Of course it wouldn't be easy to beat Waxman. He's an entrenched incumbent with $1 million in the bank. Yet California's top two could conceivably make for an interesting election. The authors envisioned three candidates, one on the right, one on the left, and one in the center, with the idea that more people would go to the one in the center.
As the recent special election in CA-36 showed voters in each party will gravitate to the most conservative or most liberal candidates. This is often true even if the voter considers him or herself a moderate. People who join a party and identify themselves as a member tend to go for the party endorsed candidate. A certain chunk of independents will do so also, as the candidate usually is more well known or better funded. There just aren't enough voters who vote in the middle to finish in the top two.
Waxman's CA-33 was won by Jerry Brown last year 54%-40%. In a 3 way race, a Republican will get enough of the votes to advance against Waxman. A strong Blue Dog candidate like former Congresswoman Jane Harman would get a lot of Democratic votes in the less progressive part of the district, south of the airport, but not enough to beat him with Democrats. We'd end up with a Republican 38%, Waxman 32%, Harman 22%, Other Republican 2%. In the resulting two way race between Waxman and the Republican in November Waxman wins easily.
If the primary ends up with Waxman having 32% of the Democratic vote and Harman 22%, then Harman would need one of two scenarios.
The first is that 2-4 Republicans split the vote to advance. That's only likely in a Democratic district if the candidates are equally as good or equally as unknown. It's unlikely that you'll get two strong Republicans in a safe Democratic district. Harman's hope would be that 2 or 3 Republicans are so unknown that they randomly split the vote. Even that is no guarantee.
Last year's 7th district primary had four Republicans and two Democrats, including incumbent George Miller. Even though the four Republicans each got at least 5% of the Republican vote, the Democratic challenger, John Fitzgerald, only managed 9,188 votes to Rick Tubbs 15,245.
Last year's 13th district primary featured two Republicans, who split the GOP vote 55%-45%. Democrat Challenger Justin Jellinic still fell 1,500 votes shy of the leading Republican.
It can happen, however. In the 19th district the two Democrats split the vote. Even though there were four Republicans, two of them were top two. The big difference between this election and the others is that there was no incumbent to suck up all the Republican votes.
The second scenario, one the authors of Prop. 14 were counting on, is the Blue Dog Democrat would win enough Republican leaning votes to beat the Republican. I'm skeptical of this scenario, since Republicans will vote for a Republican if one is in the race. The big question is in a race with two strong incumbents, like Brad Sherman and Howard Berman, one of them could possibly pull it off.
In a fall election between Waxman and Harman, Republicans would vote Harman because she's more of a moderate and would like to see Henry Waxman defeated. It's just that getting there would be difficult for a Blue Dog without a strong base of support. If Republicans want to beat Waxman they'd need to rally around a Democratic moderate who still had "Democrat" next to his or her name.
While I consider that Republican vs. Democrat is the most likely outcome of all primaries, there are 53 of them in California. As the 2010 19th district shows, there's liable to be at least one that doesn't turn out that way. It'll be interesting to see how the two candidates of the same party go after the other party's voters.