California Primaries Resemble Wild West

For the past decade, the races for California's 53 congressional seats have been reliably uneventful. Thanks to the twin forces of redistricting reform and the new top-two primary system, that has completely changed this cycle, and Tuesday's primaries will give us the first taste of what's to come in the state's newly competitive House districts.

In the tumult of the past decade, when wave elections flipped the House wildly in both directions, only one California seat changed hands: Democratic Rep. Jerry McNerney defeated then-Rep. Richard Pombo, R-Calif., in the 11th District in 2006. Other than that, California's gerrymandered congressional seats kept the same parties. But the citizen commission that conducted redistricting this cycle totally upended the House map, inducing a wave of retirements, unlocking a number of new Democratic opportunities (especially in the state's diverse inland areas), and making California a centerpiece of Democrats' national plans to take back the House majority.

But redistricting made some Democratic-held seats more competitive, too, and pitted two pairs of Democratic incumbents against each other in two Los Angeles districts. And because of the all-party, top-two primary system that voters approved by ballot measure in 2010, Reps. Howard Berman and Brad Sherman (now both vying for the 30th District) and Reps. Janice Hahn and Laura Richardson (44th District), and several other Democratic pairs in liberal districts, could go all the way to November instead of having their races decided on primary night.

That is but one interesting effect of the new primary system, which has also spawned a few independent candidacies that are more viable than usual in an all-party field. The most notable independent is the 26th District's Linda Parks, who is hoping to take advantage of a split Democratic field and advance to the general election along with the district's lone Republican candidate. That prospect has national Democratic groups concerned about losing even the chance at a critical pickup opportunity, so much so that Democratic-aligned outside groups have spent more than $1 million to keep Parks out of second place.

But although the all-inclusive primary was supposed to encourage candidates to branch out beyond their bases and moderate the electoral process, local observers say that hasn't quite played out yet. Independent voters are not used to turning out in force in the spring, and this cycle's independent candidates lack the resources to mount heavy turnout operations. Plus, the new primary rules are not yet ingrained in California's political culture. "Some people think they can vote for two candidates," Parks said in a May interview. "There hasn't been a lot of information out.... So we're letting people know they can vote."

Thus, major party candidates have continued to operate using their old playbooks. For that reason, the primaries will not be a great overall barometer for the November general elections — even though Democrats and Republicans will be facing off directly in primaries for the first time since 2000, the makeup of the primary and general electorates will be too different. There will be a few keys to take away: In the 44th District, for example, a strong showing by Hahn could further squeeze Richardson's slowing fundraising, and the voting in the districts that will match two members of the same party in the general could provide early clues and possibly unseat a few incumbents who had always been safe running against Republicans in November. But, for the most part, the primary will take place in a completely different political environment than the November elections.