When the first round of voting in the race to succeed Rep. Henry Waxman wrapped up on June 3, voters in the 33rd Congressional district had handed Elan Carr, a Republican Jewish gang prosecutor, a first place finish. But it’s State Sen. Ted Lieu, the Democratic nominee who finished second, who emerged as the immediate favorite in this heavily Democratic district.
Turnout across the state was low, and only 18 percent of registered voters who live in the 33rd district, which runs along the coast from the South Bay to Malibu and includes Beverly Hills and other parts of the Westside, cast ballots. Although California’s new top-two system could have allowed two Democrats to vie for the seat in the second round, during the primary campaign, as Carr racked up donations and locked up support from local and national Republican leaders, it became increasingly likely that the 11 Democratic candidates on the ballot would split their constituency and that only one of the best-known among them would advance to the November ballot.
Indeed, Wendy Greuel, a former Los Angeles Controller and onetime L.A. City Council member, finished less than 3 percentage points behind Lieu. Two other prominent and well-funded Jewish candidates in the race, Marianne Williamson and Matt Miller, finished not too far behind.
But Lieu, who had won the Democratic Party’s nomination and the strong support of Democrats for Israel in advance of the primary, won the coveted second spot and is now presumed to be the frontrunner.
Not that it’s a done deal.
“Carr is an underdog, but you can’t write him off,” Raphael Sonenshein, executive director of the Pat Brown Institute for Public Affairs at CSU Los Angeles and a Journal columnist, said in an interview on June 4. “It’s a district that’s gotten a bit more Republican in the last redistricting.”
Voters in the 3rd District of L.A. County also chose two runoff candidates for the Board of Supervisors. Sheila Kuehl, who has served in the state’s Assembly and Senate, finished first, followed by Bobby Shriver, a former Santa Monica Councilman and Mayor; the pair now will face off in the second round – despite some momentum that had developed for a third candidate, West Hollywood City Councilman John Duran, near the end of the campaign, who was endorsed by L.A. Mayor Eric Garcetti and the Los Angeles Times.
“He probably got the endorsements he got a bit too late,” Sonenshein said. He also received the endorsement of Gloria Molina, another member of the board of supervisors who will be termed out at the end of 2014. “Probably a lot of people had already voted absentee. He probably just ran out of time and out of money.”
Keuhl garnered 36 percent of the votes, which was about eight percentage points more than Shriver got. It remains to be seen which of the self-described progressives Duran, who campaigned on a business-friendly platform, will choose to endorse for the seat currently held by Zev Yaroslavsky, who declined to endorse a successor before the primary.
While the results in the Waxman and Yaroslavsky districts weren’t entirely unexpected, other preliminary outcomes from Tuesday’s election left astute observers across the state shaking their heads.
“I said some harsh things in the past about the top two. About the dismal turnout and totally disengaged electorate back in 2012,” Joe Matthews wrote in a cheeky post for Fox and Hounds on June 4. “But after the dismal turnout and disengaged electorate of 2014, I see I was missing the point.
“You can’t get results this fun,” Matthews continued, “with high turnout and voter engagement.”
Sonenshein also chalked up the low turnout to the adoption of the top-two system. “Most of the time, partisanship and partisan issues drive turnout.“ he said. “The top two intentionally mutes that. It sort of turns [congressional and statewide races] into the L.A. City races [which are nonpartisan], where you don’t know who’s who.”
And here’s another quirk of the top two system: Even in cases where it’s clear who’s going to win – especially where voters had a choice between an incumbent of one party running against a challenger from the opposing party – the two candidates will have to run the race a second time in November.
Assemblymember Richard Bloom, for example, will have to run again in November against Republican Bradly Torgan, despite winning almost three-fourths of the votes cast in this week’s election. (Indeed, Torgan won roughly the same percentage of the vote in 2012 when he ran against Bloom and two other Democrats in the first round of voting in 2014.)
One more novelty of the top two system is hotly contested and expensive intraparty contests, and that’s likely what we’ll see in the 26th State Senate District, which Lieu vacated to run for Congress. A preponderance of Democratic voters has set up an unpredictable, intraparty battle between Ben Allen, a Jewish member of the Santa Monica School board, and Sandra Fluke, a women’s rights activist and attorney from West Hollywood.
Fluke first became nationally known in 2012 when, as a law student, she was denied the chance to testify at a Congressional hearing where she had hoped to advocate that all medical insurers pay for birth control, In the wake of that, Rush Limbaugh called her a “slut” on his radio show.
Ben Allen’s supporters have referred to him as a “nice Jewish boy.” Both Fluke and Allen have amassed impressive rosters of endorsements; each spent about $350,000 during the primary.