A Lesson in California’s Top-Two Primary System

Arguably, the most competitive race on California’s June ballot is for attorney general, the state’s top prosecutor.

The incumbent, Rob Bonta, a Democrat, is trying to hold onto his job amid a national wave of backlash against progressive reformers like him. Challenging Bonta, who was appointed to the position last spring by Gov. Gavin Newsom, are two Republicans, an independent and a Green Party candidate.

With just two weeks until Election Day, pro-Bonta groups have been running advertisements supporting, of course, Bonta. But they’ve also been buying radio slots encouraging Californians to vote for Eric Early, the most conservative candidate in the race, The San Francisco Chronicle reported.

It may seem like an odd move, but it’s strategic — and provides a lesson in California’s unique primary system.

In a traditional primary system, voters from each party pick the candidate they want to represent them in the general election, which usually leaves a Democrat facing off against a Republican, along with third-party candidates. (Think of how we select presidential nominees.)

But California has a top-two, nonpartisan primary system, in which all candidates run in the same primary and all voters can vote for any of them. The top two vote-getters, regardless of party, then move on to the general election.

That means Bonta isn’t guaranteed to run in November against a Republican. And he faces a credible challenge from Anne Marie Schubert, Sacramento County’s district attorney who is running as an independent after leaving the Republican Party in 2018. She also has gained fame beyond Sacramento for her role in helping to catch the Golden State Killer, who evaded the authorities for decades.

So Bonta would rather that conservative-leaning voters go for Early, who is pro-Trump, because he would undoubtedly be easier to beat in a state where Democrats outnumber Republicans nearly 2-1 and more than a fifth of voters are registered as independents.

“It’s absolutely smart politics,” said Jessica Levinson, who teaches election law at Loyola Law School in Los Angeles. “He’s trying to knock out — which is predictable and makes sense — the centrist candidate.”

There’s an irony to this gambit, because California’s top-two primary was intended to allow moderate candidates to be more competitive. California voters in 2010 passed Proposition 14, a ballot measure that created this new system, first adopted by Washington State, as part of an effort to reduce gridlock in Sacramento.

The thinking was that candidates would be forced to appeal to all voters, which would encourage more consensus-building — an approach championed by then-Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger. Political parties would hold less sway; two Republicans or two Democrats could face off against each other in the general election.

While there’s some indication that the switch has produced less extreme lawmakers, California politicians continue to try to win elections however they can.

Similar to Bonta supporters this year, Newsom backers drew attention to John Cox, a Republican, in the 2018 primary instead of Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa of Los Angeles, a Democrat who would have been tougher to beat. Even now there’s speculation that Newsom is purposely highlighting one of his Republican challengers.

As Levinson told me: “It just provides people with a different way to try and game the system.”

  • Catholic abuse cases: Since January 2020, over 750 sexual assault lawsuits have been filed against Catholic dioceses across California, but the church is asking the Supreme Court to throw out the cases, CalMatters reports.

  • Social media addiction: A bill passed the California Assembly on Monday that could allow parents to sue social media companies for harming children, The Associated Press reports.

  • Water cuts: Gov. Gavin Newsom on Monday raised the possibility of mandatory water restrictions if residents don’t use less on their own, The Associated Press reports.

  • Abortion laws: State lawmakers voted to stop courts in other states from penalizing abortion providers in California, The Associated Press reports.


  • Anaheim scandal: Harry Sidhu, the mayor of Anaheim, announced his resignation on Monday amid an F.B.I. investigation into the sale of Angel Stadium.

    A California Democratic Party leader also resigned in response to the same federal investigation involving fraud, bribery and other corruption, The Los Angeles Times reports.



  • Russian speakers in tech: Since the Russian invasion of Ukraine, a network of Russian-speaking technologists in Silicon Valley is facing new difficulties.

  • No more rentals in Marin?: Marin County is considering a temporary ban on new residential vacation rentals in an effort to alleviate the housing shortage, The San Francisco Chronicle reports.

  • S.F. Pride protest: Police officers said that they would not march in San Francisco’s L.G.B.T.Q. pride parade after they were asked not to wear their uniforms, The San Francisco Chronicle reports.

    Mayor London Breed said Monday that she would skip the parade in solidarity with public safety agencies, The San Francisco Chronicle reports.

$1.8 million homes in California.

Today’s tip comes from Betty Van Wagenen, who recommends Carmel by the Sea, where she lives:

“Seventeen wine tasting rooms in the little village that is less than one square mile. You can taste til you drop then walk yourself to your amazing hotel room, ready to hit a wonderful restaurant for dinner.

Bonus: The Pacific Ocean only a few blocks west with its ‘dogs can walk off-leash’ policy. Can’t find anything better than this, although a 40-minute drive south on Highway 1 puts you in Big Sur with its great camp grounds and walking trails. Vacation life doesn’t get better than this spot on the Central Coast of California.”

Tell us about your favorite places to visit in California. Email your suggestions to CAtoday@nytimes.com. We’ll be sharing more in upcoming editions of the newsletter.

What do you want to know about California’s June primary election? Email us your questions at CAToday@nytimes.com.

When Miguel Ordeñana was 5 years old, living in Los Angeles with his mother, the pair would often visit the Los Angeles County Natural History Museum.

Miguel loved the taxidermy displays, and would stare in awe at the African lions. He and his mother, Adilia Koch, had recently moved from Northern California to join her extended Nicaraguan immigrant family.

“What do you do on a Sunday with a young child, when you’re a single parent with not a lot of money?” Koch said.

Over the years, Miguel developed a love for animals, and encounters with wildlife near their home in Los Feliz sparked his curiosity further. But being Latino and interested in nature was “weird” and not remotely cool, Ordeñana remembers. “I was a closeted nerd.”

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