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30 Jan 2020

Political Shenanigans: California's Top-Two Primary System Leads to Odd Alliances

Written by  Ben Christopher, CalMatters

Kathy Garcia is not your typical Republican candidate for the California Senate.

For one thing, she only just joined the GOP. A lifelong Democrat, she won election as a Stockton school board member with the backing of the county Democratic party. She changed her affiliation to Republican in June 2019, six months before the deadline to enter the Senate race.

She said the idea to run—under the banner of a party she’d opposed most of her adult life—was suggested to her by a Stockton lawyer and powerbroker who, records show, has helped fund the campaign of another candidate in the race. And that candidate, a moderate Democrat, incidentally stands a better chance if the Republican vote is divided.

The 80-year-old Garcia, asked by CalMatters why she’s running under the GOP label, gave a series of distinctly un-Republican explanations.

“I just decided I was going to try something new. And not because I like Trump,” she said, before making a retching noise. As for the Republicans that are running, she said, “I want to just put them under the bus.”

Garcia might get her wish.

That’s thanks to California’s unique “top two” election system, in which all candidates—regardless of party affiliation—are listed together on the same ballot in the first round “primary.” Only the first- and second-place winners on March 3 move on to the general election Nov. 3, also regardless of party affiliation. The race for state Senate in this Central Valley district is the latest oddball illustration of how the state’s decade-old electoral attempt at reform can distort the typical logic of campaigning, confuse voters and lead to mind-bending results.

Under the top two system, Garcia’s unlikely candidacy as a Republican is—paradoxically—most likely to benefit moderate Democrat and Modesto Councilman Mani Grewal. By running as a Republican along with another long-shot GOP candidate, Jim Ridenour, Garcia could split the local GOP vote three ways. If so, that could very well leave the two Democratic contenders—Grewal and Assemblywoman Susan Eggman—with the top two winning spots.

And it would leave the most viable Republican candidate running, Stockton Councilman Jesús Andrade, who has been endorsed by the state party, flattened under that proverbial bus. 

Asked if her motivation was to undermine Andrade, Garcia demurred: “I can’t come out and say that.”

Both she and Grewal say they aren’t working together. The Andrade campaign isn’t buying it.

“It’s shameful that Democrat Mani Grewal would plant a Bernie Sanders-supporting, fake Republican like Kathy Garcia in this Senate race to split the Republican vote,” said Andrade consultant Steve Presson. “Republican Jim Ridenour is also a Grewal plant whose candidacy is solely to help Grewal make the top two general election run-off. These Nixonian dirty tricks are just deplorable. Central Valley voters deserve better.”

Grewal called that a “ridiculous accusation.”

The top two system was intended to strip political parties of their influence over the candidate-selection process, making California elections less prone to backroom dealing and polarization. The jury is still out as to whether the system actually has pushed state politics toward the ideological center, as promised. But 10 years into California’s experiment with electoral “reform,” an unintended side effect has emerged: Political insiders have figured out how to game the top two—or, at the very least, how to accuse other campaigns of doing so to muddy the political waters.

But the mere fact that any of this is in doubt is an artifact of the state’s peculiar election system, said Paul Mitchell, vice president of Political Data, Inc., and frequent critic of the top-two system.

“Nobody would have questioned (Garcia’s candidacy) under the old system,” he said. The top two, he said, “encourages not only this manipulative strategy, but it also makes the public question a manipulative strategy where maybe there isn’t one.”

Grewal said allegations of coordination between his campaign and any other candidate in the race are “conspiracy theories” and “a cry for some free media” by the Andrade campaign.

“The first time I met Kathy Garcia was at The Modesto Bee forum” on Jan. 14, he said. “I know Jim Ridenour, and the last time, he endorsed me in my campaign. I would have liked his endorsement this time.”

In a follow up conversation, Garcia, who supported New Jersey Democratic Sen. Cory Booker for president, insisted that her choice to run was not motivated by her antipathy towards the Republicans, despite her earlier comments.

“Look at the people running as a Democrat,” she said. “Everybody is either an incumbent or has a big following or something. So here I am.”

She added that the idea to change parties and run for office as a Republican first came from Stockton lawyer and political operative N. Allen Sawyer, whom she described as “kind of my campaign manager.”

In an email, Sawyer explained that he encouraged Garcia to run as a Republican, because the “San Joaquin County Democratic Party is rigged and controlled by insiders. … I think as a moderate, she has a better chance of being treated fairly as a Republican.”

