Open Primary Could Unseat Five Incumbent Partisans in CA

Less than one month away from California’s first full top two runoff election under its new open primary system, the Golden State’s new method for electing its lawmakers has created a drastically different political landscape in California as its proponents promised. For evidence, observers need to look no further than California’s 2012 elections for the US House of Representatives where at least five incumbent partisans are facing serious competition.

During the 2010 midterm elections just two years ago, before the new top two open primary took effect, out of California’s fifty-three congressional districts, exactly zero US House seats changed parties and only two new representatives were elected. Both were in districts with an open seat because the incumbent was not seeking reelection, so in 2010, California reelected every single incumbent running for reelection to Congress, all fifty-one of them.

An overview of California’s top two open primary reform

The stated goal of California’s top two open primary proponents was to create an election system that would produce the most competitive general elections and end the perennial disenfranchisement of independent voters and party-affiliated voters in districts with “safe” seats dominated for years or even decades by the other major US political party.

Proponents said that by dropping the partisanship from the process and requiring all candidates to face all voters in both the primary and the top two runoff election, every voter– regardless of party affiliation– would be empowered to influence election results; candidates would have to appeal to all of their constituents as an individual with ideas, rather than a particular party’s standard-bearer; and as a result of these changes, California candidates would become less partisan in their approach and California elections would become more representative of all voters’ preferences, more dynamic, and more competitive.

In 2012, with one month left before the general run off election between the June primary’s top two finishers, the electoral landscape is markedly different from that of the 2010 midterms, when no seats for Congress changed parties and all fifty-one incumbents seeking reelection won. In fact, California’s new open primary could unseat five incumbent partisans in California.

The incumbent partisans and their challengers, an overview

These five incumbents include two representatives that have been in Congress since the Nixon Administration in the 1970s, and all five have been in Washington since the 1990s and have held office for over a decade, the same decade during which Congress’ approval rating has steadily slipped from a near all-time high during an election year in 2002 to an all-time low during an election year of just 13% as of mid-September this year.

As a group, all five incumbents have been in Congress for a combined total of over a century, and share among them over fifty general election victories, a strong majority of which were won with over 60% of the vote and only token opposition. With such safe seats, and such little serious opposition, it’s no surprise that these five incumbents include some of the most partisan members of Congress in both parties with a record of partisan voting and a history of partisan, polarizing statements– in one case a history of very controversial, offensive remarks, and in another case a history of repeated ethics allegations and investigations.

The new open primary hasn’t created an opportunity for newcomers to challenge incumbents of either party exclusively. Three of these five incumbents in competitive elections for the first time in years, or even decades, are Democrats, and two are Republicans. The challenged, with one exception, were unlikely to face a serious challenger this cycle before the open primary reform.

The challengers include both Democrats and Republicans, and one well-funded independent candidate. Two of the incumbents, a Republican and a Democrat, are being challenged by members of the opposite party, while another Republican and Democratic pair of incumbents is facing challenges from members of their own respective parties. The challengers also include some notably strong proponents of the top two open primary.

A closer look at the individual incumbents and their challengers

Listed below, with the party affiliation of each candidate next to their name, are all five races. The challenger is listed first and the incumbent is listed second:

Bill Bloomfield (I) v. Henry Waxman (D)
Eric Swalwell (D) v. Pete Stark (D)
Abel Maldonado (R) v. Lois Capps (D)
Scott Peters (D) v. Brian Bilbray (R)
Bob Dutton (R) v. Gary Miller (R)

I. Bill Bloomfield (I) v. Henry Waxman (D)

Rep. Henry Waxman has been a member of Congress since 1975, assuming office for the first time when Richard Nixon was president. He’s been reelected eighteen times, never facing serious opposition and never receiving less than 61% of the vote. Waxman is a polarizing figure in Washington politics and considered one of the most partisan members of Congress. GovTrack ranks his record of bill sponsorship as “far left,” and the Washington Post records that during the 111th Congress, Waxman voted with his party 95% of the time.

Though Waxman had previously never received less than 61% of votes in a general election, in California’s June open primary this year, he took just 45 percent. Up until now, Waxman’s seat has been so safe that Politico notes he “has used his deep well of campaign cash almost exclusively to aid fellow Democrats.” This election cycle is different. Waxman is directing nearly all of his campaign funds toward his own reelection bid for the first time in a career that has spanned decades. He told Politico, “Quite frankly, I haven’t had to run a serious campaign in quite a long time, but now, I’m going to.”

Waxman’s challenger, independent candidate Bill Bloomfield left the Republican Party when Republican Senate leader Mitch McConnell said, “the single most important thing we want to achieve is for President Obama to be a one-term President.” Bloomfield changed his voter registration; co-founded No Labels— an organization committed to reforming hyper-partisanship in politics; and became a strong supporter of the open primary initiative, which Rep. Waxman opposed, and which has since made Bloomfield’s non-partisan bid for Congress possible.

II. Eric Swalwell (D) v. Pete Stark (D)

A Nixon-era freshman like Henry Waxman, Rep. Pete Stark was first elected to Congress in 1972. Out of nineteen successful reelection bids, he has only dropped below 60% of the general election vote twice, and the last time was over two decades ago. GovTrack ranks his record of bill sponsorship as further left than all but four of his House colleagues, and the Washington Post records that during the 111th Congress, Stark voted with his party 92% of the time.

The senior congressman has a long record of offensive partisan attacks on Republican colleagues, calling a Republican representative a “little wimp” and a “little fruitcake” in 2003, telling a Republican congresswoman that she was a “whore for the insurance industries” in 1995, and calling an African American Republican cabinet secretary “as close to being a disgrace to his race as anyone I’ve ever seen” in 1990.

