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Old-School Politics Reign in California's New Primary

Douglas Graham/CQ Roll Call File Photo
California’s new primary system helped Miller, a Republican, win in the 31st District last year, despite the area’s decidedly Democratic bent.

California’s new top-two primary system was supposed to revolutionize the state’s political process. Instead, it’s forcing candidates to revert to an antiquated practice: competing for the state party’s endorsement.

Passed by a state ballot initiative in 2010, local operatives intended the top-two primary to elect moderate and independent candidates to Congress, or at least that’s how it was sold to voters. Instead, the new primary system — which moves the top two vote recipients to the general election regardless of party affiliation — has led to a number of crowded, bitter intraparty battles, even in safe Democratic or Republican seats.

An endorsement from the state party can help distinguish a candidate in a crowded field. Most importantly for Democrats, the party’s backing can come with ground support to help low-information voters coalesce around a candidate.

“The top-two primary returns us to the days when old-fashioned, retail politics is critical, and the value of the endorsement is heightened,” said Eric Bauman, chairman of the Los Angeles Democratic Party and past delegate to the state party conventions.

Last year, the party’s endorsement helped at least two Democrats in crowded primaries: Reps. Julia Brownley and Alan Lowenthal. Brownley defeated three Democrats and a formidable independent challenger in the primary; Lowenthal emerged as the top candidate from a pool of four Democrats.

This cycle, the 31st District is a prime example of a race where a party endorsement could help a candidate emerge from a crowded field. The Democrats there are already locked in a fierce battle over local and national endorsements.

The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee and most Democrats in the state’s congressional delegation support Redlands Mayor Pete Aguilar. But former Rep. Joe Baca is also running, along with attorney Eloise Reyes, who has support from EMILY’s List, a group that backs female candidates who support abortion rights. Local school board official Danny Tillman is in the race, too.

Democratic onlookers fear the grudge match will hurt their chances of ousting GOP Rep. Gary G. Miller, who won the election last year despite the district’s strong Democratic leaning. In 2012, Miller and another Republican won the new top-two primary after several Democratic candidates — including Aguilar — split their party’s vote.

With the same number of Democratic candidates in the race this cycle, party consultants say an endorsement could help voters coalesce around one hopeful and ensure victory.

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