Back Room Deals, Massive Tax Hikes, And The Origin Story Of California’s Jungle Primary System
UNITED STATES – MAY 27: The state flag of California flies near the Los Angeles International Airport on Sunday, May 27, 2018. Negative campaign attacks between Democrats running in crucial House races have begun to tear the party apart in leading up to California’s primary election on June 5, 2018. (Photo By Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)
California’s “jungle primary” system has been getting a great deal of national attention due to the fact that it could cost Democrats control of Congress. It could do this by locking Democrats out of the November general election in several key races, leaving Golden State voters in swing U.S. House districts with only two Republicans on the ballot to choose from in the fall.
In California’s jungle primary system, candidates from all parties – Republican, Democratic, and other – run in the June primary election and the top two vote getters advance to the November general election. The system has worked out well for Democrats since its inception in 2010, but that streak of good fortune looks to come to an end this year.
The cause for progressive concern are a handful Republican-held congressional districts in California that are seen as pickup opportunities for Democrats. Flipping them is instrumental to Nancy Pelosi becoming Speaker once again. Getting the most attention are House districts 38, 48, and 49, all of which are located in Orange County, a longtime Republican bastion that has been trending leftward in recent years and was carried by Hillary Clinton in 2016, the first Democratic presidential candidate since Franklin Delano Roosevelt to win the county.
The heightened enthusiasm on the Left has turned out to be a double edged sword that is causing electoral headaches. Because of the high number of Democratic candidates vying for those key Orange County House seats, the primary electorate could end up splitting in such a way that the top two primary vote getters end up being Republicans, locking Democrats out of the general election contest.
The jungle primary system has many flaws. Here we’ll set aside all the reasons why California’s jungle primary is a misguided system and instead look at the reasons why it was installed in the first place. As it would happen, the story of how California’s jungle primary system came into being nearly a decade ago is a tale of backroom deals greasing the skids for the largest state tax hike in American history, self-serving politicians putting their political futures above the interests of their constituents, and, ultimately, ugly politics begetting bad policy.
In February of 2009, then Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger enacted what was at the time the largest state tax hike in U.S. history. That $12.8 billion tax increase – which raised personal income tax rates, along with the sales tax – was passed by the California legislature with the bare minimum number of votes needed to achieve the two-thirds majority vote required in California to raise tax rates. State Sen. Abel Maldonado (R-Santa Maria) provided the deciding vote that sent the tax hike to Schwarzenegger’s desk.
Maldonado wasn’t dumb, just liberal. He recognized that that his political future was bleak under the traditional primary system, seeing as he was breaking his central campaign promise to his constituents by voting for the multi-billion dollar tax increase. As such, Maldonado struck a deal with Schwarzenegger and Democratic legislative leadership to move the state to a jungle primary system in exchange for his deciding vote on the tax hike.