By GUY KOVNER
THE PRESS DEMOCRAT
The script for North Coast congressional elections appears due for a major rewrite this year, with two Democrats likely to compete, for the first time
ever, in an expensive and possibly vitriolic November runoff.
The Democrat-dominated 2nd Congressional District race, with no incumbent and eight Democratic candidates, including three with ample resources, has the earmarks of a contest that ends with a two-candidate, same-party showdown in the fall.
There are two Republicans in the field, but neither is guaranteed a role in the November election under the new top-two, open-primary rules. That could knock their party out of the running by dividing North Coast Republican votes in the June 5 primary.
But Republican voters could play a decisive role in the general election in selecting the region’s next member of Congress, casting their ballots for the Democrat perceived as the more moderate of the two finalists.
That was the premise behind Proposition 14, approved by state voters in 2010. It replaced partisan primaries that tend to reward the most ideological of both parties with open elections that favor moderates and presumably ease legislative gridlock.
The theory is largely untested, and North Coast Democrats want none of it.
A showdown between two Democrats, possibly Assemblyman Jared Huffman and either Stacey Lawson or Norman Solomon, would cost far more money and risk the prospect of intraparty fratricide in a year when Democrats are striving to regain control of the House.
“It’s a massive diversion,” said Huffman, a termed-out San Rafael assemblyman attempting the jump to Congress. “To be stuck in an intramural scrimmage when we should be out taking on Republicans all over the country would be a real tragedy for Democrats.”
A Democrat vs. Democrat campaign from June to November also is likely to turn negative, Huffman said, as the one who finished second in June would have “nothing to lose.”
“It could become pretty spirited,” he said.
For more than a decade, the Democratic primary has determined the outcome of the two North Coast congressional seats, setting up a fall crush not of wine grapes but a series of Republican candidates who were, and are once again this year, underfunded and unknown to most voters.
In 12 general elections since 2000, Rep. Mike Thompson of St. Helena and fellow Democrat Lynn Woolsey of Petaluma have limited their GOP challengers to an average of less than 30 percent of the vote.
Woolsey’s retirement this year, coupled with redistricting’s creation of a coastal district from Marin to Oregon, set the stage for an intriguing trial of the open primary.
Bob Stern, former president of the Center for Governmental Studies in Los Angeles, said there’s a “50-50 chance” two Democrats will prevail in the North Coast primary.
That outcome is most likely in a congressional race with no incumbent in a “supermajority” district where one party leads voter registration by more than 25 points over the other, the nonpartisan think tank said in a 2010 analysis of Proposition 14.
Registered Democrats outnumber Republicans by more than 107,000 voters — and by 27 percent — in the 2nd District.
David McCuan, a Sonoma State University political scientist, said the North Coast race “is all about second place.” The likelihood of a same-party runoff is “pretty strong,” he said.
Huffman, the front-runner based on his advantage in fundraising, name recognition and endorsements, is likely to lead the 12-candidate field with about 30 percent of the primary vote, McCuan said.
He sees businesswoman Lawson, activist Solomon and Republican Dan Roberts — all from Marin County — vying for the 22 to 28 percent it should take to secure the No. 2 spot.
If he were the only Republican on the ballot, Roberts would have a good chance of finishing second, propelled by the GOP’s 24 to 28 percent base in the district, McCuan said.
But Michael Halliwell, a retired college professor from Cotati, signed up for his fourth North Coast congressional campaign.
Roberts, who ran as an American Independent candidate in 2010, said he expected to be the only Republican on the 2nd District ballot this year.
He likely would need the vast majority of Republican votes to finish in the top two. In the 2010 Republican primary, Halliwell got 32 percent, limiting the winner, Jim Judd, to 68 percent.
Halliwell “has every right to enter the race,” Roberts said, acknowledging that if Halliwell takes an ample portion of the vote, “he’s going to kill Republican chances.”
But if Huffman’s vote runs above 30 percent and the next two Democrats divide most of the rest of their 70 percent share, Republicans “are in the game,” Halliwell said.
Halliwell said he won’t step aside to help Roberts get on the November ballot.
“If Dan Roberts can beat me fair and square, then he will have earned it, but I’m not going to hand it to him,” he said.
Thompson, whose re-election in the new 5th District is virtually assured, said he expects Huffman to dominate the primary, drawing the same crossover support from Republicans and independents that Thompson enjoyed along the North Coast.
“I see that as the most likely scenario,” said Thompson, who has endorsed Huffman and will campaign with him.
Huffman questions the notion that two Democrats will win in June, pointing to the outcome of the only California congressional race to date under the top-two, open-primary format.
Democratic heavyweights Janice Hahn and Debra Bowen were widely expected to take the top two spots in a special election last year in Los Angeles’ 36th District, with five Democrats and six Republicans in the primary.
But Hahn finished first with 25 percent and Republican Craig Huey beat Bowen by 1 percent to claim second place, sustaining a Democrat vs. Republican runoff, which Hahn won by 10 points.
By all accounts, Democrats are wary of an intra-party campaign for Congress.
McCuan said it would be a “dogfight” that tarnishes the party’s brand.
Stern suggested the state Republican Party might endorse one of the Democrats.
“It would be smart strategically,” he said.
Halliwell said the Democratic candidates hope the election script remains unchanged this year.
“They’d all like to be No. 1 running against a Republican in November,” he said.
You can reach Staff Writer Guy Kovner at 521-5457 or firstname.lastname@example.org.