This election, Stark’s maverick challenger under California’s new top two open primary is a fellow Democrat, Dublin City Councilman and Alameda County prosecutor Eric Swalwell, an early supporter of the open primary reform in California who has said that in the future he “would like to be a part of the torch carrying nationwide” for open primary initiatives in other states.

According to The Oakland Tribune, Stark, who has declined to engage Swalwell in a general election debate, is “lying low and letting his incumbency” do the heavy campaign lifting. Swalwell finished just six points behind the twenty-one-term congressman (42 to 36) in the June open primary and is working to close the gap by running a dynamic campaign of active grassroots outreach, door to door walks in the district, and broad appeals to a coalition of Republican, Democratic, and independent voters.

III. Abel Maldonado (R) v. Lois Capps (D)

Rep. Lois Capps has held office in the US Congress since 1998, and until this year’s open primary reform took effect in California, has faced no serious opposition since 2000. GovTrack ranks her record of bill sponsorship as “far-left,” and the Washington Post records that during the 111th Congress, Capps voted with her party 97% of the time. In fact, by voting record, Capps is the third most partisan Democrat in the House, voting with her own party even more often than Nancy Pelosi.

Though Capps’ seat has been safe since 2000, this year she faces her first viable challenge from Abel Maldonado, who served as California’s lieutenant governor during the tenure of Arnold Schwarzenegger. While a Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee poll found Maldonado trailing by eleven points (51 to 40) in July, the most recent poll by Public Opinion Strategies, released on October 8th, found Maldonado leading Capps for the first time by one point (45 to 44).

As lieutenant governor, Maldonado was a major supporter of Proposition 14, the ballot measure that created the top two open primary in California. He based his support for Prop 14, not only on the effect it would have for California’s national congressional elections, like the one he’s currently racing to win, but on state elections and state policy. When the measure passed in 2010, Maldonado said that by giving all California voters more control over who ends up on the final ballot, the new open primary would help break gridlock in Sacramento.

IV. Scott Peters (D) v. Brian Bilbray (R)

Rep. Brian Bilbray has been in Congress since 1995, with a break from 2001 – 2006, when he worked as a federal lobbyist in Washington DC after failing to win reelection to Congress in 2000. Though Bilbray is not the decades-long, unchallenged incumbent that Waxman and Stark are, his candidacy this election is a perfect case study in the moderating effects of the top two open primary that its supporters promised in 2010.

Residents of San Diego County will recall that Bilbray was originally perceived as a moderate Republican when California voters first sent him to Washington in the 1990s, but developed a reputation over time for staking out more and more partisan positions, especially with his hardline stance on immigration, and his evolving record on environmental issues. As he spent more time in Washington, Bilbray moved to the right on clean air and water, receiving a 17% on the League of Conservative Voters’ 2011 National Environmental Scorecard.

But since the open primary took effect in California, Bilbray has taken a hard-left turn on environmental issues. In a recent ad, he took to the waves on his surfboard and touted his position on alternative energy in a voice over. The open primary has left the incumbent vulnerable because of his past record on clean air and water, and in this latest ad, Bilbray has responded to the changing political landscape by hopping on his surfboard and “paddling back to the center” in a congressional district where a quarter of the voters are independents. And the move appears more than rhetorical. This summer, Bilbray was the sole Republican to vote against a repeal of federal loan guarantees for clean energy.

Bilbray’s challenger in November is San Diego City Councilman Scott Peters, who was publicly supportive of the top two open primary measure while Bilbray remained silent on it. Though Bilbray’s seat was safe in 2010, when he defeated his Democratic challenger by nearly eighteen points (56.7 to 39), Peters represents a viable challenger to the incumbent, who took only 41% of the votes in the June open primary and has been deadlocked with Peters in the runoff election polling. Underscoring how competitive this race is, both parties have been pouring money into the district for ad buys. It’s one of the most targeted congressional races in the country.

V. Bob Dutton (R) v. Gary Miller (R)

Rep. Gary Miller was first elected to Congress in 1998. He won reelection with 59% of the vote in 2000, and since then has not taken less than 60% of the vote in the general election. Until the California open primary reform, Miller’s seat was safe despite a troubled history of repeated ethics allegations and investigations by both congressional ethics bodies and the FBI, landing Miller on the 2010 Most Corrupt Members of Congress list published by Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington. The Washington Post records that during the 111th Congress, Miller voted with his party 95% of the time.

Miller’s top two challenger is a fellow Republican, California State Senator Bob Dutton. In the state legislature, Dutton has a reputation for bipartisanship, working with Democratic Senator Darrell Steinberg (D-Sacramento) to author a reform related to Americans with Disabilities Act lawsuits. US Senator Dianne Feinstein (D-CA) supported the legislation, and Dutton said:

“…we decided to join forces in a bipartisan fashion to actually fix a problem. You know, small business owners are both Democrat and Republican and independents and Green Party and everything else. So this is not really a partisan issue.”

Though Dutton has raised very little against Miller, he is mounting a viable and serious challenge this November. Miller, who hasn’t received less than 60% of the general election vote since 2000, took only 27% in the June open primary and finished only two points ahead of Dutton’s 25% vote. Since then, a poll commissioned by the Dutton campaign in September revealed the challenger leading by five percent.

While campaign-commissioned polls tend to be skewed, the lead shows the race is competitive, and Dutton’s odds of unseating the incumbent haven’t gone unnoticed. Though Gary Miller faces an under-funded, fellow Republican, he has secured the endorsements of party establishment leaders, including US House Speaker John Boehner, House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, and vice presidential nominee and US Representative Paul Ryan.