Jan 29 12:36 PM

California's 'invisible primary'

Calif. Attorney General Kamala Harris is the frontrunner in the race to succeed Sen. Barbara Boxer. Will she be he only runner?
Kimberly White / Getty Images

Almost a year-and-a-half before California’s actual 2016 primary, there’s an invisible primary already taking place — one that boils the race down to one or two “viable” candidates, muffles alternative voices and limits the battle of ideas.

This is true of virtually all campaigns — we’re seeing an invisible primary for the Republican Presidential nomination right now — but, in California, the problem is more acute, in part because it’s so big and expensive, in part because politics has been turned over to a handful of kingmakers, and in part because of an electoral structure that artificially prevents competition.

And it is proving a looming predicament for both potential candidates and the voters they need to sway.

Author and journalist Joe Matthews believes that non-partisan races for local elections, particularly in Los Angeles, stunt the political culture. (California currently features a “top-two” or “jungle” primary, where candidates from all parties run in a single primary, with the top two vote-getters moving on to the general election.) Matthews also highlights a current pose adopted by many Californians that the nitty-gritty of politics isn’t worth the people’s time. “We have had anti-politics politics for a very long time in this state,” Matthews said. “There’s a weird sort of purity around it. We don’t want it to be a big part of our lives and our news. That makes it hard for new voices to break in.”

This is true, but perhaps with an amendment: To the extent actively political Californians want to make a difference, they tend to favor the national scene. There is something of a “political trade deficit” on display. National candidates use California for fundraising, and big donors like to feel important by offering that platform. But then, what happens in their own backyard doesn’t seem to matter as much. That has the effect of handing over politics to a very small class of operatives.

The winnowing process has also led to some irony. Kamala Harris is generally the default choice at this point for the left wing of California’s Democratic Party — she recently stomped the field in a poll of the members of Democracy for America and the Courage Campaign, the progressive base of the state. And because Antonio Villaraigosa would likely position himself to Harris’ right on several key issues, these liberals, typically concerned with inclusion and openness, would probably not be at all dismayed by the forcing of the ex-LA mayor out of the race. That ultimately ends up not only subverting the democratic ideal, but weakening Harris — who, if she wants to succeed (she’s been mentioned as a Presidential prospect down the road), would likely benefit from a primary test.

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