California’s Trump tax return law raises fears of Republican lockout

Jessica Patterson

“If the Democrats have a huge intensity — which they likely will, because our primary is so early — and Republicans don’t have their likely nominee to turn out to vote for, this could really affect our legislative and congressional races, where two Democrats could end up in the general,” California Republican Party Chair Jessica Patterson told POLITICO. | Steve Yeater/AP Photo

2020 Elections

The possibility of Trump’s absence from 2020 primary ballots threatens to suppress turnout at a time when Republicans need every vote they can get.

OAKLAND — California’s new law requiring candidates’ tax returns may be aimed at Donald Trump, but its most consequential effects would likely be felt downballot if it survives a legal challenge.

For Republicans who already face a steep climb to blunt Democratic dominance here, the possibility of Trump’s absence from 2020 primary ballots threatens to suppress turnout at a time when they need every vote they can get. That risk conjures another scenario that’s keeping conservative strategists up at night: Republicans getting locked out of general election races thanks to California’s primary system, which allows the top two vote-getters to advance to the general election regardless of party and regularly produces Democrat-vs.-Democrat contests.

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“We all know that the top of the ticket generally dictates the turnout,” California Republican Party Chair Jessica Patterson told POLITICO. “If the Democrats have a huge intensity — which they likely will, because our primary is so early — and Republicans don’t have their likely nominee to turn out to vote for, this could really affect our legislative and congressional races, where two Democrats could end up in the general.”

The newly signed law compels gubernatorial and presidential candidates to disclose financial information if they want to appear on primary ballots. It drew nearly immediate legal challenges from Trump and Republican groups, including the California state party, who decry the law as an unconstitutional exercise in partisan politics.

Even if it clears the courts, the measure is unlikely to have much effect on the presidential contest, given Trump’s radioactivity for much of the California electorate. But there are competitive state legislative and congressional races across the state. Patterson said the law appears to directly try to engineer outcomes favorable to Democrats by applying to primary elections in which Republicans can fall outside the top two if they suffer low turnout.

“It leads one to believe this was done on purpose,” she said.

State Sen. Mike McGuire (D-Healdsburg), the bill’s author, rejected Patterson’s claim as “blatantly false,” countering that the law applies to both parties and gives Trump a route to the ballot. Four Democratic presidential candidates would currently not be eligible to make California’s primary ballots, McGuire noted. “This is about equal opportunity transparency,” McGuire said.

Enacted by voters in 2010 after legislators placed it on the ballot via a budget deal, the system was intended to elevate moderation and compromise over partisanship. In the years since, it has come under heavy criticism from politicians and operatives who believe the system ends up depriving voters of choices — as when general elections become same-party clashes.

Eight years into California’s experiment with top-two elections, it’s not uncommon for general elections to feature two Democrats. And while that tends to happen in solidly blue districts that were unlikely to elect Republicans in the first place, it can also happen in traditionally conservative seats. A cautionary tale came in 2018, when two Democrats emerged from a crowded field of Republicans in a longtime red Assembly district.

That outcome was a confluence of various factors — an excess of candidates, a dubious sexual misconduct allegation — but Mike Foster, who managed Republican Phil Graham’s campaign, said turnout was key.

“Top-two has got a lot of problems, and I think with Democrats trying to take over the entire state I wouldn’t put it past them to try everything possible,” Foster said.

He argued that the Trump tax law would actually boost Republican turnout by rallying voters around opposing a Democratic power play.

But Paul Mitchell, a political consultant and vice president of Political Data Inc., noted 2020 looks like an “asymmetric election” in which Democrats will be far more motivated than their counterparts given California is hosting a relevant presidential primary.

“This does have enough potential impact that it could impact primaries by boxing out a Republican here and there,” Mitchell said, particularly if Republicans “boycott” the primary in protest. “It’s like drawing to an inside straight, but it’s a not-trivial likelihood.”

Trump’s potential absence from the March primary likely “suppresses Republican turnout because there’s no anchor at the top of the ticket pulling out those less-likely Republican voters,” said Dave Jacobson, a Democratic political consultant who is working to flip multiple state legislative seats.

Jacobson said the Republican lockout scenario is less likely in the seven front line House seats Democrats claimed in 2018, given that the party is coalescing behind those incumbents. A Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee spokesperson told POLITICO in a statement that “regardless of California’s final ballot, voters know Democrats are focused on the issues that matter most to families across the state.”

“The way the districts are drawn at this point, the seats that are held by Republicans are very solidly Republican,” said Darry Sragow, publisher of the election-handicapping California Target Book.

As districts become less competitive in California, Sragow said “as a structural matter, because the Republican Party continues to lose registration and the districts are overwhelmingly held by Democrats. … I’m not sure it’s going to have much of an impact at all.”

But a reigning sentiment in the California political universe is that, in the relatively new world of top-two primaries, you never know.

“The law of unintended consequences of this top-two primary is year after year it’s something new, and this is just another wrinkle,” Democratic consultant Steve Maviglio, a regular critic of the system, said of the possibility of Trump disappearing from ballots. “The creativity of political consultants has gotten pretty unmatched.”

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