Politics & Government

California same-party races force hard choices

John McAtee, a 52-year-old voter from Elk Grove, isn’t happy about the state of his ballot this year.

In two legislative contests, the Republican will not have a candidate of his own party to choose from. For state Assembly, he can pick between Democrats Jim Cooper and Darrell Fong. For state Senate, his choices are Democrats Roger Dickinson and Richard Pan.

He considers the scenario one drawback of living in a heavily Democratic area.

“I am not moving, but you take your lumps,” McAtee said.

A reverse scenario is playing out in a Roseville-centered congressional district, where veteran conservative Rep. Tom McClintock is challenged by fellow Republican Art Moore. More than 116,000 Democrats there have no opportunity to select one of their own.

Democrat Michael Adams said he’s met Moore at district events and also has attended McClintock’s town-hall meetings. Adams, a 68-year-old resident of Roseville, said the upcoming congressional contest boils down to this: “Voting for the lesser of two evils is what I have to do.”

In California, 25 same-party contests populate the fall ballot, intraparty battles made possible by voter-approved Proposition 14 in June 2010. Under the measure, the top two candidates regardless of party advance to the general election.

The system is changing the mechanics of some campaigns, and putting many voters in an uncomfortable spot.

“I’ve knocked on some doors and people have said, ‘I’m not going to vote for a Democrat,’ ” Fong said. “Our job is to get them engaged and part of the process.”

Advocates of the open primary system expected that candidates would move to the middle in some races, eventually moderating a Legislature that for years gridlocked over budgets and other partisan matters. They anticipated that Republicans would choose Democrats less beholden to unions, or that Democrats would choose more environmentally friendly Republicans.

Whether they achieve their objective, however, will depend on whether voters are willing to cast any ballot at all in a general election for a member of an opposing party. Regardless of how much pressure parties exert on their members, polling and election experts suggest some voters don’t vote on contests without a candidate who shares their party affiliation.

Analysis of the possibility of a dropoff in voting is already underway.

Election data analyst Paul Mitchell, vice president of Political Data Inc., reviewed the 50th Assembly District runoff in 2012 between Democrats Richard Bloom and Betsy Butler and found that as many as 35 percent of Republicans didn’t cast a vote in the contest, while only a very small percentage of Democrats skipped the race. Still, Bloom, backed by business interests, was the victor over Butler, a more traditional labor-backed Democrat.

“This is something that kind of undercuts one of the main objectives of the open primary, which was to allow for all voters in a district to impact the potential outcome of a race,” Mitchell said. “If, for example, Republicans in Santa Monica are bypassing the Democrat-vs.-Democrat legislative or congressional race, then they are not impacting the vote.”

Some candidates this year are banking on high crossover support.

Moore’s candidacy in the 4th Congressional District is based on the idea that Democrats unhappy with McClintock will turn out to vote for another Republican they like better.

Moore’s campaign strategists anticipate that just 15 percent of Democrats will skip the GOP-on-GOP race. In a memorandum to potential donors, the campaign estimated a winning scenario in which Moore pulls 80 percent of the Democratic vote to McClintock’s 5 percent. It assumes McClintock will receive 75 percent of the Republican vote to Moore’s 25 percent share.

“Keep in mind that McClintock is well known and disliked by Democrats,” it states. “We’re confident Moore will pull more Republicans than modeled here.”

Chris Baker, the general consultant to McClintock, said Moore’s estimates amounted to “wishful thinking.” In the primary, McClintock received 56 percent, Moore drew 23 percent, and independent Jeffrey Gerlach finished with 21 percent.

“The primary results show (Moore’s) little chart is extremely unlikely to happen,” Baker said.

McClintock, assessing the dynamics of his race, said he’s taking his campaign to Democrats and independent voters across the 10-county district.

“There has always been a large group of traditional Democrats and conservative independents who have responded very positively to my message. We used to call them the Reagan Democrats,” McClintock said.

