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Welcome to the Jungle Primary

California’s New Nominating System Yields Surprising Results in 31st District

Rich Pedroncelli/Associated Press
Republican state Sen. Bob Dutton (above) edged out Democrat Pete Aguilar to advance to the general election in California. Dutton will challenge fellow Republican Rep. Gary Miller in the Democratic-leaning 31st district.

Welcome to the new Congressional landscape of California.

Rep. Gary Miller (R) not only survived his jungle primary in the totally new, Democratic-leaning 31st district, the endangered lawmaker also finished first and is set to face Republican state Sen. Bob Dutton in the November general election. Redlands Mayor Pete Aguilar (D), the favorite to advance in the top-two primary, finished about 1,000 votes short of underdog Dutton after three other Democrats swallowed up a quarter of the vote.

“Republicans are still going to behave like Republicans, and Democrats like Democrats,” Miller consultant Jason Roe said of the jungle primaries. “Then it becomes all about division. How many people are in the race makes a difference.”

Miller entered Tuesday’s primary as California’s most vulnerable incumbent. He emerged in his strongest position for re-election since deciding to court new voters after redistricting pushed him into an Orange County district favorable to Rep. Ed Royce (R).

Last month, the Miller campaign made news by mistakenly posting unflattering online outtakes of the Congressman recording a television ad. But the campaign was quietly tracking the race and might  have been alone in not being totally caught off guard by Tuesday’s results.

After tracking data suggested the possibility of two Republicans advancing in the primary, the campaign rushed a poll into the field on the Saturday of Memorial Day weekend. The survey showed Miller and Dutton neck and neck, with Aguilar in third place. The results were unexpected and potentially unreliable, given the poll’s odd timing. But the survey ultimately proved accurate.

Even Dutton backers were surprised Aguilar wasn’t able to edge out the state Senator for second place, said Matt Rexroad, the GOP consultant who ran the independent expenditure program for a super PAC backing Dutton. The National Association of Realtors’ political arm spent at least $800,000 for Miller, leaving Dutton as the likely odd man out.

“I definitely wanted him to win,” Rexroad said. “But my brain told me otherwise.”

Consultants from both parties, both inside and outside of California, are still adjusting to the new nominating system, which was sold to voters in 2010 as a way to ensure that more moderate candidates could win and that those who chose not to affiliate with either party would have a greater chance to win, Los Angeles Democratic Party Chairman Eric Bauman said.

But after an early look at state legislative and Congressional elections across the state, Bauman said it’s likely that not one unaffiliated candidate advanced to the Nov. 6 general election. And it’s unlikely independent voters’ first chance to participate in California primaries in 14 years led to higher turnout.

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