In 2010, the voters in California passed Proposition 14, which altered the face of political races in the state. This piece of legislation changed the traditional Republican vs. Democrat face of races to a "top two system," where the top two finishers in a primary, regardless of party affiliation, went on to the general election. This means that in a state that tilts heavily blue or red, those top two finishers are likely from the same party. Which is why this weekend, in the seething cauldron of political backroom wheeling and dealing that is the California Democratic Convention, the political operatives refer it by its other name.
The jungle primary.
It's the battle for the top two beasts in the jungle, and here in California, all the alpha predators prowling the halls of the Los Angeles Convention Center are Democrats. Which means that candidates and consultants that have made their bones beating up on Republicans are suddenly learning a new playbook. And the chaos in the halls and candidate war rooms was palatable.
"The top two primary is still a work in progress," said Rose Kapolczynski, a consultant working for Secretary of State Democratic candidate Alex Padilla. "It used to be in a Democratic primary you were appealing to Democrats with a few independents. Now you are appealing to everybody...it changes the definition of who your base is."
Leland Yee, the ex-San Francisco Supervisor, now a State Senator, who is running for Secretary of State echoes this. "Now with two Democrats running, you really have to sharpen your difference, you really have to get into the weeds. What we have to do now is work harder; now it's our responsibility to pull voters into your particular campaign, in electing you. So what that means is that traditionally communities that you may have neglected you have to look at them and see what you can do to get them engaged in your election. It's extremely important that we leave no stone unturned."
Part of leaving no stone unturned is the endorsement of the California Democratic Party, which used to only matter in the June primary when the die-hards turn out to vote. Now with multiple Democrats anticipating doing battle with each other in a general election, the endorsement has taken on a new importance -- a pitched battle that has to be seen to be believed. Or heard for that matter. All Saturday, the staffers for each candidate, especially in the hotly contested Secretary of State and State Controller races, commanded the halls of the Convention Center and the Bonaventure Hotel, loudly chanting the names of their candidates. Getting onto the floor of the actual General Session required running a gauntlet of howling 20-year-olds pushing stickers, signs and position statements on you.
"Well, it's put a premium on the party endorsement, and collecting endorsements that are good signals to the electorate who is the best Democrat." Says Douglas Herman, who works for State Controller candidate John Perez.
Kapolczynski echoes this heightened need for the endorsement. "If one of the candidates in the primary has the official endorsement of the Democratic Party, that sets them apart. So with our three Democrats, if one of us is lucky enough to win the endorsement that's going to be the official stamp of approval."
The furious endorsement politicking so threatened to overwhelm the Convention that Democratic party boss John Burton even floated the idea of not doing endorsements to try to limit the amount of Democrat on Democrat bloodshed. Leland Yee announced he was on board with the idea, but his opponents Alex Padilla and Derek Cressman, and their throngs of carnival barkers outside were having none of it.
The whole affair was so fractious that after over three hours of frenzied meetings, no candidates were able to get past the 60 percent threshold to get the prized endorsement in the Controller or Secretary of State contests. Thus, the candidates got all the fun of "no endorsement" with none of the civility that Burton's proposal was supposed to ensure.
If this is not enough chaos, another danger is hovering just over the horizon. If the jungle primary makes the party endorsement important for strict party loyalists, it also allows for independents to take up the space to the left or right of the affiliated candidates. In 2010, when the voters changed the law, the state had a total of four independent candidates running for Congress. This year, thanks to the jungle primary, that number has exploded to 41 candidates, and this has also an impact on the hunt for voters. Historically Democrats have a plurality in the state, but not a majority. The California Democratic machine has always counted on a consistent segment of independent voters swinging behind Democratic candidates. So what happens when those independents start finding their own candidates?
Kapolczynski thinks we'll have to wait to see the effect of the explosion of independents. A major reason for this is that this year's race is a "down ballot" contest. With no presidential race, the governor's race a foregone conclusion and many major offices such as Attorney General spoken for, the action is going to be down the ballet where the local action is fought. And elections without a big draw tend to generate a small turnout on election day. "It's true that partisanship is still a cue to voters, particularly in a down ballot race."
"Most of the voters don't know any of the candidates for Secretary of State," she continues. "And they won't, even a month before the election. When they see party, that is one cue to them; I am a Republican Peter Peterson is a Republican so he is someone I will look at, or I will just vote for him because I don't know these other guys. "
This year's convention both felt like the same old Democratic machine in action and maybe this election day won't give us many surprises, but we are catching a glimpse of something fantastically new.