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How Did a Conservative Finish as One of Top-Two Vote-Getters in the Liberal 36th Congressional District?

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Craig Huey

File this under, "I was wrong." In a true political upset, conservative Republican Craig Huey and Democratic Los Angeles City Councilwoman Janice Hahn bested 14 other candidates in the special election to fill former Rep. Jane Harman's congressional seat. Hahn, daughter of Los Angeles County Supervisor Kenneth Hahn, and sister of former Los Angeles Mayor, James Hahn, was widely expected to be among the top-two finishers. Huey was not. As I and many other hapless souls who engage in predictions confidently stated, the runoff election would be between Hahn and Secretary of State Debra Bowen. So what happened?

The May 17th primary election was one of the first elections held under California's new open primary, top-two election system. Indeed it was the first such race for federal office. Under the new law, any voter can vote for any candidate in the primary election, and the top-two vote-getters, regardless of party affiliation proceed to the general election. Hence general elections could see competitions between members of the same party. Such an election was expected to occur between Hahn and Bowen, both Democrats.

No such luck for Bowen. It is unclear as to exactly what caused this political upset. One cause is like that Huey poured half a million dollars of his own money into the campaign to fund ads promoting his pro-jobs, less-spending message.

Further, in such a crowded field with lower voter turnout, a political upset was the difference between a relatively few number of votes. Indeed the margin between Huey and Bowen was less than 1,000 votes. Indeed because there were so many Democrats running, they may have simply split the more liberal vote, allowing for Huey to emerge as a top vote-getter.

One of the main purposes of the new open primary, top-two law is to elect more moderate candidates. The elimination of party primaries will purportedly mean that candidates who make it to the runoff have not had to appeal only to the party base, but instead a broad swath of the electorate.

The May 17th election, however, will not present a contest between two moderates. Huey has been described as, and in fact seems to have positioned himself as, a tea party candidate. Hahn, seemingly on the other side of the spectrum, is the candidate backed by organized labor.

Based on registration numbers, Hahn is heavily favored in the July 12th runoff election. Democrats number 45% of the registered voters in the 36th district, while Republicans made up less than a third of the registered voters, 28%, and Decline to State voters number approximately 20% of registered votes. Further, in the 2008 presidential campaign nearly 2/3 of the votes in the district were cast for President Obama. However, my days of making firm predictions have come and gone. Now that Huey has upset the predictions, many more eyes will be on the July election.

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