Thirty miles north of Claremont lies California’s 25th District, where two Republicans are running to replace Howard “Buck” McKeon in Congress. Four Republicans, two Democrats, one Libertarian, and one independent ran in the June primary, but due to California’s “Top Two” primary system, only the top two vote-getters, Steve Knight and Tony Strickland, secured spots on the November ballot. In exclusive interviews with the Claremont Independent, both candidates shared their opinions on the effectiveness of the top-two system.
California voters adopted the top-two primary via Proposition 14 in 2010. Proponents of Prop 14 wanted to get more moderate candidates on the ballot. By allowing voters and candidates to approach elections without regard to political parties, advocates argued, candidates would be elected based on ideology and issues, rather than partisanship.
When asked if the system had been successful in achieving its goal, both Knight and Strickland responded with a resounding “no.” Knight commented, “I don’t think you’re getting more moderate candidates on the ballot. Just in this district alone, you have two conservative Republicans running in a district that is almost 50/50 when it comes to registration of Republicans and Democrats.”
In CA-25, Republicans slightly outnumber Democrats, 37.61 percent to 36.51 percent. One out of every four voters is registered with a third party or with no party preference. Strickland and Knight finished the primary with 29.6 percent and 28.4 percent of the vote, respectively. Democrat Lee Rogers finished third with 22.2 percent. If Rogers won the 9.5 percent share of the vote garnered by the other Democratic candidate, Evan Thomas, Rogers would have gone on to run in the general election against Strickland or Knight. Even though the GOP vote was diluted between four candidates, enough vote-splitting occurred among Democrats and independents that it allowed two conservative Republicans to advance to the general election.
Strickland also pointed out problems the system has caused for voter turnout rates and political diversity. He said, “The system was designed to force candidates to appeal to both sides of the aisle, but in reality you end up with fewer voters. In this case, fewer Democrats will vote because their party’s candidate is not on the ballot. The top two system also denies a voice to minor party candidates who could normally use general elections to expose the electorate to new ideas.” After losing the primary, Democrat Lee Rogers endorsed Knight, displaying what seemed like a sign of success for the top-two system. However, he withdrew his endorsement in September and joined other Democratic leaders in abstaining from voting in the general election. In districts with same-party races, partisan politicians and voters who do not feel adequately represented have expressed that they will abstain from voting this Election Day.
Still, Knight and Strickland must try to gain as much support as possible from Democrats and independents to win the general election. Some have argued that, in this respect, the top-two system will work by forcing candidates to appeal to more moderate voters. However, while both candidates acknowledged the importance of reaching out to Democrats and independents, neither candidate said that their outreach strategy was largely affected by running against another Republican. Knight said, “One of the many ways that Tony and I are different is that Tony does not live in the district. He ran for Congress in his home district last term and lost, and then he went shopping for a new district. He hasn’t lived in this district for many, many years. I think voters would say that they want someone from their community, regardless of their party.” He also highlighted that he is a former U.S. Army soldier and that Strickland has never served in the military. Strickland has reached out to Democrats and independents by meeting with members of different political parties and listening to their concerns, but said he would employ the same strategy with or without the top-two system.