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California Senate: Fears of a Democratic “Nightmare” Recede

In the wake of Sen. Barbara Boxer’s (D-CA) retirement announcement last month, National Journal’s Scott Bland gamed out the Democratic “nightmare scenario” in which they could somehow lose the seat despite their statewide dominance.

That’s because of California’s top-two primary system, where all candidates regardless of party run together in a June primary and the top-two vote-getters advance to the general election. If the field of Democrats was big enough, two Republicans could advance to November.

However, the way the race has developed, the small chances of this happening are becoming even more remote. In fact, the likelier outcome now could be two Democrats advancing to the general election, but there’s an important caveat.

Democrats had reason to be worried in the wake of Boxer’s retirement because of their bad luck in a House primary in 2012. After the introduction of the top-two system a few years ago, Democrats found themselves shut out of a Democratic-leaning House seat in California, CA-31. Even though the district leans Democratic in the general election, two Republicans split 51.5% of the total primary vote, while four Democrats won the rest. Then-state Sen. Bob Dutton (R) beat out then-Redlands Mayor Pete Aguilar (D) for second place by about two percentage points. In November, Dutton went on to lose to Rep. Gary Miller (R), who then retired before the 2014 election. The same thing almost happened this past year, but Aguilar narrowly managed to get second place in the primary, and he won the seat in the fall (one of just three Democratic House pick-ups in what was otherwise a rotten year nationally for the party).

CA-31 is less Democratic than the state as a whole, but not dramatically so: President Obama won 60% statewide in 2012, while he got 57% in the district.

At the time of Boxer’s retirement, the excellent Daily Kos Elections made a chart listing over 30 potential Democratic candidates, but many of them quickly said no. Right now, there’s only one credible Democrat running: state Attorney General Kamala Harris (D), and she has been quickly vacuuming up endorsements from other party leaders. The Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee has not endorsed her, but it came close after she announced her candidacy.

Former Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa (D) might run as well, and his candidacy would set up an interesting racial and geographic contrast with Harris (Villaraigosa is a Southern California Hispanic, while Harris is from Northern California and is both Asian American and African American).

But other than those two heavyweights, there’s been little indication that other credible Democrats will enter the contest. Some U.S. House members are still considering bids, but none of them is as prominent statewide as Harris or Villaraigosa. In California, there are more U.S. House members (53) than there are state senators (40), which just goes to show what a small base any House member starts with in that huge state.

Republicans do not have a top-tier option — is there such a thing as a top-tier Republican in California anymore? But Assemblyman Rocky Chavez (R) just announced that he is exploring a candidacy. Other possibilities include Fresno Mayor Ashley Swearengin (R), who lost a race for state controller last year, Assemblyman Tim Donnelly (R) — an immigration hard-liner who finished behind 2014 GOP gubernatorial candidate Neel Kashkari in last year’s all-party primary — and a couple of former state party chairs. “Unless a surprise GOP candidate emerges,” Seema Mehta of the Los Angeles Times wrote recently, “the U.S. Senate race in California will mark the third straight election with the party’s top-of-the-ticket state candidate given virtually no chance of victory, even by fellow Republicans.”

In fact, it’s not impossible that Harris and Villaraigosa could advance to the 2016 general election, turning that race into a de facto Democratic primary and leaving no question as to which party will win the seat.

All those factors being noted, one major electoral element gives the GOP a decent chance of advancing a candidate to the November election: primary turnout.

Recent history tells us that the primary electorate should be significantly more Republican than the general electorate. For instance, in 2012’s top-two primary — the last presidential cycle — both presidential nominations had effectively been decided by the time of California’s early June primary, and the state featured an uncompetitive Senate race, with Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D) cruising to victory. Just including the presidential primary vote tallied by Obama and the five top Republicans on the ballot, Obama garnered just 52% of the vote, versus 48% for the combined Republicans. As mentioned above, Obama got 60% in the fall, so the primary electorate is more Republican. (Just to be clear, the top-two primary does not apply to the presidential race.)

That gets into the final wild card in the California Senate race: the presidential race, which could give the GOP even more of a primary turnout edge.

California’s top-two primary is currently scheduled for June 7, 2016, making it one of the final events of the presidential nomination season. Both parties very well could have presumptive nominees at this point, particularly the Democrats given the strength of Hillary Clinton at this early point. However, the Republican presidential field is large and unsettled, and the race might go on through the spring, making the California primary a tremendously important event.

Even though the Golden State is very Democratic now, Romney got more votes from this mega-state — 4.84 million — than he did from any other state in 2012. So there are a slew of Republican voters who could be mobilized for a crucial primary. While a Harris-Villaraigosa showdown could juice Democratic turnout, a potentially decisive California presidential primary would bring out legions of Republicans, which could impact the Senate race and perhaps make sure that even a marginal GOP Senate nominee advanced to November.

As should be clear by now, there are many variables in the developing Senate race in the nation’s most populous state. But the biggest one that would suggest the possibility of the Democratic “nightmare” — a large field of credible Democratic contenders — has not yet come to pass, and there’s no indication that it will. So the proper rating for this seat remains Safe Democratic, despite all the intrigue.