Voters along Los Angeles County’s southern coast conducted a test run of the state’s new top-two primary-election system this month, and the outcome is a harbinger of next year’s elections in 153 newly redrawn congressional and legislative districts.
The special election in the 36th Congressional District was triggered by the resignation of Democratic Rep. Jane Harman. It was virtually certain from the onset that her successor would be a Democrat — but uncertain which Democrat.
The top-two system requires all candidates to be listed on the same ballot, regardless of party, with the top two vote-getters moving into the final runoff. That’s true even if that means two candidates from the same party are competing for the seat.
The special election shaped up as an ideological battle within the Democratic Party — whether Harman’s relatively centrist outlook would be continued or the district would move left.
Los Angeles City Councilwoman Janice Hahn was the centrist candidate while Secretary of State Debra Bowen was backed by the party’s more liberal wing.
Their duel, however, was distorted by leftist Democrat Marcy Winograd’s stubborn insistence on running.
In the past, Winograd had been the darling of the Democratic left as she challenged Harman, U.S. policy toward Israel being her major issue.
With Harman gone, the lefties switched to Bowen, who had once represented the area in the Legislature, as their best hope of defeating Hahn, whom they saw as a Harman clone. They tried to persuade Winograd to stay out, fearing a liberal split would help Hahn.
Meanwhile, a Republican candidate’s well-financed campaign indirectly bolstered Hahn’s strategy. It pushed him into a second-place finish by a handful of votes, preventing Bowen from winning a place in the runoff election.
Hahn thus will face right-wing Republican Craig Huey in the July 12 runoff. In the heavily Democratic district, she is guaranteed a win.
Hahn’s strategy was inspired by the top-two system’s new rules of engagement. It will be watched closely as the system governs all legislative and congressional elections next year.
Since all candidates will be on the same primary ballot, those who lead will likely devote money and other resources to splitting blocs of voters, à la Hahn, and helping their weakest potential foes make the runoff, regardless of party.
Dan Walters’ Sacramento Bee columns on state politics are syndicated by the Scripps Howard News Service.