June 7: Independent’s Day in California?
In most of the country independent voters, despite their growing numbers, are marginalized by closed partisan primary systems in which the winners are virtually pre-determined in low turnout primaries -- before independent voters can weigh in.
Not so in California, where a decade-old non-partisan primary system lets all voters, including independents, vote in an open primary that advances the top two vote getters to the General Election, regardless of party.
Although California’s nonpartisan system treats all voters, candidates, and parties equally, the Republican Party has continued a statewide slide that began back in the 1980s. In fact, Republican candidates have fared so poorly for so long that Democrats hold every statewide Constitutional office and a supermajority in both houses of the state legislature.
But the steady rise of independent voters in California, those who register “No Party Preference” (NPP), is showing signs of a legitimate challenge to the state’s long history of one-party rule. For the first time since the implementation of California’s nonpartisan primary, two serious and well-funded independent candidates are running at the top of the ticket.
At the same time, an internal battle for the sole of the Democratic Party is being waged, pitting several progressive Democrats against less ideological Democrats in heavily Democrat districts. In these races, NPP voters will likely determine the winner.
The Governor’s race features a former Democrat turned NPP Michael Shellenberger, who has significant financial backing and has focused his message on the Democrats poor handling of homelessness. He has a chance to edge out a weak Republican field to land on the November ballot, and has even earned the endorsement of the traditionally Republican-supporting Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Association.
A head-to-head matchup in November could shock the political establishment.
Most Watched Race: California Attorney General
The statewide race getting the most attention, though, is for Attorney General. Sacramento District Attorney Anne Marie Schubert, most well-known for her prosecution of the Golden State Killer, has attracted a substantial coalition of support from the law enforcement community and victim rights advocates. She is running as an independent against two Republicans and the progressive incumbent Democrat, Rob Bonta.
Cal Matters reports:
"First, [Schubert] said she would push to repeal Proposition 47, “so that people can be held accountable and addicts can get treatment they desperately need.” Second, she vows to “fix the failures of Proposition 57” — “to classify violent crimes appropriately, limit early releases for these inmates and will aggressively prosecute violent criminals.”
Voter registration in California is 46.5% Democratic, 24% Republican and 29.5% either declaring No Party Preference (23.3%) or choosing among American Independent, Libertarian, Green or Peace and Freedom parties. At least one Democrat is certain to make it through the nonpartisan primary in statewide races.
Since the adoption of California's Nonpartisan “Top-Two” Primary in 2010, a number of statewide races have seen two Democrats make the runoff and wage competitive November campaigns. This has produced a competition for votes in November for legislative races in heavily Democratic and heavily Republican districts where, under traditional partisan primary systems, the winner had been de-facto determined in the primary – when far fewer but more partisan voters participate.
On a statewide level, Republicans who have been able to secure a top-two spot for November general elections have been unable to mount serious challenges in a head-to-head match-up against a Democrat.
Independents going head-to-head against a Democrat, however, may be coming closer to cracking one-party control.
In 2020, for example, former Republican Steve Poizner ran for Insurance Commissioner as an NPP. It was the first close statewide race between a Democrat and a non-Democrat in more than a decade. But Poizner still came up short.
But Anne Marie Schubert’s national reputation as a no-nonsense prosecutor, and her broad support from fellow prosecutors, cops, and crime victims pits her against an appointed Democratic incumbent tied to the defund the police narrative and highly unpopular early release programs.
In San Diego County the District Attorney race also sees former Republican incumbent DA Summer Stefan running as an NPP in a County with a strong history of supporting moderates of both parties as well as large NPP registration.
But for an independent to make it past the low-turnout primary, enough independent voters must vote in the June primary and combine forces with moderate and conservative Democrats and Republicans willing to vote outside their party lines. If they do, Schellenberger and Schubert could be the first serious threats to the Democratic Party’s monopoly on statewide power in decades.
California’s “Independent’s Day” challenge extends into legislative races, but in a different way. Throughout the state, independent voters are being pitched by “independent” Democrats to help them challenge left leaning progressives.
Here are the races for California’s independent (aka “No Party Preference) voters to watch:
Assembly District 21: Bay Area
14.4% Republican; and
25.1% No Party Preference
Congresswoman Jackie Speier announced her retirement and that set off the political musical chairs in this San Francisco peninsula district. The incumbent, Kevin Mullin, is the leading candidate to succeed Speier and she is focused on making sure that happens. The race to fill Mullin’s seat has seven candidates in the race, 5 Democrats, one Republican and one Green.
This looks like a battle to be the Democrat on the November ballot will be between San Mateo Councilman Diane Papan and Redwood City Mayor Giselle Hale. The moderate in the race, Papan, has the endorsement of the Democrat Mod Caucus and will be the beneficiary of independent expenditure committees.
Cal Matters elaborates:
"Both come with local elected experience and relatively middle-of-the-pack Democratic policy priorities, though Papan draws more support from the Legislature’s moderate wing."
Land use is the issue that separates the two. Papan supports local government authority over land use decisions and Hale is a self-proclaimed YIMBY (Yes, in my back yard).
The lone Republican in the race is Mark Gilham. He’s hoping the Democrats will split the 55.4% of the vote enough to allow the 14.4% Republican registration to give him enough votes to sneak into second place. The key to this race will be the independent voters. Independent registration is 25.1% and if they vote in high enough numbers it may be enough to put two Democrats on the November ballot.
