Advancing a Free Society

California's Primary - A Primer

Monday, June 4, 2012

The Republican presidential race is all but over, the state’s U.S. Senate race is anything but competitive, and a menu of but two ballot measures is more a light nosh than a hearty political repast.

Still, there are some good subplots to Tuesday’s primary in California.

That would include:

1)  The Open Primary’s Impact. Two summers ago, California signed off on Proposition 14, opening the door to a new era in which legislative and congressional candidates are listed on one ballot (not so candidates for U.S. president, country central committees and local offices) – the top-two vote-getters, regardless of political affiliation, moving on to the November general election. The big selling point for Prop 14 was ending the ennui of California politics by forcing both Democrats and Republicans into a brave new world in which they’d have to moderate their stances and develop broader coalitions for survival. So will it dramatically shake up things? Allan Hoffenblum, whose California Target Book tracks the 80 Assembly, 53 U.S. House and 20 State Senate races up for a vote on Tuesday, has this guestimate: up to 34 contests that could wind up in a same-party runoff come November – 22 Assembly, 4 Senate, 8 congressional. Different, but not dramatic.

2)  The Quantity, Not Quality Argument. What to look for, then, if the landscape’s still a predictable red-and-blue. Only 24% of registered California voters took part in the state’s June 2010 – a truly sad number given that both parties had strongly contested gubernatorial and senatorial primaries, plus five ballot measures including the aforementioned Prop 14. As this chart shows, voter turnout was double that level as recently as 30 years ago – but has been on a steady decline ever since. The worst showing for a presidential-year California primary: 30.54% in 2004 (like 2012, a contest featuring an incumbent and a challenger from Massachusetts). There’s your low bar to clear. If it’s excitement you seek, try Wisconsin and Tuesday’s gubernatorial recall contest – its turnout is forecast at 60%-65%.

3)  Where to Take a Snap Shot. Try California’s 10th Congressional District. East of the San Francisco Bay Area, it leans Republican – and counts as one of 9 highly competitive House races in the Golden State (Democrats will pretty much have to run the table in California if they’re to regain control of the House in 2013). The draw in CD 10: a targeted incumbent who’s vulnerable but a good fit, an astronaut who had to fight to keep that title on the ballot, and an outsider with an insider’s name. The incumbent, Republican Jeff Denham, is no stranger to political challenges. The astronaut, Democrat Jose Hernandez, is trying to tap into local growing Hispanic political clout. The independent, Chad Condit, is trying to tap into local discontent with both major parties – and banking on his father’s name. The question: can Condit ride that discontent into a top-two finish?

4)  Redistricting Makes for Strange Bedfellows. In 2008, California passed yet another political reform: citizen redistricting. With the redrawing of congressional and legislative lines taken away from politicians (here are the new certified maps), some candidates find themselves in uncomfortable surroundings. One such race to watch: the Republican vs. Republican tilt in the 24th CD, featuring Chris Mitchum (you may know his father: movie tough guy Robert Mitchum) and former Lt. Gov. Abel Maldonado. It was Maldonado, at the time a state legislator, who got the top-two primary on the ballot as part of a tax-and-budget deal in Sacramento. Now, he’s running as an unabashed moderate in a very temperate part of California that includes Santa Barbara and San Luis Obispo Counties, plus a coastal slice of Ventura County. Maldonado is to the left of his party on illegal immigration and offshore drilling – his candidacy serving as a litmus test for whether the center is now smarter and safer ground in California primaries.

5)  A Race That Can’t End Soon Enough. That would be the so-called “Battle of the Ermans” in the San Fernando Valley – Democratic Reps. Howard Berman and Brad Sherman staring each other down in the redrawn 30th CD. Berman’s been in Congress since Reagan’s first term, almost double Sherman’s stay in Washington. Typical of a Southern California race: they’ve bickered over credit for better freeways and demonstrated the best and worst that modern technology has to offer (Betty White ads and photo-shopped family pictures).  It’s a race that’s not very nice. And, should they finish in the top two, it’s also a race they’ll have to hold twice.

6)  Smoke Signals. Big Tobacco saw a threat: Proposition 29 and the chance of a $1 increase in the tax on every pack of cigarettes sold in California. The thing about Big Tobacco, as far as California ballot politics is concerned: this isn’t Mad Men’s Lucky Strike account and the dull-edged father-son team of Lee Garner. But it has been a good day for this generation’s Don Drapers. Tobacco companies have poured more than $40 million into the No on 29 effort – outspending the other side by about 4-1. Why does this outcome matter? Because Californians will be looking at perhaps three tax initiatives this fall – all coming down to the same choice between heart (better schools, protecting the public safety net) and brain (trusting government to make good with more revenue). Presuming Prop 29 fails (it was polling at 53%, down 14% since March) there are at least three takeaways: (1) never allow oneself to be badly outspent: (2) vet your initiative for obvious flaws and even more obvious attacks before putting it on the ballot; (3) in a slow economy, perhaps pathos isn’t an effective device.

If you’re a Californian, don’t forget to vote. You won’t have a long wait at the polls.