Here’s a situation California’s 10-year-old “top two” primary seemingly was designed for: A three-term Republican assemblyman from what once was a “safe” GOP district defies his party, goes independent and gets a spot on the November runoff ballot against another Republican.
Back when they were advocating for the 2010 Proposition 10 and the top two system it created, sometimes called the “jungle primary,” then-Gov. Arnold Schwarznegger and then-Lt. Gov. Abel Maldonado, both moderate Republicans, insisted it would give minority party voters a significant say in districts otherwise dominated by either Democrats or Republicans.
Now look at the Redlands-to-the-desert Assembly District 42 in the state’s Inland Empire, where former Republican Chad Mayes faces Republican Andrew Kotyuk in the November runoff.
Mayes, now registered with no party preference like about one-fourth of all California voters, pulled about 35 percent of the primary vote to just a bit less for Republican Kotyuk, who entered the race on the last possible day – because that’s when Mayes renounced his membership in the GOP.
Republican officials reacted very quickly, almost instantly gathering the needed signatures to put San Jacinto Mayor Kotyuk on the ballot. Although he’s never said it, Mayes likely timed his announcement in hopes it would preclude his drawing a GOP opponent.
He didn’t get that wish. Still, he siphoned more than enough votes away from the only Democrat in the race, Hemet lawyer DeniAntionette (cq) Mazingo, to make the runoff against Kotyuk, a conventional Republican whose website proclaims the standard GOP contention that “Sacramento elites are hurting hard-working taxpayers.”
Mayes, once the Republican leader in the state Assembly, was forced out of that post after he broke with the party’s longtime stance against California’s cap-and-trade program aimed at reducing greenhouse gases and climate change and voted in 2017 to continue it.
He survived the 2018 midterm election despite that, with some support from Democratic voters in the district. To win this fall, he will need plenty of support from Democrats who voted last spring for Mazingo.
It’s uncertain whether they will back him or simply leave vacant the state Assembly slot on their ballots.
That’s what makes this perhaps the best test yet of whether the top two system – which pits the two leading primary election vote-getters in the runoff regardless of party – can achieve its stated purpose.
Yes, there have been plenty of Democrat-on-Democrat and Republican-vs.-Republican races, but until now California had not seen an apostate member of one party depend on voters from the other party for survival.
In some cases, including the Santa Clarita-area 25th Congressional District, where Democratic Assemblywoman Christy Smith is trying to unseat Republican Mike Garcia, who last spring beat her in a special election for a vacated seat, two Republicans have combined to almost become the leading primary vote-getters in districts where voter registration for the big parties is about even. Smith hopes the large presidential election turnout will let her reverse the spring outcome.
But no member of a major party has ever faced off against an independent. In fact, independents have griped for years that the jungle primary discriminates against them. The best rejoinder to that was always that independents needed to find candidates with wider appeal, and Mayes may have given them one.
Now the question is whether Mayes, who has joined Schwarzenegger’s nascent centrist advocacy group New Way California, can continue to pick up votes from both Democrats and independents.
Since Mayes has sometimes criticized President Trump, who shares the fall ballot with him, it’s entirely possible moderate Republican “Never Trumpers” may vote his way, even if they’re holding their noses and after all instinctively voting for Trump, their fellow Republican.
If Mayes can put together a coalition of moderates, independents, Republicans and Democrats, he will demonstrate for the first time that it can be done. Which would mean there really is a possibility that at least some California politicians won’t have to worry about party backing in the future. The November results will tell a lot.