California Tries Something New

California ventured onto unknown terrain last week, holding its first primary election with districts carved by a non-partisan commission, and under a new law that stipulates the top two finishers in the primary, regardless of party, are the candidates who advance to the November run-off.

There were two theories behind these reforms, which were enacted, in best California fashion, by voters approving a ballot measure. The first was that redistricting at the hands of the legislature had become the ultimate incumbent-protection act—during the preceding ten years, of the 173 members of Congress, the state senate and the assembly who came before the voters in multiple elections, just one had been unseated. By shifting control of redistricting to a non-partisan commission, the state’s legislators might actually have to pay heed to their districts’ voters. The second theory was that by creating more competitive districts, more centrist candidates would seek and win office, thereby reducing the partisan polarization in the legislature.

The votes are now in (well, almost—California doesn’t usually finish counting its millions of mail ballots until a week or two after election-day), and the theories have been put to the test. What we’ve learned is that the new districts have resulted in the unseating of some incumbents—largely to the Democrats’ advantage—and that the elimination of party primaries hasn’t really helped “moderates” significantly, if at all.

In a state where geography mirrors ideology, or vice-versa, it’s not that easy to create competitive districts. Clearly, there are more than there were in previous decades. But coastal California, where 70 percent of the population resides, remains heavily Democratic, save for stretches of Orange and San Diego County. Inland California used to be the bastion of state conservatives, but as it grows increasingly Latino, it’s growing increasingly Democratic, too. Indeed, once you factor in the growing number of Latinos to the newly carved districts, the result will be a pickup of seats by the Democrats in their already heavily Democratic congressional and state senate delegations, and a possible pick-up in the assembly delegation as well. The state’s most senior Republican congressmen—House Rules Committee chairman David Dreier and Appropriations Committee Chairman Jerry Lewis—resided in inland Southern California, and when their districts were redrawn, they’d become so Latino and Democratic—as had all the surrounding districts they could have moved to—that they opted not to run again. On the Democratic side, two veteran Jewish Democrats, Howard Berman and Brad Sherman, had their San Fernando Valley districts redrawn, and since the Valley has become much more Latino over the past two decades, a new Latino-dominated, heavily Democratic district was created that compelled Berman and Sherman to run against each other in the also heavily Democratic but not so Latino district next door. (Sherman outpolled Berman last week, and is the favorite to win their repeat performance in the November run-off.)

Democrats already dominate the state’s congressional delegation, with 34 members to the Republicans’ 19. Because of redistricting, two Democratic incumbents, Stockton’s Jerry McNerny and Santa Barbara’s Lois Capps, face tough challenges from Republican challengers in November, but both should still be considered favorites, Capps most particularly since her GOP opponent has a record of tax problems. One of the Democrats’ best shots at picking up a GOP seat collapsed last Tuesday when in a Democratic-trending district just east of Los Angeles, the Democratid mayor of Redlands ran third behind two Republicans, who will now face off in November. But Democrats can still pick up seats in northern San Diego County, where Republican Brian Bilbray again looks to be embattled, and in Ventura and Riverside counties as well. Democrats had hoped to pick up as many as six seats in California this year; my guess is that three is a more likely result.

While the Democrats have long had sizable majorities in both houses of the legislature, state law requires a two-thirds vote in each house to enact any tax increases. GOP legislators, who cling to just over one-third of the members in each house, have refused to vote for any, plunging the state into annual budget crises and forcing the decimation of state and local services, not to mention starving public education—from kindergarten to the University of California—of the resources it needs. Coming out of last week’s primaries, though, it looks as if the Democrats will get to two-thirds in the state senate come November. Democrats already control 25 of the senate’s 40 seats, and their total could go as high as 28 or even 29 after the general election, though all they need is 27. The assembly looks more challenging—with 51 of its 80 seats now Democratic, it’s hard to see how they can push that total any higher than 53, and they need 54 to reach two-thirds.

There are two huge variables in all these races: super-PAC spending, which will surely redound to the GOP’s advantage in U.S. House races, and the race at the top of the ticket. Barack Obama carried California by a massive 24-percent margin in 2008. He carried eight of the 19 congressional districts represented by Republicans. If he performs anywhere near that well this year, given the new district lines, the Democrats will likely pick up more congressional and legislative seats even than they had hoped for. In the more likely eventuality that Obama carries the state by, say, just 15 percent, Democratic gains will likely be along the lines that I’ve outlined here.

And what of the second goal of all this electoral reform—putting more “moderates” into office? The results from last week’s vote don’t suggest that the new top-two statute is the path to doing that. Business lobbies aided the campaigns of more conservative Democrats in a range of solidly Democratic districts, but in all but one case, their candidates lost. In a closely watched San Fernando Valley assembly contest, an “education reform” Democrat who was the beneficiary of nearly $1 million in independent expenditures from a PAC headed by Michelle Rhee ran a distant second to a more mainstream liberal. Rhee’s candidate may yet slip into third place, and out of the November run-off, when all the mail ballots are counted. Two liberal Democrats defeated a business Democrat seeking an assembly seat in liberal Alameda County, while business-backed Democrats also finished out of the running in a heavily Latino district on L.A.’s eastside and in another such district in San Diego. In all these cases, the liberal Democrats will run off against Republicans come November. The business lobby’s one success came in Orange County, where Anaheim Mayor Tom Daly easily prevailed over labor’s candidate. 

In a handful of heavily Republican legislative districts, November’s elections will be contests between GOP right-wingers and ostensibly more moderate Republicans, who for now have declined to take Grover Norquist’s no-tax pledge and hope to win Democratic voter support this fall. There were a number of districts in which this intra-Republican outcome was a possibility, and some normally Democratic-leaning unions were quietly aiding the more moderate Republicans. In most such districts, however, they didn’t get the word out to Democratic voters, who instead supported Democratic candidates, most of whom made it into runoffs they will now almost surely lose. 

And how did candidates who were neither Democratic nor Republican fare under the new system? Third-party candidates of the left and right, of course, finished far behind in these open primaries, and thus will not appear on the ballot come November. Well-known non-partisan candidates, however, were thought to have a shot under the new system. Yet it was not to be. In a Ventura county congressional district that is one of the key swing congressional districts this fall, Linda Parks, a widely-known local elected official who had left Republican ranks and was running as an independent, faced off against two equally well-known state legislators, one a Republican, the other a Democrats. Parks, whom the Los Angeles Times endorsed, finished a distant third, however. Despite the growth in the number of unaffiliated voters, the primary electorate remains tilted toward partisans—and with the control of Congress such an important issue in the minds of many voters, a vote for a non-partisan candidate clearly struck many as a wasted vote. 

The saddest outcome last week came in the U.S. Senate primary, where Democrat Dianne Feinstein, the state’s most popular elected official, amassed a vote total equal to that of all her 20-some opponents. Finishing second, with a flimsy 12 percent, was Republican Elizabeth Emken, an autism activist from rural Northern California, who had the support of the state party but has never held public office and was able to raise no more than an anemic $300,000. Another Republican candidate, Orly Taitz, an Orange County dentist who was perhaps the nation’s most prominent birther until the Donald ungraciously stole her thunder, came in fifth, depriving state voters of a wondrous run-off campaign and state Republicans of a major headache.

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