Barbara Boxer

Sen. Barbara Boxer’s retirement could set up a nightmare election scenario for Democrats.(Win McNamee/Getty Images)

National Journal

Or the way Republicans could find themselves shut out of the general election altogether.
By Scott Bland
January 13, 2015

Democrats are far-and-away favored to keep Sen. Barbara Boxer’s California Senate seat when she retires in 2016. They may even be able to shut Republicans out of the general election altogether. But, with both parties still feeling their way through recent and radical changes to the state’s rules for primary races, Democratic insiders see a nightmare scenario in which they fumble away the seat before the general election even begins.

At issue are California’s new “top-two” (or “jungle”) primaries, which have replaced party primaries with an open primary race in which the top two vote recipients—regardless of party affiliation—face off in a general election. The thinking behind the new system was to keep races competitive even in places that were traditionally “safe” areas for one party. But it also creates a scenario in which both parties face the prospect of being without a candidate in high-profile, statewide elections.

With Democrats making up 43 percent of the state’s electorate in 2014 and Republicans only 28 percent, the GOP appears the more likely party to miss out on the general, and the party is steeling for the possibility. “I would hate to see a situation in California where we end up with two Democrats running against each other for the U.S. Senate seat” in the general election, said Harmeet Dhillon, the vice chairwoman of the state Republican Party. “But it’s a real possibility with the top-two system.”

Democrats, however, are nervously aware of a nightmare scenario of their own, in which a wealth of strong Democratic candidates divides the party faithful and leaves two Republicans alone at the top.

“The danger of top-two is getting boxed out,” said Ben Tulchin, a San Francisco-based Democratic pollster. “Say you have two Republicans fairly evenly matched, and then a large and diverse field of Democrats splitting the vote—say four or more Democrats … with different factions of the Democratic vote.”

It was a scenario nobody thought would happen, until it did: California’s 31st District—a Southern California seat that should have been a straightforward win for Democrats—went to the GOP in 2012 after a large group of Democrats split the vote and left two Republicans as the top primary vote-getters. (The seat eventually went to Republican Gary Miller, who retired rather than risking defeat in 2014.)

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