Democrats face Democrats in new California election system

SACRAMENTO, California Wed Jun 6, 2012 10:54pm EDT

A passing surfer is reflected on the window as voters cast their ballots from inside a beach front polling place in the Los Angeles County lifeguard station in Hermosa Beach, California November 2, 2010. REUTERS/David McNew

A passing surfer is reflected on the window as voters cast their ballots from inside a beach front polling place in the Los Angeles County lifeguard station in Hermosa Beach, California November 2, 2010.

Credit: Reuters/David McNew

SACRAMENTO, California (Reuters) - The first statewide test of new California electoral rules designed to bolster competition and ease partisan gridlock saw the emergence of numerous same-party matchups and disappointing results for Democrats looking to gain more ground in Congress.

But analysts said despite an extremely low voter turnout that may have helped blunt the outcome of Tuesday's primary election, the impact of procedural changes and redrawn political maps will be more keenly felt over time.

Under California's new open-primary system, all candidates for each office compete on a single ballot, and the top two vote-getters advance to the general election, regardless of party affiliation.

That system, designed to favor more moderate, middle-of-the-road candidates over ideologically extreme contenders in both major parties, also allows for outcomes in which two Democrats or two Republicans could face each other in November.

After Tuesday's primary election, nine of California's 53 congressional districts will have same-party matchups in the November 6 general election, seven of them between Democrats, according to Kyle Kondik, an analyst at the Center for Politics at the University of Virginia.

Tuesday's primary also set the stage for more than a dozen same-party contests at the state legislative level in November.

In some cases, even longtime incumbents of the same party from previously "safe" congressional seats ended up tossed into the ring against one another, a result of district boundaries reconfigured by a nonpartisan commission to better represent shifts in the California electorate over the past decade.

Analysts warned that too much cannot be read into Tuesday's primary results, skewed by a low voter turnout of 24 percent. In addition, voters in primaries tend to be more partisan those who will cast ballots in the general election. And the seemingly wide gap between many of the top vote-getters from each primary and the runner-ups they will face in November are expected to narrow considerably.

"Just because you did well in the preseason does not automatically mean you win the Super Bowl," said Allan Hoffenblum, a former Republican political consultant who publishes the California Target Book, which evaluates political races. "There are going to be more competitive races in November here in California than we've seen in decades."

In one of the most closely watched races for the U.S. House of Representatives, two Democratic incumbents from Los Angeles, Howard Berman and Brad Sherman, are now set to square off in the general election. Berman took in 32.4 percent of Tuesday's vote to Sherman's 42.4 percent in the newly drawn 30th district, which includes a larger portion of Sherman's old territory.

To help him make up the difference, Berman already has made considerable overtures to Republican voters, analysts said.

"The great irony here is that the contest between two Democratic icons is going to be decided by Republican voters," said Dan Schnur, a onetime aide to former Republican Governor Pete Wilson and now director of the Jesse M. Unruh Institute of Politics at the University of Southern California.

On the flip side, Schnur said, was the race for the 24th congressional district along California's central coast, where a moderate Republican, former state legislator Abel Maldonado, won the right to challenge Democratic incumbent and first-place finisher Lois Capps by edging out a more conservative challenger, Chris Mitchum.

Schnur said the conservative activist and son of the late actor Robert Mitchum would most certainly have beat Maldonado in a closed primary. But now Maldonado, a Republican who bucked his party to support higher taxes in a budget once proposed by former Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger, will take on a Democrat in a district newly redrawn to virtually eliminate the strong registration advantage long enjoyed by Democrats, Schnur said.

FIGHT FOR HOUSE CONTROL

Democrats suffered a setback in the 31st district, where their candidate placed third, just 1 percentage point behind the second of two Republicans who will appear on the fall ballot. In a district that leans Democratic, there will be only Republican candidates to choose between in November.

"The Democrats are trying to get a lot of seats out of California in order to try to take back the (U.S. House) majority," Kondik said. "Here's one that they very well could have gotten that is now gone for them."

Democrats did make progress in one key U.S. House race where analysts had said they risked being frozen out of the general election should a Republican and a right-leaning independent candidate advance to the November polls.

Democratic state Assemblywoman Julia Brownley placed second and will face Republican state Senator Tony Strickland in November in California's coastal 26th congressional district.

Republicans control the House with a 242-190 majority, with three seats vacant. Outside of California and Illinois, Democrats are mainly playing defense, trying to hold on to seats they already occupy.

The balance of power in California's congressional delegation has long remained remarkably static and heavily Democratic, a function of district lines drawn by the Democratically controlled state Legislature to favor incumbents.

Such gerrymandering was a key factor in just one congressional seat changing political parties in 263 elections held from 2002 to 2010. And those seats, 34 currently held by Democrats, 19 by Republicans, have tended become increasingly occupied by lawmakers from the ideological extremes of their respective parties.

SYSTEM FAVORS MODERATES

A study conducted by researchers at the University of California at Berkeley, found that the new top-two primary system and redistricting gives moderate candidates for Congress a "small but significant" boost in vote share, according to Doug Ahler, a political science graduate student at Berkeley and a member of the research team.

Ironically, Ahler said, the new primary system also increases the votes congressional incumbents receive, an outcome that redistricting was ostensibly designed to mitigate.

"California is not going to send an independent to the Congress next year out of these 53 seats," Kondik said. "If the idea is to open up the process to more independents or more moderates, I don't know if there's much evidence of that from last night's results."

The moderating influence of the top-two primary and redistricting will become more obvious after the general election, and when the newly elected politicians actually take office, Schnur said.

Only 40 percent of voters had heard of the new primary rules before Tuesday's vote, according to Ahler, but 70 percent said they preferred the top-two ballot over the old partisan system.

(Additional reporting by Steve Gorman; Editing by Steve Gorman and Lisa Shumaker)

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