Last year, prior to Garcia’s entry into the race, Sawyer donated $3,000 to Grewal’s campaign.

“I support financially a wide range of candidates who run for office,” he said.

Grewal acknowledged the early financial support from Sawyer, whom he said he has known for some time. “And about his relationship with Kathy, I’m not aware of that stuff.”

Sawyer isn’t the only financial backer of Grewal’s campaign with connections to the two outsider Republicans, Garcia and Ridenour.

Rex Dhatt, a used-car dealer and president of the American Punjabi Chamber of Commerce, has donated at least $2,000 to Grewal. He’s also contributed to Garcia. (The exact value will be disclosed after the next campaign-finance-filing deadline at the end of January.)

Bill Lyons, a farmer, rancher and land developer in Modesto who serves as Gov. Newsom’s agriculture liaison and was state secretary of food and agriculture under Gov. Gray Davis, donated $1,953 to the Grewal campaign. Since 2017, Lyons, his firms and members of his family have given $26,891 to Grewal’s various electoral efforts.

But this year, four companies owned by Lyons have also been the sole contributors to Ridenour, one of the Republicans in the race, giving a total of $4,000 as of the end of 2019.

Dhatt said he wasn’t involved in either campaign directly. “I know them personally from before,” he said of the two candidates when reached by phone. “They came for a check, so I gave them a check. End of story.”

Neither Lyons nor Ridenour responded to requests for comment. 

While Grewal insists that none of the various connections between his campaign and those of Garcia and Ridenour amount to much more than a coincidence—common enough in moderately sized towns like Modesto and Stockton—his campaign has recognized that the presence of three Republicans in the race works to his benefit.

“With three credible Republican candidates—a former mayor of Modesto, a Stockton school board member, and a Stockton City Council member—those votes will be split,” reads a memo his campaign sent out to supporters last November. “None of the three Republicans will get more than 20 percent of the March vote.”

Given the moderate lean of the district as a whole, the memo continues: “Grewal’s support from law enforcement and business will result in the majority of Republicans supporting him.” Combined with a large share of the district’s Democrats, that will “give him a comfortable November margin.”

This isn’t the first time in California’s top-two history that an outside candidate has been labeled a spoiler. Take the case of Scott Baugh.

In 2018, the former Orange County Republican Chair entered a congressional race against then-incumbent Dana Rohrabacher. Baugh, who also happened to be Rohrabacher’s former campaign director, claimed to have suffered a falling out with his old boss. But with eight Democrats in the race, some political observers called his last-minute entry into the race “suspicious,” suggesting it was an attempt to insert a second well-known Republican in the race to nab the second place spot. As CalMatters’ columnist Dan Walters put it, the state GOP could have been “pulling off one of history’s most audacious political coups.”

Baugh and Rohrabacher’s mutual history didn’t help allay those suspicions. In 1995, Baugh won an Assembly race after Baugh’s campaign manager and Rohrabacher’s wife convinced a friend of Baugh’s to run as a “decoy” Democratic candidate, siphoning off votes from Baugh’s main opponent.

In 2018, Baugh came in fourth, and Rohrabacher lost in the general. The plan—if there was one—didn’t work.

That might be thanks to a bit of electoral shenanigans on the Democratic side: The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee spent hundreds of thousands of dollars on ads hammering Baugh and boosting a little-known Republican candidate named John Gabbard, hoping to lift up the latter at the expense of the former.

Running political advertising to back a weaker candidate is yet another convoluted strategy enabled by the top-two system.

Last year, supporters of both Attorney General Xavier Becerra and Gov. Gavin Newsom ran advertisements that subtly(or maybe not so subtly) boosted the conservative bona fides of their Republican opponents.

Why? In a traditional partisan primary system, a Democrat in California would be forced to face off against a Republican, no matter what. But in California, where a Republican hasn’t won statewide since 2006, ensuring a GOP candidate gets into the top two rather than a fellow party member is a winning strategy for any Democratic candidate.

Newsom said as much when asked which candidate he’d like to run against during a pre-primary debate last May: “A Republican would be ideal.”

These strategies aren’t illegal. It’s not clear they’re even unethical, said Mitchell, who offered the electoral equivalent of the adage “don’t hate the player.”

“You can decry the people who would do those kinds of things, but you could also point to the system,” he said.

CalMatters.org is a nonprofit, nonpartisan media venture explaining California policies and politics.

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