Primary||Vote Count||Percent|
|REP – Paul Chabot||
|DEM – Pete Aguilar||
|REP – Lesli Gooch||
|DEM – Eloise Gomez Reyes||
|DEM – Joe Baca||
|DEM – Danny Tillman||
|REP – Ryan Downing||
The Republican Party and Rep. Miller probably can’t help but think that if he had decided to run again, it may very likely have been him and Chabot appearing on the November ballot, but there is another issue that was weighing on the congressman.
According to various investigative reports dating back to the mid-2000s by the Los Angeles Times, Orange County Register, The Hill, Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington (CREW), and inewssource, Miller has repeatedly committed massive tax fraud (to the tune of at least $10 million).
Furthermore, Miller has allegedly funneled millions of dollars in defense contracting earmarks to a local businessman, who is a major campaign donor, borrowed $7.5 million from a business partner and campaign donor, used his office and staff for business dealings, funneled earmark money to a campaign donor who was investigated for bribing government officials, and more.
Unsurprisingly, the FBI opened an investigation into his business dealings in 2007. The FBI will not divulge if the case is still open. It’s possible that Miller is retiring to deal with his legal issues privately. Nonetheless, voters in the 31st district will be able to look beyond Miller and will have a chance to vote for a candidate that is more representative of them in November.
Join the discussion Please be relevant and respectful.
"the majority of whom would have voted for a generic Democratic candidate" Josh, if your theory is right, Pete Aguilar will easily be elected in November. Right? I believe that he qualifies as a generic Democrat.
Excellently researched article, Josh. As I know practically nothing about CA politics, I wonder: how has the Democratic Party in CA responded to this new electoral method? In other words, have they emphasized the importance of party loyalty rather than candidate-loyalty in order to prevent another R-R general election ballot?
This good story would be better if it did not refer to California's election system for Congress as "nonpartisan". "Nonpartisan election" means an election without party labels on the ballot, but California elections for Congress do have party labels on the ballot. It is not good writing to use the same term to refer to two different things. Furthermore, Congress is organized on the basis of parties, which is a subsidiary reason we shouldn't refer to congressional elections as "nonpartisan."
I think you made an excellent point that this is more the fault of the local Democratic Party than it is the election system. Nothing is stopping the Democratic Party from having their own primary or candidate selection process that they can pay for. They can reduce the number of candidates in a primary, but the major parties never had to put in much effort under the old system.
@RichardWinger Richard, nonpartisan can refer to the purpose of the election. California's are nonpartisan because they are NOT conducted for the purpose of electing party nominees.
You tend to use technicalities that you don't really understand to discredit substantive arguments that don't support your party-oriented view of the world.
At what point did Congress become organized around parties? Are you OK with your own assertion, if true?
@Shawn M Griffiths Shawn,
ff the Democrats hold their own primary or convention, how do they prevent those not nominated from entering the blanket primary? Furthermore, do you know if the Democratic Party has the trademark rights to prevent those not nominated from using the name Democrat on the primary ballot?
With regard to blaming democrats and not the voting system, I think you have it backwards. No one should ever doubt that the election system, and its susceptibility to vote splitting and spoilers, is clearly the problem. These most recent two district 31 primaries show that plurality voting is very harmful, and no election system for a single-seat office, especially an open primary, should use it. Plurality is considered by political scientists to be the most undemocratic voting method available. I think Mark Frohnmayer in Oregon is right to suggest the use of approval voting.
Congress was organized around parties even before the adoption of the U.S. Constitution. The two parties during the Articles of Confederation were the party that favored the status quo, and the party that said the country's fiscal situation was a disaster and as long as no money could be spent without unanimous consent of all the states, the country would be in a mess (and it was in a mess; the Revolutionary soldiers came close to overthrowing the federal government because they were so angry they hadn't been paid).
Political scientists and sociologists have been studying political parties for well over 100 years. They are unanimous that political parties are necessary for democratic government, in countries with more than an extremely tiny population. Parties are how ordinary people can band together to exercise some power. Otherwise the rich and powerful rule. The reason U.S. citizens tend to have a low opinion of political parties is that the United States over-regulates political parties. The remainder of the democratic world does not make that mistake, and as a result most of the remainder of the free world is better governed than the United States is.
There is no scholarly, neutral reference book that refers to California's congressional elections as "non-partisan."
@Guest @RichardWinger Guest, suppose a new version of the blanket primary were enacted in CA that disallowed party affiliation from being listed on the ballot, but otherwise the system were essentially the same. What would you call the new primary? The "Really, really nonpartisan" blanket primary?