The 2016 California Senate Primary

In June 2010, California voted to adopt a non-partisan, top-two primary system for many political offices, including US Senate. Under the system, all candidates, regardless of party affiliation, run in the same primary, and the top two candidates from the primary go on to the general election. This, in theory, allows the general election to be between two candidates from the same party.

The new system officially took effect at the beginning of 2011, so the first year it was used for a US Senate race was 2012. That year, no Democratic candidates other than the incumbent, Dianne Feinstein, got significant traction. Thus, the election pretty much turned out the same way it would have under a more normal primary system. The second-place finisher in the primary was Elizabeth Emken, a staunch Republican who is now working as Donald Trump’s spokeswoman. California being a solid blue state, Feinstein crushed her opponent in a historic landslide.

This year may be different. Barbara Boxer decided not to run again, so now there are two strong candidates on the Democratic side: California attorney general Kamala Harris, and US House of Representatives member Loretta Sanchez. Sanchez is nominally a member Blue Dog Coalition, a group of conservative Democrats, but based on her voting record and public statements, she appears pretty solidly liberal. Indeed, I’ve had a hard time finding significant policy differences Harris and Sanchez. Both for example, support a $15 nationwide minimum wage.

There are only a few differences between Harris and Sanchez I can manage to care about:

  • Sanchez has legislative experience and a voting record (20 years worth in the House). Harris, as a career prosecutor, doesn’t. The platform on Harris’ website mostly sounds good to me, but you have to take her word for it.
  • Harris seems to have made her career as a prosecutor being anti-sex work. She mostly frames it in terms of “human trafficking”, but has a history of making comments that imply nobody voluntarily choses sex work.
  • I suspect it’s generally bad that being a prosecutor is such an effective route to political power in America, it may be worth fighting against that tendency.

Sanchez has a record as a free-trade skeptic, but Harris recently went on record attacking the Trans-Pacific Partnership for lacking sufficient protections for workers. I have my own doubts about the TTP (particularly the intellectual property provisions), but that sounds a bit like an all-purpose excuse to oppose all free-trade deals. Also, Harris seems to be working on a general heuristic of “give the progressive movement whatever they want,” which in the current political climate means being a free-trade skeptic.

The major Republican candidates are Tom Del Beccaro, Ron Unz, and Duf Sundheim. The first two are non-starters for me; Del Beccaro seems to think he’s the second coming of Saint Ronald, while Unz is running on a hardcore anti-immigration platform. Sundheim is more interesting. In many parts of the country, he’d probably qualify as left-of-center (or libertarianish):

  • Supports gay marriage
  • Says he’s personally pro-life, but supports legal abortion
  • Supports medical marijuana
  • Says he wants to do revenue-neutral tax reform
  • Opposes big minimum wage hikes (a good thing, in my book)

(The above bullet points are based on me researching Sundheim’s views online, then e-mailing him with follow-up questions.)

If California had ranked-order voting, my ranking would probably be Sundheim > Sanchez > Harris > Del Beccaro > Unz. But a top-two primary isn’t ranked-order voting, so we have to think about voting strategically.

Polls have consistently put Harris in first place, and Sanchez in second, so it’s widely expected that they’ll face off in the general election. But one of the Republican candidates might pull into second. I think it would be a disaster if this happened with Del Beccaro or Unz. Not only do I personally dislike them, but both are too extreme to make for an interesting general election. If I were seriously afraid of the Republican vote coalescing around either of them, I’d vote for Sanchez to block this.

However, looking at recent polls, I’m not super-worried about a second-place finish by Del Beccaro or Unz. So what about the strategic implications of a Harris v. Sundheim face-off? It’s possible that no matter how moderate his politics, the (R) next his name could sink Sundheim. But the election might at least be interesting. So it looks like I’ll be voting for Sundheim.

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5 thoughts on “The 2016 California Senate Primary

  1. Thanks for writing this up! Your description of Sundheim’s views was particularly helpful and I agree he takes some appealing positions .  But, given what I know about your views,  I think you’re making the wrong call by voting for him and it’s not particularly close.

    Assuming you’d generally prefer a Democratic majority,  i think your post ignores a fact about him that dominates all of his individual policy views – the R next to his name.  He’s going to vote the wrong way on the most important vote he’ll take – for majority leader. The party in the majority has so many advantages – choosing what bills and amendments get a vote, chairmanship and a majority on every committee,  setting Senate rules – that I think voters should almost never vote for a candidate from a party they don’t prefer.

    This vote is not only more important than any particular policy position but it’s also guaranteed to come up every two years.  I don’t have time to do much of a back of the envelope while I’m on the BART but the probability of a one vote margin for majority leader for two years out of a six year term seems pretty high relative to the (importance weighted) probability of him being the marginal vote on several of the issues you mention.

    Did this play into your thinking at all?

    I’m probably going to vote for Harris although I still don’t have a great understanding of how she and Sanchez differ on policy. I have a couple small disagreements with your take on Harris.

    1) I agree that it’s not good that being a prosecutor is such a path for political success. On the other hand,  Harris has a reputation for being supportive of criminal justice reform.  Demonstrating to prosecutors that supporting reform is a viable path to the Senate cuts the other way.

    2) I believe sex work should be legal and I’m disappointed about Harris’s views on it.  It seems strange to put so much weight on this in a Senate election though.  What’s P(Congress makes an important change to sex work policy in the next six years)×P(Harris affects this policy). Most of the important decisions are probably happening on the state and local level anyway.

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    • I might be wrong about this, but my sense is that the Senate Majority Leader matters less than the Speaker of the House. This is because what bills reach the floor of the Senate is determined through cloture votes (the vote needed to break a filibuster), and Senators tend to vote in cloture votes based on their personal feelings on the bill, which don’t always strictly break down on party lines. But there might be something I’m missing about Senate procedure here.

      Re: Sanchez vs. Harris, the reason I place so much weight on those couple of issues is because they otherwise seem so similar. I agree the noises Harris is making on criminal justice reform are encouraging.

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  2. Unz is not hardcore anti-immigrant, sounds like he was victim to a smear or you misunderstood his position: http://www.unz.com/runz/my-stasi-file-published-in-the-harvard-crimson/

    The more I read about this guy the more I like him. A self-made entrepreneur, and Harvard graduate with a master’s in physics, who funds writers he disagrees with because he’s an easygoing guy and he likes reading what they have to say? He should be president, not senator! I’m worry it’s impossible to get elected to office if you’re that much of a straight shooter though.

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