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Welcome to the Jungle Primary

California’s New Nominating System Yields Surprising Results in 31st District

Welcome to the new Congressional landscape of California.

Rep. Gary Miller (R) not only survived his jungle primary in the totally new, Democratic-leaning 31st district, the endangered lawmaker also finished first and is set to face Republican state Sen. Bob Dutton in the November general election. Redlands Mayor Pete Aguilar (D), the favorite to advance in the top-two primary, finished about 1,000 votes short of underdog Dutton after three other Democrats swallowed up a quarter of the vote.

“Republicans are still going to behave like Republicans, and Democrats like Democrats,” Miller consultant Jason Roe said of the jungle primaries. “Then it becomes all about division. How many people are in the race makes a difference.”

Miller entered Tuesday’s primary as California’s most vulnerable incumbent. He emerged in his strongest position for re-election since deciding to court new voters after redistricting pushed him into an Orange County district favorable to Rep. Ed Royce (R).

Last month, the Miller campaign made news by mistakenly posting unflattering online outtakes of the Congressman recording a television ad. But the campaign was quietly tracking the race and might  have been alone in not being totally caught off guard by Tuesday’s results.

After tracking data suggested the possibility of two Republicans advancing in the primary, the campaign rushed a poll into the field on the Saturday of Memorial Day weekend. The survey showed Miller and Dutton neck and neck, with Aguilar in third place. The results were unexpected and potentially unreliable, given the poll’s odd timing. But the survey ultimately proved accurate.

Even Dutton backers were surprised Aguilar wasn’t able to edge out the state Senator for second place, said Matt Rexroad, the GOP consultant who ran the independent expenditure program for a super PAC backing Dutton. The National Association of Realtors’ political arm spent at least $800,000 for Miller, leaving Dutton as the likely odd man out.

“I definitely wanted him to win,” Rexroad said. “But my brain told me otherwise.”

Consultants from both parties, both inside and outside of California, are still adjusting to the new nominating system, which was sold to voters in 2010 as a way to ensure that more moderate candidates could win and that those who chose not to affiliate with either party would have a greater chance to win, Los Angeles Democratic Party Chairman Eric Bauman said.

But after an early look at state legislative and Congressional elections across the state, Bauman said it’s likely that not one unaffiliated candidate advanced to the Nov. 6 general election. And it’s unlikely independent voters’ first chance to participate in California primaries in 14 years led to higher turnout.

“There is no middle turnout,” GOP consultant Rob Stutzman said, noting that the three highest-profile independent candidates all failed to advance.

Linda Parks lost in the 26th district, Chad Condit lost in the 10th district, and Nathan Fletcher lost in the San Diego mayoral primary.

If nothing else, the new primary system, mixed with a string of retirements, led to some races where dozens of candidates were vying for a single seat. Sen. Dianne Feinstein’s consultant Bill Carrick told the Democrat on Wednesday that she beat more candidates on primary day — 23 in all — than in her entire career combined.

The national party committees are learning as well. Aguilar’s third-place finish in the 31st cost the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee one of its most highly targeted seats in a state vital to its efforts to win back the House.

“There will be a lot of analysis and reflection on the results to figure out what worked and what needs to be improved,” DCCC spokeswoman Jennifer Crider said. “The good news for us is we have really good opportunities to pick up seats in California.”

Unlike the 31st district, Crider said the open 26th district in Ventura County is a “case study of what works.” The DCCC’s direct-mail program targeted Parks, the Independent, while the House Majority PAC spent most of its $700,000 in independent expenditures on introducing the district’s Democrats to Assemblywoman Julia Brownley (D), who also had the support of interest groups such as EMILY’s List.

Brownley will face state Sen. Tony Strickland (R) in the fall in one of the most competitive races in the state. Democrats weren’t so lucky in the Central Valley’s 21st district, where the DCCC’s preferred candidate, Blong Xiong, finished third behind state Assemblyman David Valadao (R) and John Hernandez (D), CEO of the Central California Hispanic Chamber of Commerce. Valadao is now the favorite to win.

“In a world where we all think we understand the way things work, you redistrict California and you make it a jungle primary, there are going to be things that no one knows or understands about it yet,” said Brock McCleary, deputy political director of the National Republican Congressional Committee.

“We knew there would be surprises — we just didn’t know which party would benefit from the surprises,” he added. “We love having a jump start on this.”

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