Editor’s note: Nathan W. Monroe is a political science professor at the University of California, Merced. He studies American politics with a focus on legislatures, especially the U.S. Congress.
California’s 10th Congressional district has all the ingredients to be one of the most compelling primary elections in Central Valley history.
On the surface, it looks like the recipe for a bland race: a Congressional primary featuring Republican incumbent Jeff Denham in a presidential election year with both the Republican and Democratic candidates decided.
But this unremarkable contest has been infused with political flavor by astronaut-turned-candidate Jose Hernandez, hand-picked and heavily backed by the Democratic National Committee, and independent Chad Condit, the son of a former Central Valley Congressman who’s running a classic grass roots campaign. And it’s all being stirred together by California’s newly minted “top-two” primary system.
The top-two primary, approved by voters in 2010, is the key ingredient in this political soup. Under the previous system, congressional primary elections featured separate races for each party, with the top vote getter in each - along with any independent candidates – squaring off in the November general election. Often, this meant uninteresting primaries with just one candidate per party. Rarely did a truly competitive race emerge.
Under the new system, all candidates who qualify for the ballot, regardless of party affiliation or lack thereof, will run together in a single primary race. The top two vote getters will then move on to November’s general election. Voters are no longer guaranteed to see a Democratic and a Republican in the general election. Instead, the November election could feature two Democrats, two Republicans, one Democrat or Republican plus a third party candidate (or independent), or no Democrat or Republican at all.
In the vast majority of general elections, we’ll continue to see Republicans and Democrats. But for independent candidates with real appeal this shift in primary rules could be pivotal. For one thing, Decline-to-state voters account for a fifth of the state’s electorate. But even more to the point, the calculation for voters has changed. A quick thought experiment shows how. Imagine that after careful consideration, a middle-of-the-road voter in the 10th District - perhaps an independent or a moderate Democrat or Republican – wants to vote for Condit.
Under the old system, this voter might have been afraid to cast a vote for an independent like Condit. In a system dominated by the two major parties, they would be afraid that vote would be wasted. Instead, that voter might pick the lesser of two evils, voting for the Democrat or Republican that seems closest to their moderate views. This logic has spelled doom for most third party and independent candidates throughout American history.
Under the new system, an independent candidate only has to get enough votes in June to be 2nd place. If he can, he gets to go head to head against just one of the major party candidates in November, instead of both. This creates the real possibility that a moderate independent candidate could beat a conservative Republican or a liberal Democrat.
So how many Central Valley voters will identify with the hypothetical middle-of-the-roader? It’s hard to say for sure. But looking at Central Valley representatives, past and present, a candidate of Condit’s moderate stripes could get serious traction. Certainly, area voters have elected their share of mainstream Democrats and Republicans, but the quintessential representatives from this area have been what could be called Valleycrats and Valleycans: moderate legislators such as Ken Maddy (R), Gary Condit (D) and Dennis Cardoza (D), known for their devotion to Valley issues and perspectives, who aren’t afraid to buck their party. And this breed of representative isn’t just a thing of the past. At the state level, Adam Gray (D) (candidate for the 21st Assembly district) and State Senator Anthony Canella (R) are potential examples of the next generation of Valleycrats and Valleycans.
It’s hard to say who will survive the Tuesday, June 5 ,primary, but you can be sure of one thing: if Condit does pull it off, the top-two primary and California’s 10th congressional district will be the talk of the nation for the months to come.