“People know where I stand and can trust where I stand. Art has spent the campaign telling Republican groups he’s a strong conservative and telling liberal groups he’s a moderate alternative. He’s very much established a record during his short time as an American voter arguing with himself and trying to be all things to all people.”

Moore has appeared at several Democratic events and said he’s presented himself consistently as a conservative Republican. He frames the contest as a character race between a combat veteran with deep roots in the area who will deliver for the district and a longtime politician from Southern California who is satisfied with delivering little more than “a Lincoln quote and a speech.”

“It’s not, ‘Hey, vote for Art Moore,’” Moore said he tells Democrats. Not voting “is a vote for Tom McClintock.”

Some Democrats, including Adams of Roseville, are buying into the argument.

“I see McClintock as part of the tea party movement, and I think they’re dangerous,” he said. “I think defeating a tea party candidate is a patriotic act on my part.”

Democrat Audrey Ehrlich relocated to the area from Las Vegas five years ago and was struck by how conservative it was. Ehrlich, 69, of Roseville, said she didn’t imagine a scenario where she’d be forced to choose between two Republicans.

Before meeting Moore at area events, “I thought I was going to hate him,” she said. “I never would have given him a look if there was Democrat in that race.” She might vote for him, she said, but she draws the line at volunteering for a Republican campaign.

One Democrat reaching beyond groups traditionally allied with the party is Ro Khanna, a former Obama administration official challenging seven-term incumbent Rep. Mike Honda, D-San Jose.

Khanna has sought to draw attention to a growing list of bipartisan supporters in addition to San Jose Mayor Chuck Reed, an outspoken proponent of public employee pension reform, and the San Jose Silicon Valley Chamber of Commerce.

Chamber President Matt Mahood, a registered Republican, said Khanna “speaks the language of Silicon Valley business.”

Back in Sacramento, about 90,000 Republican voters in three legislative races will be choosing between candidates of their rival party. In the Assembly race between Democrats Steve Cohn and Kevin McCarty, both Sacramento city councilmen acknowledge there are few policy differences between them.

Cohn’s campaign said he’s actively calling and visiting with Republicans, who make up 16 percent of lawn sign deliveries made to area voters.

Cohn said he likely would not have run under the old primary system because “I’m not quite as partisan or ideological, and I would probably have a hard time getting through a Democratic primary.”

“It’s hard as a moderate to generate ... the enthusiasm among the kinds of troops you need to run a campaign.”

In his chats with Republicans, McCarty said they often ask him, “Why isn’t a Republican on the ballot?”

“A lot of Republicans are skeptical about any Democrats,” McCarty said. “They may not want to vote at all. (But) many of them do and they are looking at our records and what issues we are talking about in the campaign ... That’s the wild card that both campaigns are going after.”

The phenomenon was on display in a debate between Republicans running to replace Rep. Howard “Buck” McKeon, R-Santa Clarita, in front of a mostly Democratic audience at a forum hosted by the Democratic Club of the High Desert.

There, Republican Tony Strickland touted his support for more government social service spending, noting his efforts to reinstate a government program that provides low-cost health, dental and vision coverage to uninsured children.

His opponent, Sen. Steve Knight, R-Palmdale, chided Strickland for writing in a primary candidate statement that he wanted to “go to Congress to oppose Obama.”

“Your goal is to go there to oppose my president (and) your president,” Knight said. “I find it hard to believe you’re going to work across the aisle.”

Lancaster Democrat Johnathon Ervin, who as president of the local club helped organize the debate, said he was surprised to hear the president defended by a GOP congressional candidate.

“I thought it was really ironic because the majority of them want to get rid of him,” Erwin said later.

Ervin said his main message to Democrats in his area is to swallow their pride and vote.

“I disagree with that rationale when people say” they won’t vote on the race, he said. “I say ‘no, no, you stay engaged.’ We don’t step out of it and say, ‘I quit.’ We can’t afford to tell people to stay away.

“You don’t protest something by not voting. You surrender to it.”