Editorial: Is open primary living up to promise?

Published: Sunday, Jun. 10, 2012 - 12:00 am | Page 6E
Last Modified: Sunday, Jun. 10, 2012 - 10:31 am

Before California voters approved the current top-two open primary through Proposition 14 in 2010, critics in both parties issued all kinds of dire warnings about the proposed change.

Republicans complained the new system would result in a wave of mushy moderates, with little ideological backbone to block tax increases. Democratic Party leaders warned of "mischief," fearing Republicans would surreptitiously throw their support behind weak Democrats to ensure GOP candidates would triumph.

Such fears are valid. As U-T San Diego has reported, Democratic state Sen. Juan Vargas used some of the $630,000 he spent running for Congress on mailers promoting a Republican rival, his preferred opponent in November. Republicans have engaged in similar "mischief."

Even so, there is no doubt the top-two open primary has changed the dynamic of legislative and congressional races in ways that could reward and embolden California voters who are not as partisan as party leaders.

Under "top two," voters cast ballots for a single candidate, and the top two vote-getters advance to the general election, regardless of party.

Coupled with redistricting reform, the change forced many candidates this year to campaign hard in the primary and appeal to a broader set of voters, instead of coasting to a party nomination with little competition.

An example is the race for the newly drawn 3rd Congressional District, which stretches from Rio Vista through Yolo County to Marysville and Orland. Under the old primary system, incumbent U.S. Rep. John Garamendi could have floated through the primary and saved his energy and campaign resources for the fall.

Instead, Garamendi ran hard against four other candidates, attempting to introduce himself to voters who hadn't been in his previous district. He will now face off in November against Kim Vann, a Colusa County supervisor and a conservative Republican who is moderate enough to avoid signing the "no-tax" pledge.

The open primary has also produced numerous runoffs in which candidates of the same party will vie against each other in November.

In the Legislature, there will be 15 races in which Democrats face Democrats, and six in which Republicans face Republicans. In Congress, there will be six races in which Democrats face Democrats, and two in which Republicans face Republicans.

Already, some of these same-party races are forcing candidates to appeal to independents and members of other parties. In Los Angeles, for instance, U.S. Rep. Howard Berman has been making overtures to Republicans in his tough contest against U.S. Rep. Brad Sherman for the newly drawn 30th District, which includes a large chunk of Sherman's old territory.

While Sherman was leading Berman in the vote count as of Friday, that could change in the general election if Berman is more successful in wooing non-Democrats.

As Dan Schnur told Reuters last week, "The great irony here is that the contest between Democratic icons is going to be decided by Republican voters."

The same dynamic could play out in GOP-vs.-GOP races, including the one in Assembly District 5, where Republican Rico Oller will face off against Republican Frank Bigelow. Bigelow has the endorsement of moderate GOP lawmakers and seems to be positioning himself as an option for independents and Democrats who don't have an appetite for Oller's hard-line positions.

This was a low-turnout primary. For that and other reasons, we won't know if redistricting reform and "top two" will produce lasting and worthwhile change, with a minimum of mischief, for several election cycles. But it will be interesting to watch – another reason for voters to pay attention.

The Bee's past stands

"If Proposition 14 were to pass, it wouldn't wipe out the clout of the state's two major parties. Nor would it instantly lead to the election of more moderate, level-headed lawmakers. But it would empower candidates who, because they refuse to pander to the party machines, are now reluctant to throw their hats into the ring." – April 25, 2010

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