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    Susan Shelley: The seen and the unseen of California’s Senate debate
    • January 27, 2024

    If there was a Museum of Horrifying Political Mistakes, California’s top-two primary would have its own wing. Possibly its own building.

    The top-two primary was created by an initiative, Proposition 14, approved by voters in 2010. The idea was to eliminate political party primaries, have all the candidates on the same primary ballot, allow voters to choose any candidate from any party regardless of their own party registration, and send the top two vote-getters to the November ballot.

    So that’s what we’ve got, except for presidential races, which are still party primaries.

    The oddities of the top-two primary were on display in last Monday’s debate between four of the 29 candidates who are seeking the U.S. Senate seat formerly held by the late Sen. Dianne Feinstein.

    Three of the candidates who stepped onto the debate stage at USC are Democratic members of Congress, all of them abandoning their House seats to run for a six-year term in the Senate. At the end of this election cycle, if not sooner, at least two of them will be looking for work.

    The fourth candidate on the stage was Southern California baseball legend Steve Garvey, the 10-time All-Star first baseman who famously played for the Los Angeles Dodgers and the San Diego Padres.

    He may not be popular with Giants fans, but San Francisco would never vote for a Republican anyway.

    Yes, Garvey says he’s a Republican, though he seems a little unsure about it. When debate moderator Elex Michaelson asked him, “Is there anything that you disagree with your party on in the Senate?” Garvey answered, “Just about everything.”

    “Just about everything?” Michaelson asked.

    “No,” Garvey said.

    Artfully done. That answer deserves its own display case in the top-two primary wing of the museum.

    You see, there are not nearly enough registered Republican voters in the state of California to elect a Republican to a statewide office. Therefore, a Republican candidate has to win some support from non-Republican voters. Garvey rushed to distance himself from the Republican party and then backed off quickly as if he was only joking, before Republican voters had time to be insulted. Speed is everything.

    Now let’s move on to the next exhibit. In this display case, we see the three Democratic candidates for Senate sniping at each other like jealous middle-school students while being careful not to lay a glove on Garvey. He’s barely grazed by a few gentle zingers, nothing like the knockout punch to the face that professional fighters in this weight class can deliver.

    What’s that about?

    That’s about Steve Garvey’s endorsement.

    Even though there are not enough registered Republican voters in California to elect a candidate to statewide office, there’s a pretty reliable 35% who would vote for a pickled herring if it had an R next to its name. A majority of California voters would vote for a pickled herring with a D next to its name, but what happens if they have to choose between two Democrats who finish first and second in the primary? The endorsement of the third- and fourth-place finishers might determine which fish becomes the next U.S. senator from California.

    “You were a hell of a ballplayer,” front-running Democrat Adam Schiff told Garvey during the debate, the first truthful thing he has said in eight years. We may need another display case.

    If not for the museum-quality, horrifying political mistake of the top-two primary, we would still have party primaries for Senate, Congress, state Senate and Assembly. Democrats would run against Democrats and Republicans would run against Republicans. One candidate would emerge from each party primary and move on to November along with any candidates nominated by other political parties.

    Instead, we have a nauseating level of Machiavellian intrigue. A candidate, or allies of the candidate, can buy advertising to promote the candidacy of a very weak rival in the hope of knocking a stronger one out of the top two. Then as soon as the primary is over, the advertising stops. Voters who fell for it are left wondering why their sinking candidate isn’t running any TV ads during the general election campaign.

    The next exhibit in the museum shows media polls during their transformation into self-fulfilling prophecies. Please stand back, stay behind the ropes. If you’re within the margin of error, no one knows what might happen.

    With 29 candidates in the U.S. Senate race, it’s obviously necessary for editors, reporters and debate organizers to make decisions about which candidates will get coverage, air time and invitations. Then publicity drives up poll numbers.

    “The following candidates have received the most media attention,” wrote Ballotpedia’s election analysts, citing CalMatters and the Los Angeles Times, “Barbara Lee, Katie Porter, Adam Schiff and Steve Garvey.”  Those are the four that were invited to Monday’s debate, after a poll.

    Missing the cut and not happy about it were Republican Eric Early and self-described “Independent Democrat” Christina Pascucci.

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    Barbara Lee is right. It’s time to normalize relations with Cuba and lift the embargo.

    “If I were on the debate stage, I would not have stood by as Schiff lied about Russian collusion and how packing the Supreme Court will protect democracy, as Katie Porter blathered the same canards about not being controlled by big money, as Barbara Lee bragged about policies which have turned her home of Oakland into a war zone, and as the Joe Biden Republican Steve Garvey, well, Steve Garvey will let you know,” Early wrote in an op-ed published in these pages.

    He’s right.

    “That was so frustrating to watch,” Pascucci said in a statement, “You have the three Democratic establishment candidates who are pointing the finger at Washington — they ARE Washington.”

    She’s right, too.

    The top-two primary richly deserves its place of honor in the Museum of Horrifying Political Mistakes.

    Be sure to visit the gift shop on your way out. They’re having a sale on Iraq War merchandise.

    Write [email protected] and follow her on Twitter @Susan_Shelley

    ​ Orange County Register