It took a month, but all the ballots for California's 2012 general election have finally been counted. To the dismay of the state's political class, the final results confirm that the Golden State's political dynamics have profoundly shifted to a degree not seen since the reforms implemented by Gov. Hiram Johnson and the Progressive movement a century ago. It was a shift of power from a small partisan niche back to the people of our state.
To understand just how meaningfully the political realities in California have changed, and what this means for our future, it's necessary to consider a few key facts.
Fourteen of California's 53 members in the U.S. House of Representatives more than a quarter of the state's delegation will be new in Congress. No other state comes close to having so many new members of Congress sworn in.
Seven incumbents four Democrats and three Republicans lost re-election. In comparison, only two California House incumbents lost re-election in the previous decade under a bipartisan backroom deal that gerrymandered congressional districts. That's right, in the 530 races for Congress in the years 2002 through 2010, only two incumbents were unseated.
Three state legislators lost re-election in November. But what's most striking is that two were incumbent Democratic Assembly members running in heavily Democratic seats and strongly backed by Assembly Speaker John A. Pérez.
Two voter-approved reforms, which were vociferously opposed by the major political parties, elected officials and special interest groups, are responsible for producing these results. Even now, some politicians and pundits still deny the value of November's results and of these important reforms.
But the state's new "open primary," which has the top two vote-getters in June face off in the November general election, and the work of an independent Citizens Redistricting Commission, which redrew district boundaries without consideration for incumbents, have permanently changed politics in California and are a model for the rest of the country.
Elections in California have been made competitive again. Some congressional incumbents retired rather than run in seats that better reflected the state's diverse electorate.
What's more, independent, Republican and Democratic voters have all been empowered by these reforms. Previously, most incumbent politicians held "safe" seats dominated by one party and simply had to ensure that they pacified the small number of ideologically driven voters who turned out in the June primary. By playing to the extremes of their party's base, politicians could count on being easily re-elected.
Voters had been getting ideological posturing and political gridlock from their elected officials rather than problem-solving.
Now, incumbents have to be responsive to the broader electorate. The votes of even Republican voters in heavily Democratic seats and Democratic voters in heavily Republican seats matter.
For example, GOP votes were aggressively sought by two Democratic House members, Howard Berman and Brad Sherman, who ran against each other because of the lines produced by the redistricting process. Even more dramatically, the controversial dean of the state's House delegation, Democratic Rep. Pete Stark, was unseated after 40 years in office by a young Democrat, Eric Swalwell, who openly appealed to GOP voters in order to win narrowly.
Challengers have a better chance of unseating an incumbent because one of the new dynamics of the top-two open primary is that challengers who run in a district dominated by one party have the opportunity to make it to the general election and appeal to the expanded electorate. That happened with Swalwell.
In seats that heavily favor one party, two Republicans or two Democrats might advance to the general election runoff. But that actually means more political competition, rather than less. It also means that in time more pragmatic problem-solvers rather than inflexible ideologues will be elected in both major parties. Furthermore, it lessens the power of the special interests and narrow voting blocs that control each political party internally.
For example, in at least four heavily Republican Assembly districts, more moderate Republicans beat conservative Republicans who had led in the primary. Two of those four conservatives had been officially endorsed by the local Republican Party. But the larger electorate, comprised of a higher turnout of Republicans, Democrats and independents, opted for the pragmatist over the party favorite.
Redistricting and the open primary made my own candidacy possible as an independent candidate for Congress against 38-year incumbent Henry Waxman. We didn't prevail, but the 46 percent of the vote I received represented the toughest race of Waxman's career and forced the incumbent to reach out to voters and campaign.
These reforms mean incumbents are more accountable even in "safe" seats, candidates have to appeal to the broader electorate, and the importance of partisanship is at least somewhat lessened. Voters throughout California are more empowered and elections are significantly more competitive.
The two reforms are not panaceas that will magically solve all of California's public policy challenges. Partisanship is still doing tremendous damage to our state and our nation. Meaningful campaign finance reform is necessary that lessens the power of the special interests dominating both major parties.
Still, one thing is clear on who won the debate over redistricting and the open primary: California's voters.