The race to succeed retiring Senator Barbara Boxer is unlike anything American politics has seen. It’s California’s first fight for an open Senate seat in 24 years, and it is being waged between two Democratic women of color, state Attorney General Kamala Harris and Rep. Loretta Sanchez. The election of either would be a historic first: Harris would be the first biracial woman and first Indian-American woman in the U.S. Senate; Sanchez would be the first Latina. But there’s another way in which it’s groundbreaking: It’s a high-profile, open-seat Senate election without a Republican on the ballot. The Harris-Sanchez showdown could offer a glimpse into the future of national politics, not just because of who’s running but because of the radical way the whole race was structured. It’s the largest experiment ever for a new kind of election—California’s so-called jungle primary, in which the top two vote-getters go against each other in the general election, regardless of party—and it is exposing that model’s unexpected shortcomings.
In June 2010, 54 percent of California voters enacted Proposition 14, an amendment to the state Constitution that has transformed the state’s elections from Republican-versus-Democrat fights into races in which the two candidates with the most primary votes go on to face each other in the general election—regardless of their party affiliation. The reform was intended to make elections more competitive and interesting. “The Republican Party and the Democratic Party despise this,” boasted then-Governor Arnold Schwarenegger in 2010. “Why? Because it takes power away from them and gives it back to the people.” No longer could an incumbent in a “safe” seat take the general election for granted, they’d be vulnerable to an opponent of their pwn party who could appeal to a larger group of voters. As a result, politicians would be driven to appeal to moderate voters as elections became more competitive.
Or so the theory went.
What was supposed to be an interesting experiment in democracy has instead resulted in one of the least-exciting races in California history. With few major policy differences between Harris and Sanchez, and without their usual Republican foils, the two candidates and their political strategists have struggled to inspire much passion among voters. Few ads have run on television or websites, and little mail has been sent to voters. Harris has raised millions and has a 2-to-1 advantage in the polls, while Sanchez has struggled to be taken seriously.
But even with Harris’ lead, a recent poll found that 38 percent of voters either won’t vote in the race or still haven’t made up their minds. Many California Republicans, unexcited by the prospects of choosing between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump at the top of the ticket, say they’re not even sure if they will vote—which, if this trend of uninspiring candidates and Dem-on-Dem general elections continues, could make down-ballot GOP candidates even less relevant in years to come. Is this what a top-two primary is supposed to look like?