Now that's a toss-up.

The West Coast's Topsy-Turvy House Races

Francis Barry writes editorials on politics and U.S. domestic policy for Bloomberg View. He was director of public affairs and chief speechwriter for New York City Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg. He is the author of “The Scandal of Reform: The Grand Failures of New York City’s Political Crusaders and the Death of Nonpartisanship.”
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In a solidly conservative district that Mitt Romney won in 2012 with 60 percent of the vote, a Republican candidate is attacking his opponent for being too conservative. In another district that shades red, a Republican is attacking his opponent for not taking a strong stand against the Confederate flag.

Is this a campaign bizarro world? No, it's just life under a "top-two" voting system, where candidates from the same party can end up in head-to-head match-ups. Three states -- California, Louisiana and Washington -- have adopted top-two systems. Each is slightly different from the others, but here's how they generally work:

All candidates appear on the ballot in an election open to all voters. The top-two finishers -- regardless of their party affiliation -- advance to a runoff. In districts where one party is particularly weak, it's not uncommon for the top two candidates to be of the same party. That's part of the idea: top-two systems help create intra-party competition where no meaningful inter-party competition exists.

This year, seven run-offs in California feature candidates of the same party, and two are going down to the wire. In Silicon Valley, Democrat Mike Honda -- who has not faced a serious general election challenger since being elected in 2000 -- is locked in a battle with Democrat Ro Khanna, a technology lawyer who worked in the Commerce Department during President Barack Obama's first term. In a district that Obama won with 72 percent of the vote in 2012, Khanna is touting his willingness to reach across the aisle and criticizing Honda for not doing more of it.

Ken Goldstein, a professor of politics at the University of San Francisco, explains the dynamic this way: "most incumbents worry about being attacked in the primary for not being pure enough." But a top-two system "sets up a situation where they can be attacked from their own side for being too pure."

In a district outside Los Angeles, two Republicans -- Tony Strickland and Steve Knight - advanced to the runoff for an open seat, after the leading Democrat received only 22 percent of the vote in the first round in June. With Republican voters split between them, both candidates are competing for Democratic votes. Hence the Confederate flag issue: Knight voted against a bill banning it from being displayed or sold in state museums and gift shops. A Republican will win the race, but Democrats will decide it.

In Washington state, a Tea Party Republican and former National Football League star, Clint Didier, is facing a more traditional Republican, Dan Newhouse, in a November runoff. Under the old partisan system, Didier -- who finished first in the initial round of voting in August -- would probably have been coasting toward victory. Instead, Newhouse is a legitimate contender and is attacking Didier as an extremist.

All three of these races could go either way, but none are rated as "toss-ups" by the leading political odds makers, who only are only concerned with whether a district will flip from one party to another. Only 18 of the 435 races are considered toss-ups by the Cook Political Report -- the lowest number since 2004.

If, however, we call the three hottest intra-party races toss-ups, then there are 21 in total, with six in California and Washington. (Louisiana holds its top-two runoff in December.) That means California and Washington account for 29 percent of toss-up races, even though they account for only 14 percent of the House seats. If we include all races that Cook considers competitive, California and Washington still account for a disproportionately large share: 21 percent.

There are 38 states without a toss-up race this year. One is Oregon, and on Election Day, voters there will decide whether to adopt a top-two system. (Michael R. Bloomberg, the majority owner of Bloomberg LP, has donated to the "Yes on 90" campaign.)

Critics of top two see intra-party races as denying voters the ability to support a member of their own party. That choice, however, exists in the first round of voting. In the runoff round, top two can offer voters a choice among two viable candidates, turning a coronation into a competition -- and turning campaigns toward the center.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Bloomberg View's editorial board or Bloomberg LP, its owners and investors.

To contact the author on this story:
Frank Barry at fbarry5@bloomberg.net

To contact the editors on this story:
Frank Barry at fbarry5@bloomberg.net
Max Berley at mberley@bloomberg.net