Waiting for the top-two revolution

If you are holding your breath, waiting for the top-two primary to work the revolution the New York Times proclaimed last June after the passage of Prop 14, it’s probably a good moment to inhale. As the Assembly District 4 election showed the other day, the revolution isn’t coming.

Assembly District 4 is exactly where the jungle primary is supposed to do its magic of electing more moderate lawmakers to the Legislature. Centered on the upscale Placer and El Dorado suburbs of Sacramento, it is one of the most Republican districts in the state. According to the theory of jungle primary boosters, Democrats and independents, understanding that a Republican is sure to win in such districts, will sniff out which of the GOP candidates is the more moderate. They will give the moderate Republican their votes instead of “wasting” them on a candidate who more closely shares their views but has no hope of eventually prevailing.

There are two problems with the theory.

First, if voters from the minority party are to sniff out the “moderate” in the race, there has to be one. In District 4, there wasn’t. In the current budget crisis, a Republican “moderate” might be defined as someone willing to vote for Governor Brown’s draconian budget cuts and accompanying extension of temporary taxes in return for pensions reforms and relaxation of business regulations. As far as I can tell, not a single GOP candidate in the field was prepared to vote for Brown’s budget, and certainly not the two well-funded frontrunners, John Allard and Beth Gaines, who vied to prove they were the most conservative.

Second, even if there were a moderate majority-party candidate to vote for, it’s not clear that many minority-party voters are willing to put aside their partisan views to vote for a second-best candidate. Without running a campaignThe Democratic candidate in the District 4 election won a plurality of votes in the March 8 election, his vote percentage almost exactly matching Democratic registration. He will likely get almost the same vote share in the May runoff, when Gaines, the second-place finisher, will take the seat.

“I will join the Taxpayer Caucus on my first day in the Assembly and look forward to working with them to protect California’s taxpayers from tax increases and extensions,” Gaines, wife of state Sen. Ted Gaines, wrote on FlashReport the day after the election.

Yes, that jungle primary is a real game-changer.