The term "jungle primary" raises a number of serious questions among the uninitiated: How likely am I to be killed by a wild animal while voting in a jungle primary? I'm allergic to eucalyptus trees? Should I stay home? Are tree snakes a part of jungle primaries?
All fair questions, but fear not! Jungle primaries take place in jungle-free California and refer to a specific type of snake-and-alligator free primary system in which all candidates, regardless of party, run in one giant primary. The two biggest vote getters from that day, regardless of their party, advance to the general election, which functions as a run-off. This is different from the traditional partisan primary system, in which a Republican and a Democrat each advance through their own party's primary and meet in the general election in November.
In a large state like California, the jungle primary system can have national implications. This year, Democrats have the chance to retake the house and need to pick up 24 seats to do so. California has 14 seats held by Republicans, but 10 of them were won by Hillary Clinton in 2016, so the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee (DCCC) is targeting these districts. Enthusiasm is so high that 67 Democrats have already entered the races in the 14 GOP-held districts.
While the enthusiasm is a GREAT thing (Run for office! Shoot for the stars! Save us from this mess!), the largely misunderstood jungle primary system could theoretically make it difficult for any Dems to get a decisive enough percentage of the vote to advance into the General Election. With this many candidates, the Democratic votes could become diluted and districts might end up sending two Republicans to the general election instead.
Not likely, but it's definitely happened before. In 2012, four democrats split the vote in California's 31st district, located outside Los Angeles. The Democrats had been polling ahead in the district, but so many ran that Democratic Mayor of Redlands Pete Aguilar finished third in the primary behind two Republicans. No Democrat was present in the general election that year. The same thing almost happened again in 2014! Aguilar narrowly won second place that year, but only by 200 votes.
Part of the issue is, the jungle primary system is still relatively new and poorly understood by voters. Many don't realize how significant their primary votes are, and there still isn't much of a consensus at the party level about how to strategize when many candidates from the same party are running in one race.
Jungly at best. Democrats were ecstatic when Republican Reps. Darrell Issa and Ed Royce announced their retirements, but there are already five Democrats running in Issa's district and eight in Royce's. There's already some drama in GOP Rep. Dana Rohrabacher's district, with some embarrassing in-fighting between Democratic candidates Harley Rouda and Hans Keirstead.
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Local groups such as Indivisible have been holding meetings to brainstorm about how to avoid losing the top two positions to Republicans. They're determining if they will endorse candidates as a way of clearing the field. Some activists are also calling candidates to pledge they'll serve only two terms if elected in hopes of creating incentives for people to drop out of races now and step in down the line. Others are calling for contenders to promise they'll drop out in support of the frontrunners before election day. Activist are even hosting "candidate viability forums" to question multiple Democratic contenders in hopes of narrowing down the field.
The possibility of sending two Republicans to the general election is a real concern for all voters in California, but the best way to combat the crippling frustration is to research and understand the system before you vote. Eventually, we'll settle on a jungle primary strategy that works, but all California voters need to play a part in determining what that strategy will be and how we can make this system work for us, not against us.