Morning Digest: How California’s top-two primary could wind up saving a vulnerable Republican

The Daily Kos Elections Morning Digest is compiled by David Nir, Jeff Singer, Stephen Wolf, and Carolyn Fiddler, with additional contributions from David Jarman, Steve Singiser, Daniel Donner, James Lambert, and David Beard.

Leading Off

CA-48: Ugh. This is some very frustrating news—and yet another reason why we hate top-two primaries with a passion. GOP Rep. Dana Rohrabacher is looking decidedly vulnerable next year after his Southern California House seat swung from a 55-43 win for Mitt Romney to a 48-46 win for Hillary Clinton, and no fewer than four notable Democrats have jumped in to challenge the incumbent, who has only won by less than double digits once in his three-decade career.

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But a new candidate in the race could screw everything up, and that’s because businessman Stelian Onufrei is a Republican. In any normal state, Onufrei, who’s pledged to self-fund $500,000, would simply

in the GOP primary against Rohrabacher, while Democrats would go about nominating their own candidate—no problem.

In California, though, all candidates from all parties run together on a single primary ballot, and the top-two vote-getters advance to the November general election—regardless of what party they belong to. That means that two Democrats or two Republicans could win any given primary, something that happens with some frequency. Most of the time, one-party races take place in dark blue or dark red districts and no one really complains. But sometimes, when dark stars align, they happen in swing districts, and it’s always been to the detriment of Democrats.

The most poignant example took place in 2012, when GOP Rep. Gary Miller faced five opponents: one fellow Republican, then-state Sen. Bob Dutton, and four Democrats. While the 31st District was decidedly blue, turnout in California primaries always tilts more Republican. That allowed Miller and Dutton to neatly split half the vote while the four Democrats fought over the other half. In a catastrophic outcome, the leading Democrat, Pete Aguilar, wound up 2 points behind Dutton in third place, completely locking Team Blue out of the general election in a seat Barack Obama won 57-41. (Dutton wound up losing to Miller, who retired a cycle later and was belatedly succeeded by Aguilar.)

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