When Californians approved Proposition 14 in 2010 and created an open primary system, they allowed for the possibility of two candidates of the same party facing each in a final election. Nowhere did such an event seem more likely to play out than in San Francisco, in Nancy Pelosi’s congressional district. After all, like many large American cities, San Francisco is pretty much a one-party, Democratic-voting town only more so. For instance, in the 2016 presidential primary, Hillary Clinton received 116,359 votes to Bernie Sanders’s 99,594, while all Republican candidates combined for only 16,576. And yet, while U.S. Senator Dianne Feinstein faced another Democrat former California Senate President Kevin de León in last year’s final election, San Francisco’s Representative Nancy Pelosi has yet to face a similar challenge in November.
It’s not that sufficient differences to warrant such a run-off don’t exist. So far as Pelosi goes, most San Francisco Democratic voters, i.e., most San Francisco voters, seem to fall into one of two camps. When Pelosi does something clearly out of tune with her voting base such as supporting President Trump’s proposed military budget increases or backing Venezuelan Assembly President Juan Guaidó’s effort to usurp that nation’s presidency, there are those who consider such positions as relatively minor blemishes to an otherwise brilliant career that has resulted in her becoming the first female Speaker of the House and de-facto leader of the “resistance” to Trump. Others, however, tend to consider such views simply beyond the pale of appropriate representation of the city’s views. They also wonder about the things that Pelosi doesn’t do, such as co-sponsoring single-payer, Medicare-for-all legislation given that she represents a city that has supported the idea as far back as the 1994 ballot initiative that attempted to create such a system on the state level.
These divergent views would seem a logical focus of a November match-up for the office. But last year, what we got instead was a nearly meaningless run-off between Pelosi and a representative of the city’s marginal Republican Party. Why? Lack of unity among the city’s progressives, who would like to see that intra-party debate play out in a final election but have yet to master a method of making it happen. Last year, when an additional progressive Democratic challenger entered the fray in the last possible week, it meant that there were now three of them. Combined, they would draw just shy of 19 percent of the vote, compared to the Republican candidate’s slightly over-nine percent. But because there were three of them, it was the Republican who made the runoff. (A Green Party candidate drew another two percent of the vote.)
So, two years after the Bernie Sanders campaign electrified national politics by initiating a debate between the two souls of the Democratic Party, that possibility would be totally absent from San Francisco’s final election. And not only that, but the lack of unity meant that the backers of those three progressive Democrat candidates, who combined to contribute over $225,000 to their campaigns, did not see their ideas advanced in the electoral process. Instead they got an absolutely eventless runoff that no one can remember, less than half a year later.
What to do? The system will not self-correct this problem, but interested voters could. They could take matters into their own hands by insisting that any candidate aspiring to be the progressive standard bearer agree to participate in a “progressive primary,” a “cooperative caucus,” or some other method, under which all such contenders enter a process in which the winner gets the support of all. Over the years, there have been numerous efforts to create a progressive coalition or alliance in the city. This might be just the task around which one could finally take hold.
Although the next congressional primary is still nearly a year away, today’s electoral pace is such that it’s not too early to be considering the question of how San Francisco can produce a congressional race with a debate that generates news, not snooze.