Prop. 14 Changes the Political Game

MARCH 9, 2011


The November elections were disastrous for California Republicans. They lost all nine statewide races, lost ground in the state Assembly and failed to gain a seat in Congress, despite California having 12 percent of the House seats and a nationwide tide that saw the GOP gain a net 63 seats. But it may have been slightly less disastrous had the electoral rules now in effect been in place last year, according to David Harmer, who narrowly lost to Democratic Congressman Jerry McNerney in the 11th Congressional District.

“Had Proposition 14 been in effect last year, [American Independent Party candidate David] Christensen could not have appeared on the general-election ballot, and I likely would have won,” Harmer told supporters via e-mail last week. “Unfortunately, Prop. 14 didn’t take effect until this year. But for future elections, the Prop. 14 system, operating in districts drawn by the new independent commission instead of incumbent officeholders, will give voters a clean, up-or-down choice between status-quo incumbents and challengers like me.”

Two-term incumbent McNerney beat Harmer by 48-to-47 percent — a mere 2,638 votes out of more than 240,000 votes cast. Christensen took the other 5 percent. Had Christensen been eliminated from the general election, it’s likely that most of his 12,439 votes would have gone to Harmer. The American Independent Party platform of God, Constitutional fundamentalism, anti-liberalism, pro-family, pro-life, anti-gay marriage, pro-Second Amendment and securing the borders is pretty much in lockstep with Harmer’s views.

Amazingly, Christensen was able to capture so many votes despite not running a campaign.

“Christensen was never a serious candidate,” Harmer told his supporters. “He raised no money, assembled no organization, gave no interviews, and showed up for no forums or debates, save one in his hometown — where he responded to predictable questions by confessing his perplexity. He hadn’t the remotest prospect of winning, or even influencing public opinion. The only effect of his candidacy was to facilitate the re-election of an incumbent whose views were diametrically opposed to his own.

“California voters approved Proposition 14 last June precisely to prevent candidates like Christensen from muddying the general-election waters. Under Prop. 14, all candidates from all parties appear on the same primary ballot, and only the top two vote-getters (regardless of party) proceed to the runoff. It’s an eminently sensible system. Naturally, all the state’s political parties opposed it.”

The maxim of politics making strange bedfellows was indeed in effect with Prop. 14’s opponents. When is the last time the Democratic Party, Republican Party, Green Party, Peace & Freedom Party, American Independent Party and the Libertarian Party agreed on anything? Ralph Nader joined Jon Fleischman (of the Flash Report) and Meg Whitman in opposing it. Republican Congressman Jeff Denham locked arms with public employee unions to fund the anti-Prop. 14 campaign. Supporting Prop. 14 were then-Gov. Schwarzenegger, the California Chamber of Commerce and most of the state’s newspaper editorials.

In two special elections held in February, the winner gained a majority of votes, avoiding a need for a general election runoff. Republican Sharon Runner won 65 percent of the vote in a two-person race against a Democrat to gain the 17th Senate District seat vacated by her husband George when he won election to the State Board of Equalization in November. In the 28th Senate District, Democrat Ted Lieu won 56 percent of the vote, beating out a Democrat, four Republicans and two candidates who declined to state a party affiliation.

Tuesday’s 4th Assembly Race

The next test of the new electoral system took place Tuesday when one Democrat vied against seven Republicans to represent the 4th Assembly District. In the new post-Prop. 14 world there was the possibility that two Republicans would face off in the May 3 general election in a district with 45 percent Republican registration, 31 percent Democrat and 19 percent declining to state. But the top two Republicans split most of the GOP votes, and the Democrat, retired fire chief Dennis Campanale, finished first with 32 percent. He will face Beth Gaines, wife of Ted Gaines, who vacated the seat when he won a special election to represent the 1st Senatorial District.

One of the main arguments both for and against Prop. 14 is that it will lead to a watering down of ideological differences between the parties. Fleischman argued in an anti-Prop. 14 video posted on YouTube last year that we’re likely to get a lot more Abel Maldonados in the state legislature. I asked Fleischman to comment on Harmer’s contention that Prop. 14 would have sent him to Congress last November.

Obviously, he lost a close election, and that’s frustrating,” said Fleischman. “Prop. 14 is a bad idea. There’s an American tradition that if you run for office and are the nominee for a political party you should be on the ballot. Most importantly, the people wrote Prop. 14 to reduce the role of political parties and elect more people to office who are in the mushy middle. If a political party has a majority, they should be able to set the agenda. David Harmer, as a conservative Republican, would have been extremely disadvantaged in the first election under an open primary system. Prop. 14 is intended to keep people like David Harmer out of office.”

