If you decided to sleep like a regular human being on Tuesday night, rather than stay up to watch MSNBC’s Steve Kornacki hyperventilate into the wee hours over the results of California’s “jungle primary,” here’s what you missed in two words: Money won. Huge, obscene, record-shattering, Mark Zuckerberg-sized piles of money won. Center-left Democrats had the biggest stacks of the stuff, and they fared best. Ho-hum. Another day in the death spiral of American democracy.
You might have expected a bit more from the results of an electoral free-for-all that the national press had been hyping for months with hysterical headlines about looming “disasters” for both Republicans and Democrats. More, too, from a state that is purportedly the lodestone of the anti-Trump Resistance – not to mention, if you ask conservatives, the weirdest and wackiest and sanctuary-city-ist socialist paradise on the planet.
The ingredients all seemed to be there, especially in a gaggle of U.S. House races where Republicans are clinging to seats in districts that Hillary Clinton carried in 2016. California has seven of them, and they’re crucial to the Democrats’ national effort to regain a House majority and, presumably, get rolling on impeachment early next year. But there was a hitch: So many Democrats wanted to run, and so many did run in three of those swing districts, that there was a serious chance the candidates would slice up the vote so finely that two Republicans would end up on the ballot in November and dash the Democrats’ hopes.
That potentially bizarre outcome was possible because California voters, naively enough, tried a desperate measure to quell runaway “partisanship” eight years ago. That was when, at the urging of Republican-ish Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger, they approved Proposition 14, which created the “jungle” primaries – in which all candidates would be lumped together, regardless of party affiliation or lack thereof, with the two top vote-getters advancing to the general election. Here was the magic-bullet solution to the growing problem of “polarization,” proponents said. Rather than competing in party primaries where Republicans always move to the right to woo the “base,” and where Democrats supposedly must veer leftward to win theirs, the system would encourage candidates to be moderate.
The biggest selling point for voters was that both parties opposed the initiative. “The Republican Party and the Democratic Party despise this,” Schwarzenegger said when it passed in 2010. “Why? Because it takes power away from them and gives it back to the people.”
It was a nice sentiment. A nice try, even. But the parties did not cede power so easily to the people, it turned out, even in the so-called “people’s republic.” Reasonable people can (and do) argue about whether Prop 14 helped elect more centrists, but there’s no disputing the fact that it had at least two nasty unintended consequences: It encouraged the parties to spend big, general-election-sized money on the primaries, and it led to whole new kinds of political ratfucking among the candidates.
The latter – the ratfucking – did make for some rollicking entertainment if you like your politics raw and bloody. In the Southern California House district held by Republican wingnut Dana Rohrabacher, best known as “Putin’s favorite congressman,” the national Democratic Party managed to, um, persuade a couple of candidates to withdraw, in hopes that they could coalesce behind one contender to finish second in the primary and then best Rohrbacher in November. But the Dems still ended up with four viable contenders with little ideological distance between them.
The state and national parties made things even more confounding: The California Democratic Party backed a stem-cell researcher named Hans Keirstead. But the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, spooked by an old allegation against Keirstead, threw its weight behind a different candidate, the wonderfully named businessman Harley Rouda.
The two Democrats proceeded to slash, burn and all but eviscerate each other, to the point where a second Republican almost snuck into the general election with first-place-finishing Rohrabacher. (At press time, with California’s vote counting proceeding at a snail’s pace, the two warring Democrats were virtually tied.) Whoever emerges will go into the fall looking more like a wounded animal than a hero of the Resistance.
Similar shenanigans ensued in two other Southern California districts the Democrats covet; in one, the eye-gouging Democratic contenders had to be corralled into an Italian restaurant peace summit by party leaders. In the end, though, the Democrats apparently (votes are counted slowly in California) managed to avoid the outcomes they most feared, and the party still has a chance to gain those seven House seats in November.
At the same time, the GOP also averted its worst California nightmare on Tuesday: Getting shut out of November’s top-of-the-ticket races for both the U.S. Senate and the governor’s mansion. That would have been rather embarrassing, and could have depressed GOP turnout in the fall. But little-known John Cox made it into the general election for governor against Democratic Lieutenant Governor Gavin Newsom, beating out former Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa for second place – despite an astronomical amount of spending (we’re talking $35 million or so) by national charter-school advocates, most notably Michael Bloomberg, who backed Villaraigosa.
To ensure the outcome, Newsom did something audacious: He ran ads for the Republican, (mock) praising him for, among other things, “standing with President Trump and the NRA.” Newsom hoped that would rally GOP voters to Cox – who was also endorsed by Trump himself – and edge out the Democrat who might actually have a shot at beating him.
People ate it up like catnip. The process was weird in the extreme, but the result was predictable. Which, in a way, was the story of the whole California primary. In a year when Democrats are supposed to be all fired up with Resistance, they voted for a slate of candidates that could, with far less fuss, have simply been chosen by the national Democratic Party from the get-go. Even Senator Dianne Feinstein – the epitome of the old-school liberal establishment – was supposed to have been in a battle for her long political life against progressive state Senate leader Kevin DeLeon; instead, Feinstein and her millions mauled him on Tuesday (and likely will again in November). To the ramparts, Californians!
If you’re a Democrat who chooses to skip over the gory details, the outcome in California on Tuesday was heartening: Democrats can still retake the House in November, and they’re now one small step closer. But if you’re a small-d “democrat,” the way it happened was powerfully depressing. Even in the state that’s tried harder – albeit foolishly at times – than any to achieve “direct democracy,” that lovely dream grows more distant, more impossible and unimaginable, with every money-soaked election cycle. We will get rid of Trump eventually (probably, hopefully). And we’ll be left with a democracy that looks like what just went down in California.