National Democrats, however, have much more to lose. Party leaders are scrambling to ensure that at least one of their candidates makes it onto the ballot in a handful of competitive House races in and around Orange County in Southern California. They fear that the top-two nominating system could turn one of the party’s 2018 strengths—a burst of anti-Trump grassroots enthusiasm—into a liability: In a trio of GOP-held districts that Hillary Clinton carried in 2016, several viable Democrats are running, raising the possibility of a splintered vote that could allow two Republicans to narrowly capture the general-election slots. With control of the House at stake in November, having only Republicans advance in these districts could jeopardize the Democrats’ chances to retake the majority.
The chief GOP challenge, meanwhile, is on the statewide level, where Republicans could fail to advance a general-election candidate in the race for governor, U.S. Senate—or both. The absence of a Republican at the top of the ticket could depress turnout this fall, damaging the party’s chances in close contests for Congress, the state legislature, and other down-ballot offices.
Anger at next week’s results could spur a push to repeal the top-two system, but supporters of the jungle primary aren’t worried about the criticism from party leaders. In fact, they welcome it: A main goal of the change was to reduce the power of the major parties and the insiders that run them. And if nothing else, the complaints from bigwigs like Pelosi and McCarthy are evidence that California’s jungle primary has accomplished at least that.
“One of the most positive features of the California system is that both political parties hate it,” said John Opdycke, the president of the national advocacy group Open Primaries. “Honestly, I’m not just saying that to be flip. That is an accurate measure of its value as a political reform.”
With a push from then-Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger, California voters enacted the top-two, nonpartisan primary system in a statewide referendum in 2010. Proponents sold it as a way to combat gerrymandering and elevate more moderate, centrist candidates over those forced to appeal to the extremes in closed party primaries. In heavily Democratic or Republican districts, general elections were often one-sided contests, and unaffiliated voters were often left out because they couldn’t vote in the party primaries that effectively determined who would hold the seats. By opening up the primaries and taking them out of the parties’ hands, supporters argued, there would be two competitive elections instead of one, encouraging higher voter turnout in both.
“More and more people are saying, ‘I want to vote, I want to participate, but I don’t want to be a part of a party to do that,’” Opdycke told me. “And this system responds to that societal change in a way that’s very significant and very positive.”