Nonpartisan primaries face test in California

New York Times, 6/3/12.

by Jennifer Medina

THOUSAND OAKS, Calif. — When new redistricting maps changed the boundaries of this Congressional district to give Democrats a slight edge for the first time in decades, party loyalists were elated.

But now it seems possible that come November there will not even be a Democrat on the ballot. On Tuesday, for the first time, California voters will participate in a nonpartisan primary. Instead of the top candidate from each party advancing to the general election, the two candidates with the most votes will be placed on the November ballot, regardless of party affiliation.

This year will be the first test of a new kind of election aimed at breaking the partisan gridlock that has seized Congress and state legislatures all over the country. When the change was presented to California voters by a ballot initiative in 2010, advocates said it would usher in a new era that embraced politicians who would be more pragmatic than ideological.

“The elected officials in Sacramento are often on the far left and far right and certainly not reflective of the majority of people in the state,” said Aaron McLear, who worked on the change as an aide to Arnold Schwarzenegger, then the governor, and is now a political consultant. “What we wanted is a lot more candidates coming in even if they are not anointed by the party. It may take a few cycles to manifest itself, but you will have wild cards who can make some real change in the Capitol.”

How the changes will play out on Election Day is still unclear. Much will depend on how many people vote and who those voters are. Many analysts expect that turnout will continue to be low and will largely consist of the party faithful, so it remains to be seen whether candidates who get the voters to the polls are simply the most partisan of the pack.

Still, there are signs that candidates are trying to appeal to the middle. A handful of Republican candidates have refused to sign a no-tax pledge, a promise that has long been seen as sacrosanct for Republicans here. And several Democrats have angered the public unions, which have been crucial longtime allies.

This year, voters and candidates for the first time can choose to register with “no party preference,” a category that was once referred to as “decline to state.” Voters in the primaries can pick candidates from any party.

Several districts have fewer registered Republicans than those who are without a party preference, the fastest growing political label in the state. The latest voter registration shows that roughly 21 percent of voters registered with no party preference, while 30 percent are Republican and 43 percent are Democrats.

Linda Parks, a Ventura County supervisor who as a Republican butted heads with her party brethren for years, said she “certainly couldn’t have run if it wasn’t an open primary.” She changed her registration to no party preference and is now running in the new Ventura Congressional district on a relatively shoestring budget, spending a small fraction of what Julia Brownley, a Democratic state assemblywoman, has spent from her campaign fund and what outside groups have spent to support her. The Republican in the race is expected to be the top vote-getter, so Ms. Parks and Ms. Brownley are competing for the No. 2 spot.

“Not being hyperpartisan and not being supported by the party can be a good thing because right now I think people are sick and tired of the party system,” Ms. Parks said. She has not said which party, if any, she would caucus with if she makes it to Congress, and she said that flexibility would make her a more influential member. “If I can win, it will show we can have independent people reach this office.”

On the other hand, Ms. Parks is not assured of reaching independent voters. Ms. Brownley’s campaign, for example, contended that it provided a stronger pull for Democratic voters in the district.

“It would be a great tragedy for Democrats to not have a candidate in November, and I think voters know that,” Ms. Brownley said, adding that if Democrats failed to show up at the polls, they would not have anyone who “represents their values.”

Of course, voters who register with no party preference can vote for a major party candidate, said Allan Hoffenblum, a former Republican strategist who now publishes the nonpartisan California Target Book. He estimates that there could be close to three dozen races in which two candidates from the same party will be up against each other in November. “You could end up in situations where Republicans are such a small party now that they can’t even get to second place.”

At the same time, Mr. Hoffenblum said, the major problem for candidates without a party is a lack of money. There are few political action committees with the money or organization to back candidates with the same kind of support that is provided by a traditional political party or major interest group.

But that could also change over time.

David Crane, a Democratic private investor who lobbied for the primary changes in 2010 as an adviser to Mr. Schwarzenegger, has started a group called Govern for California, aimed at recruiting “financially literate” candidates for the State Legislature. The group has given more than $200,000 to Brian C. Johnson, a Democrat running for the State Assembly in the San Fernando Valley who has been a strong advocate of charter schools. Similar groups have cropped up, and many expect the focus to be on electing business-friendly Democrats to the Statehouse.

Several critics of the primary changes argue that they will make races more expensive because the number of candidates will increase.

In one of the most expensive primaries nationwide, United States Representatives Howard L. Berman and Brad Sherman, both Democrats, are now competing in the same San Fernando Valley district. Because the district has twice as many Democrats as Republicans, both are expected to move on to the November ballot.

“This really ends up being a marathon between two well-funded candidates,” said Donna Bojarsky, an unpaid consultant for the Berman campaign. “We’re in one of the bluest parts of a blue state, so do Republicans stick to their guns or decide to just go with the lesser of two evils?”

To reach out to Republicans, the Berman campaign has relied on endorsements from Republican county supervisors, as well as a letter from former Mayor Richard J. Riordan of Los Angeles that called Mr. Berman “one of the best” congressmen in America and closed with: “One of the two Democratic congressmen who are running will surely win. Please don’t waste your vote!”

Link to full article: