Throughout 2015 and 2016, Democrats had a good laugh at the Republican predicament—and who could blame them? Observing as a neophyte celebrity dispatched with one capable and well-groomed contender after another with just 25 to 35 percent of the vote is hilarious—that is, when it’s not happening to you. Fortunately for Republicans, they might soon get their own chance at schadenfreude in watching the Democrats fight it out.

With the political winds blowing stiffly in Republican lawmakers’ faces, a number of prominent GOP officeholders have opted out of a re-election bid in 2018. Among them, California’s Darrell Issa and Ed Royce—two high-profile Republicans from competitive districts where the president is deeply unpopular. The opportunity for Democrats in these and other Golden State districts is so obvious, in fact, that it has yielded a bumper crop of candidates. For the Democratic Party, that’s a problem.

Since 2010, California has been operating on an arcane system that was designed to be more representative of voters’ will. Rather than holding traditional primaries in which the top vote-getting Republican and Democratic candidates face off against one another in the general election, California holds a blanket, non-partisan primary in which the top two finishers—regardless of partisan affiliation—proceed to the general election. In theory, this was supposed to enhance the responsiveness of the political process and to allow politicians—mostly Democrats, let’s be honest—to face a competitive challenge for reelection in districts where the opposition party was not competitive. It was supposed to be a reform that “will change the political landscape in California,” said then-Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger, “finally giving voters the power to truly hold politicians accountable.” But the new system’s flaws soon became apparent.

Following the 2010 census, California’s 31st congressional district was transformed from a competitive landscape into an area in which Democrats held a five-point registration advantage; tough territory for incumbent Republican Congressman Gary Miller. In 2012, then-Redlands Mayor Pete Aguilar decided to challenge the incumbent, but he was joined by a series of other Democratic and Republican candidates. Despite being the top Democratic vote-getter in the district, he finished behind two Republican candidates who both advanced to the general election. Aguilar eventually won his seat in Congress, but not before his name became a verb associated with this new system’s undemocratic pitfalls. Today, with Democrats crawling over one another for the shot to run for Congress in a favorable environment, California’s Dems are bracing for a cascade of Aguilars.

When the top-two system was put in place following a referendum, Republicans who opposed it said it would inevitably become anti-democratic in practice. “This is a process that lends itself to back-room dealing, to big decisions being made by small groups of people,” said former California Republican Party Chairman Ron Nehring. He was absolutely right. Politico revealed on Thursday that Democratic power brokers spent the week frantically working the phones to persuade, cajole, entice, or intimidate uncompetitive Democrats converging on GOP-led districts to get out of the race before the filing deadline. Their efforts have not been as fruitful as they’d have liked, and many races will likely see a glut of Democratic candidates who functionally serve to protect the Republican candidates in the race from the voters’ rebuke.

This system also lends itself to gaming. In California’s 48th District, the GOP maintains a substantial voter registration advantage, but it was one of seven Republican-led districts Hillary Clinton won in 2016—districts that represent the foundational building blocks of the Democratic Party’s strategy to retake the House of Representatives. There, Rep. Dana Rohrabacher, whose conspicuous efforts to shield Vladimir Putin from due censure tie him to one of Donald Trump’s most unlovely traits, is not popular and his fundraising has been underwhelming. He faced a series of qualified Democratic challengers, any one of whom has a chance of victory in November. But Rohrabacher might have received a reprieve in the form of an unexpected challenge from within his own party by Orange County GOP Chairman Scott Baugh—a popular, connected, and well-known figure in this district. Now, with eight Democrats vying to consolidate the modest liberal vote share in California’s 48th, “A Republican-only top two runoff is possible here in November,” wrote Golden State handicappers Rob Pyers and Darry Sragow.

Nehring prophesized in 2010 that this defective system would create incentives for moneyed interests and party bosses to exert their influence in an effort to disenfranchise lesser-known candidates without the means to compete. Thus, this supposedly responsive new system would, in fact, lead to the return of the fabled “smoke-filled rooms” from which candidates emerged after an opaque selection process. “We’ll be forced to turn to nominating conventions,” he complained. Nehring might have been right about that, too, but his implication that this would be an unwelcome development is questionable.

Political observers who have marveled over Democrat Conor Lamb’s special-election victory in a Pennsylvania district that voted for Donald Trump by 20 points just 16 months ago attributed his win not just to the national environment and the quality of the candidate, but to the process through which he won the nomination. Lamb was selected—not elected—on the second ballot of a Democratic Party nominating convention. As a result, Lamb was able to run a campaign tailored to voters in his district, not the campaign that progressive activists would have allowed had a purity-tested liberal emerged from a contested primary process.

If California’s new electoral system allows Republicans to secure a reprieve from the voters’ verdict this fall, expect a change of heart from Democrats. Suddenly, there might be a new virtue in the wisdom of a closed nominating process or, for that matter, in the old smoke-filled rooms.

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