Assembly District 22: Central Valley
32.86% Republican; and
19.26% No Party Preference
The 22nd Assembly District is an open seat anchored by Stanislaus County. Unlike most districts it is sure to produce a Republican and Democrat. The question really is will the Democratic voters go with a progressive and likely lose the seat to a Republican or will they go with the well-known moderate, Chad Condit, who is far more likely to be competitive against any Republican challenger.
Cal Matters says this in its voter guide:
“On the Democratic side, Jess Self — a public defender, a LGBTQ rights advocate and a regular in Stanislaus County Democratic Party circles — easily secured the endorsement of local partisans. No such luck for Democrat Chad Condit, a member of the Ceres-based Condit political dynasty, but he’s hoping to use that to his advantage by running as a moderate who can appeal to independents and Republicans.”
Assembly District 39: Northeast Los Angeles
21.7% Republican; and
22.1% No Party Preference
This district covers a very large geographic area and runs from Northeast LA County and goes West as far as Victorville. It’s a majority Latino populated district that leans blue in an otherwise red area of the state.
This is an open seat new district with no incumbent. Three Democrats and one Republican have filed to run. Palmdale City Councilman Juan Carillo is supported by most of the legislature’s Latino members and is the front runner. His Democratic opponents are former Assemblymember Steve Fox and former legislative staffer, Andrea Rosenthal. Fox lost his seat in 2016 following lawsuits filed by former staffers alleging sexual harassment and hostile work environment.
Rosenthal recently moved into the district to qualify to run in this seat.
Here is what each candidate says on their website:
Carillo: "As the Antelope Valley’s only elected Democratic councilmember, Juan Carrillo has the proven record, values, and personal story to win California’s new 39th Latino Majority Assembly District."
Fox: "During my service in Sacramento, I took polls before I voted on major issues. You are my boss and I represent what you want. "
Rosenthal: "In Sacramento, I will champion the unique needs of our communities and build healthier, more prosperous, and stronger neighborhoods."
This is another district where independent voters will determine the November candidates. Rosenthal has raised more money than either Carillo or Fox but independent expenditure committees will weigh in heavily in this district which should give Carillo an advantage. Major unions are backing Rosenthal while the Latino Legislative Caucus has endorsed Carillo.
Advantage here goes to Carillo with the large Latino voting population.
Assembly District 64: Orange and LA County
20.7% Republican; and
23.5% No Party Preference
The 64 Assembly District is an open seat consisting of parts of Orange and LA Counties. This should be a very safe Democratic seat. The incumbent, Christina Garcia, has decided to run for the newly created Congressional seat, leaving a vacancy five Democrats and one Republican are anxious to fill.
Five Democrats are vying for the open Assembly seat in the 64th district. Leading the pack is Blanca Pacheco, the first-ever Latina Mayor of Downey. She has the endorsement of the California Latino Legislative Caucus, multiple law enforcement organizations, including LA Deputy Sheriffs, Peace Officers Research Association of California, and the CA Coalition of Law Enforcement Associations.
Rose Espinoza was elected to the La Habra City Council in 2000, the first Latina to hold the position. She served as Mayor in 2004, 2008, 2013, 2017 and 2021. During her long career in office, Espinoza has received numerous awards and honors including the National Caring Award, 72 Assembly District Woman of the Year, and was named by the Orange County Register as one of “100 People Who Shaped Orange County”.
Dr. Rob Cancio is a decorated Navy combat veteran, Cancio received his BA degree from UC Berkeley, and a Master’s Degree and Ph.D. from the University of Miami. After leading a successful recall election, Rob was elected to the Norwalk-La Mirada School Board.
Elizabeth Alcantar, elected to the Cudahy City Council in 2018, works for the Coalition for Human Immigration Rights.
Assembly District 80: South San Diego
16.4% Republican; and
28.1% No Party Preference
It is not surprising that one of the biggest of these fights is in San Diego County’s 80th Assembly District. San Diego County has the third highest percentage of NPP (nonpartisan) voters in the state, and no Republican has won in the since the 1960’s.
Cal Matters Voter Guide describes the race this way:
“While two Republicans are in the running, Gómez and Alvarez are the clear front-runners. And if the April special election is anything to go by, the race is going to serve as a proxy battle between organized labor and other advocacy groups aligned with the party base who want to see Gonzalez replaced with a like-minded progressive, and business interests who would prefer a more moderate flavor of Democrat.”
“Former San Diego city council president Georgette Gómez is a lefty in Gonzalez’s mold. A stalwart ally of organized labor, she backs a universal state-run health insurance plan, a “Green New Deal” and the end of cash bail.”
"Alvarez, while 'certainly no conservative,' has won the backing of the Assembly Democrat’s Moderate Caucus and business groups in addition to some labor organizations, local South Bay elected officials and the newspaper endorsements from both the San Diego Union and Chula Vista based La Prensa."
Here is how each candidate pitches themselves on their websites:
"A community organizer and the first LGBTQ Latina City Council President, Georgette Gómez has spent her life fighting for working families and underserved communities. And that’s who she’ll always fight for in the State Assembly — us."
"I’m running for State Assembly because I’m worried about what kind of California we are leaving for our kids. Our problems are getting worse, and the solutions provided by our leaders are ineffective. Sacramento politicians are out of touch with the problems families face every day. I’ll confront our biggest problems head-on and pursue proven solutions.
One of the more interesting tests of June 7th “Independent’s Day” could come in the race for Mayor where a former City Councilman has dropped out of the Democratic Party to run for Mayor as an Independent."
About the Author
Independent Voter Project