In 2010 California’s voters approved Proposition 14, which fundamentally changed how general elections are conducted in the state. Prior to Prop. 14, the general election ballot would include the names of every qualified party’s nominee. The new system created a so-called “jungle primary,” an open primary where all registered voters could vote for any candidate running regardless of their party affiliation, and only the top two finishers would move on to appear on the ballot in November.
The rationale for this, according to proponents at the time, was to eliminate the ability for candidates with extreme views, able to win in a primary contest against members of their own party, from moving on to compete in the general election. To-date the only result in California, however, appears to be the further destruction of GOP as a viable competitor in the one-party state. If the many state legislative contests that now just feature two Democratic candidates has resulted in winners with less extreme views, it’s not evident from the actions of the state legislature.
But California is about to experience a jungle free-for-all of a different kind, in the form of a special election that will permit voters to vote on a recall of Governor Gavin Newsom. The ballot will have two questions. The first will be “do you support removing Newsom from office, yes or no?” The second question, on the same ballot, will be “if voters remove Newsom from office, who do you vote for to replace him?”
Who steps up to run as Newsom’s replacement is the biggest political question in California today. How that slate of candidates is constituted will influence Newsom’s chances of surviving question one, as well as who ends up running California if Newsom is rejected by voters.
California’s Democrats are split on how to handle this, with a narrow consensus holding so far that considers the best strategy is to not support any Democratic candidates on the ballot under question two, and emphasize instead their support for Newsom. Their rationale is based on a concern that if an alternative Democrat is on the ballot, it will harm Newsom’s chances of surviving the recall since it will give California’s disaffected Democrats – and they are plentiful – a reason to vote to recall Newsom.
That may or may not stop some Democrat from throwing their hat into the ring, and for Republicans, that is a double-edged sword. On one hand, having a Democrat alternative to Newsom will make it more likely that Newsom does not survive the recall. But on the other hand, if there is one prominent Democrat offered as a replacement for Newsom on question two, and two or more prominent Republicans, the Republican candidates will split the vote and the Democrat will win.
The nightmare scenario for Republicans goes something like this: The declared Republican candidates, John Cox and Kevin Faulconer, are joined by one or two other prominent Republican candidates, then Lorena Gonzalez, currently a member of the California State Assembly, jumps onto the ballot to run as the sole Democratic alternative. Gonzalez then becomes the next Governor of California because the Republicans have split the anti-Gonzalez vote three ways.
Lorena Gonzalez, one of the most toxic extremists to ever hold office in California, represents the liberal urban precincts of San Diego. She is the author of the notorious AB-5, the new state law that makes it illegal for millions of Californians to work as independent contractors. There is not an environmental overreach, a union power grab, or some new race/gender mandate that Gonzalez wouldn’t be likely to support. Her style is combative. Her politics are extreme. Gonzalez could never win state office in a normal election. But she could win the jungle recall.
The reality of jungle primaries and the upcoming jungle recall in California is a twist on a challenge playing out across the United States. Historically, and now more than ever, the presence of third party candidates can create electoral outcomes contrary to the more general intent of the voters. Over the past 200 years, several presidential elections have been thrown due to a powerful third party candidate. In 1992, Ross Perot scooped up 19 percent of the conservative vote, easily throwing the victory to Bill Clinton in key battleground states. In 2000, Ralph Nadar garnered 3 percent of the liberal vote, possibly throwing the victory to George W Bush in what was an extremely close election. Very recently, the presence of Libertarian candidate Jo Jorgenson earned more votes than Biden’s margin of victory in three key states, Georgia, Arizona, and Wisconsin.
In America today, because the Libertarian party tends to attract more funding and grassroots support than the Green party, the presence of these two smaller parties putting candidates on the ballot can tilt close elections to the left-of-center Democrats. Additional examples of this across America are abundant and consequential. If just one in seven of the people who voted Libertarian candidate for U.S. Senate Shane Hazel last November, the GOP candidate would not have been forced into a January 5 runoff, which he lost, which in-turn cost the GOP control of the U.S. Senate. Similar examples have played out in battleground state legislatures. In 2016, Libertarian candidate Tim Hagen got 5 percent of the vote in his run for a seat in the Nevada State Senate. The GOP candidate lost by only one-half of one percent, and control of the Nevada State Senate passed from the GOP to the Democrats.
Whether or not jungle primaries are desirable, the presence of alternative party candidacies is not something that can or should be discouraged on constitutional grounds or even as a matter of principle. But it is a strategic question that anyone favoring free enterprise and personal liberty should ask: How bad are the Democrats? Are they so much worse than the GOP that we ought to support GOP candidates that we don’t like? And if we don’t like a candidate the GOP has running for a particular office, is it worth voting against them when the consequence of that can be to shift control of a state legislature, much less the U.S. Senate, into the hands of Democrats?
On the national level, a nightmare scenario for conservatives could easily end up even worse than what Californians face: Disaffected Republicans don’t just cast protest votes for Libertarian candidates, or stay home, but end up forming an entire new political party. The challenge facing national Republicans today isn’t merely that of wooing Libertarians back into the GOP fold. It is convincing the pro-Trump and anti-Trump factions to stay together under the same tent. And by the way, as all of this plays out, why aren’t billionaire conservatives pouring money into the Green Party so they can run viable candidates, everywhere, splitting the liberal vote?
The jungle primary in California, and now the jungle recall in California, evokes a basic strategic question: How can the GOP conduct an unofficial, voluntary but binding primary process, prior to the actual jungle primary or jungle recall, that reflects the general will of their registrants but nonetheless limits the number of GOP candidates? Will John Cox step aside to allow only Kevin Faulconer run for California governor in the recall? Will Kevin Faulconer step aside to give John Cox a better chance as the lone conservative contender? Such a decision is not without precedent. In 2003, a tearful but heroic Darryl Issa stepped aside to give the more electable Arnold Schwarzenegger a better chance, and Schwarzenegger won. Issa’s decision is all the more commendable since he had been one of the primary funders of the recall campaign against incumbent Gray Davis.
Then again, the metaphor “jungle” is appropriate. Almost anyone can get their name on a recall ballot. Who will jump in? In 2003, over 100 candidates threw their name into the ring. Will Larry Elder run? Will Richard Grenell run? What about another celebrity like Schwarzenegger? Why not? There are a lot of animals in the jungle.
The opportunity in California with the recall is bigger than the outcome. It is a chance to put the entire failed legacy of Democratic rule on trial. And even in the event of a nightmare outcome, the replacement of Newsom with the even more extreme Lorena Gonzalez, there is a silver lining. Californians will experience, to the extent they haven’t already experienced it, the full weight of one-party rule by leftist fanatics, environmentalist extremists, social justice “woke” warriors, public sector unions, corrupt business special interests, and the billionaire oligarchs that pull the strings on these myriad marionettes. It can’t possibly end well.
If things go from bad to worse in California, and voters have to endure a doubling down of failed leadership from Democrats, they will be ready to vote for ballot initiatives and reform candidates that offer new policies to an electorate that is finally paying attention.
This article originally appeared on the website American Greatness.
* * *
Edward Ring is a contributing editor and senior fellow with the California Policy Center, which he co-founded in 2013 and served as its first president. He is also a senior fellow with the Center for American Greatness, and a regular contributor to the California Globe. His work has appeared in the Los Angeles Times, the Wall Street Journal, the Economist, Forbes, and other media outlets.
To help support more content and policy analysis like this, please click here.