Ironically, Markham Robinson, the California American Independent Party executive committee chairman, agrees with Harmer and welcomes the new electoral rules.

“Number one, numerically he’s indeed correct,” Robinson told me. “He probably wouldn’t have been facing Mr. Christensen because of the greater barriers that Prop. 14 would have imposed. It’s placed a greater barrier in the way of small-scale candidates. Which isn’t much loss given that none of these small candidates are serious. You have to be able to be persuasive enough or popular enough to have a realistic chance of being elected. Some people lament the lack of access of the really small fry. What this will do for the AIP is greatly decrease the number of its candidates, but also make the candidates that do emerge much more realistic ones. The electoral system is vastly changed.”

Robinson’s other takeaway from the 11th Congressional District race is the remarkable showing by Christensen, indicating a dissatisfaction with the major party choices.

“Five percent is a very high percentage for somebody with no name recognition,” he said. “It’s because people didn’t like the Republicans and Democrats. With the Democrats it’s a quick death and the Republicans it’s a slow death. Voters said, ‘I don’t choose death and would rather take a long shot — neither of the two is minimally acceptable.’ This is a very radical and extreme conclusion. Now at least in the primary, even though the barrier is high, we have a chance if we have quality candidates. The two parties will face greater competition if third parties can field people with modest resources and get name recognition – instead of Tweedle Dumb and Tweedle Dumber.”

California Republican Party Chairman Ron Nehring and Vice Chairman Tom Del Becarro did not respond to requests to comment for this article.

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  1. Richard Winger
    Richard Winger 10 March, 2011, 07:41

    A top-two system was used for Louisiana Congressional elections 1978-2006. In all those 30 years, only one incumbent member of either house of Congress was defeated in Louisiana (not counting 1992 when incumbents had to run against each other due to redistricting). But when Louisiana switched to a normal system, in 2008 and 2010, two incumbents were defeated in 2008 and another one was defeated in 2012.

    Washington state is the only other state that has used top-two. It did so in 2008 and 2010. Like Louisiana, no incumbent for either house of Congress was defeated for re-election in those two Washington elections. So it seems, in practice, one of top-two’s biggest characteristics is that it makes it even easier for incumbents to be re-elected than a normal system.

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  2. Richard Winger
    Richard Winger 10 March, 2011, 07:41

    On Louisiana, I meant to say incumbents were defeated in 2008 and 2010.

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  3. Jim Riley
    Jim Riley 10 March, 2011, 14:18

    Richard Winger overlooks the effect of incumbency, and the special circumstances of those three elections in 2008 and 2010. Indeed the only time under the Open Primary where an incumbent was not re-elected was either due to redistricting or rather special circumstances. In 1978, Buddy Leach was elected by a narrow margin, and there were scores of conviction on vote-buying. But the US House concluded that the Democrats had only bothered to buy 61 votes, in an election won 266. In 1980, the one-term representative Leach got clobbered in the runoff 64% to 36% by then-fellow Democrat Buddy Roemer.

    In May 2008, Don Cazayoux had won a special election to be elected to Congress, after three rounds (Democrat primary, Democratic runoff, and the special election). He did not receive a majority in the special election because of a few spoiler candidates. In the general election in November, a Democratic candidate that he had beaten in the spring ran as an independent and secured 12% of the vote, which was enough to permit the defeat of the 6-month incumbent Cazayoux. Again, the winner did not have a majority, but had a substantial plurality due to the spoiler candidate.

    William Jefferson, who is black, was under federal indictment, and $100,000 in cold cash had been found in his freezer. He would still likely won re-election in his congressional district. But Hurricane Gustav delayed the elections. On November 4, 2008 while Barack Obama was piling up a 74:25 win in the congressional district, Jefferson only won the Democratic nomination. It was in the delayed general election a month later where Joseph Cao, a Republican and Vietnamese won a narrow victory on extremely light turnout. He did not receive a majority of the vote.

    In 2010, Cao running for re-election was easily defeated (35:65). In 2010, the winner in Louisiana’s six contested congressional races received an averaged of 69% of the vote, with the closest race a 62:32:5 win.

    It is an extreme shallow analysis that would lead one to a conclusion that a system of partisan primaries leads to less incumbent re-election. It may be true that it is more susceptible to fluke results, which are then overturned in a subsequent elections. But that hardly commends the system, if the original election produces an anomaly. If we dispensed with elections entirely, and switched to dice rolls, there would be more incumbents “defeated”.

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  4. Joan Clendenin
    Joan Clendenin 10 March, 2011, 15:28

    Richard: Are you going the the CRP Convention? Where are you on the party’s proposed response to Prop 14?

    Reply this comment

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