The Week in Politics: Dems' Fightin' Words, Plus How Term Limits May Actually Help Incumbents

The most important election news and political dynamics at the state and local levels.
by | June 3, 2016

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California Voters Will Choose Between Rival Sets of Democrats

When California Democrats head to the polls to vote in primaries next Tuesday, they'll choose between moderate or more progressive Democrats. And not just in the presidential race between Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders.

California has a blanket primary system, meaning the top two finishers in each race will proceed to the general election in November, regardless of party. Given the liberal nature of the state, that means no Republican will make the final cut in a lot of races. It's quite possible, for instance, that no Republican will make the cut in the U.S. Senate race dominated by state Attorney General Kamala Harris and Rep. Loretta Sanchez, both Democrats.

The result is that in-fighting between Democrats has become more intense. In legislative races, progressives are running against moderates, whom they sometimes deride as "corporate Democrats."

"I would say that 60 to 65 percent of the state legislative districts are unwinnable by a Republican, unless the Democrat got caught in a huge scandal," said Joshua Grossman, president of Progressive Kick, a super PAC headquartered in Oakland that supports liberal candidates. "Given that, the corporate interests have obviously but cleverly put their money in Democratic races."

Oil companies such as Chevron and Valero, along with other corporate groups, have put some $2 million behind state Rep. Cheryl Brown of San Bernardino, who helped defeat a legislative proposal last year to cut fossil fuel use by cars and trucks in half by 2030.

Unions and environmental groups are backing her opponent, workers compensation attorney Eloise Gomez Reyes, dubbing Brown "Chevron Cheryl." Given California's top-two system, it's likely that the expensive battle between Brown and Reyes will continue into the fall.

Independent expenditures in California legislative races have already reached a record $24 million, according to the Los Angeles Times -- well up from the $16.7 million spent by outside groups two years ago.

"When Arnold Schwarzenegger pushed for it, he was expecting that [the] top-two [system] would strengthen the moderate wing of the Republican Party," said Jack Pitney, a political scientist at Claremont McKenna College. "Instead, it's shifted even more so the focus of California politics to the Democratic Party."

Term Limits Have Helped Out Incumbents

Legislative term limits across the country haven't fulfilled most of the promises made by the idea's proponents. They haven't driven so-called career politicians from the legislature. Instead, they've encouraged games of musical chairs among different offices. They also haven't done much to increase the ranks of women or minorities.

Term limits haven't even made life more difficult for incumbents. Maybe the reverse.

An analysis by the Billings Gazette showed that legislators don't serve any less time in office, on average, than they did before Montana's term limits law was passed in 1992. The state has recently weakened the law, eliminating the two-year cooling off period that blocked senators and representatives from immediately running again after maxing out in both chambers.

Now, they're able to serve eight years in the House, eight years in the Senate and then immediately seek to serve another eight years in the House. This year, Sen. Jim Keane is doing just that, running for his old House seat, which has conveniently been left open by term limits.

The desire to wait for an empty seat is the reason term limits has made life easier for incumbents. Other candidates realize they'd be better off waiting two or four years, when they know for sure the office will be vacant.

"As incumbents approach their final term, they face weaker challengers and enjoy a larger incumbency advantage, suggesting potential opposition candidates strategically wait for seats opened by term limits," Steven Rogers, a St. Louis University political scientist, wrote in a paper on this dynamic.

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