Winners Take All

Runoffs, independents and the open primary

Back Commentary May 1, 2012 By Tony Quinn

California’s polls will look decidedly different in June. Instead of the customary partisan primary ballots, this year’s options will include all the candidates for a particular office, and voters can choose any candidate, regardless of their own party registration.

This system is known as an open primary, and it’s not new to California. The practice was in place here from 1998 through the 2000 election when the Supreme Court declared it unconstitutional. The current scheme adds a new twist that fixes the glitch: There will be no party nominees. The fall election will not include the official Democratic and Republican selections; instead the top two candidates from the primary will face-off in November.

Two important consequences are likely: First, there is a real possibility that the November election for some offices will include two candidates of the same party. In the Placer/El Dorado area’s 4th Assembly District where incumbent Republican Assemblywoman Beth Gaines is seeking re-election, her main opponent seems to be fellow Republican Andy Pugno, who lost a Sacramento-area Assembly race in 2008. It is possible the two Republicans will square off in November.

The “open primary/top-two runoff,” as it is officially known, also provides an opportunity for independent candidates to compete in the general election, which was nearly impossible before. An independent now simply needs to make the top-two runoff to secure a slot on the November ballot. There are three interesting California contests in which this phenomenon might occur.

The 19th Congressional District consists of Stanislaus County and the southern part of San Joaquin County. Freshman Republican Rep. Jeff Denham will seek re-election in this Republican-leaning district, but Democrats think they have a strong contender in former astronaut Jose Hernandez, who was urged to run for the seat by no less than President Barack Obama.

It’s logical to assume the November runoff would include the strong Republican incumbent and presidentially blessed Democratic challenger. But not so fast.

There is a real possibility that the November election for some offices will include two candidates of the same party.

Enter independent Chad Condit. Condit has a famous name in this Modesto-based district; his father, Gary Condit, was a popular Democratic congressmen here until he lost his seat in 2002 as a result of his involvement with Washington, D.C., intern Sandra Levy, who went missing and later was found murdered. Gary Condit had nothing to do with her killing, but his involvement with her cost him his re-election.

Democrat Hernandez also is moving into District 19 to run and so has no direct ties there, but he is the favorite of the state and national Democratic organization. Will that be enough to assure him a place in the runoff? Or can Condit, a local candidate with a well-known name, win enough Democratic votes to put him in the runoff as an independent? June will tell.

The same thing is true in Ventura County’s 26th District, which leans Democratic but where the leading Democratic candidate, a county supervisor, decided not to run. The Democrats have rallied around Assemblywoman Julia Brownley, who represents part of Ventura County in the Assembly but does not live in the district. Republicans, meanwhile, support state Sen. Tony Strickland, who gave up a Senate re-election bid for a shot at Congress.

But a strong independent also has filed, Ventura County Supervisor Linda Parks. Parks changed her party registration from Republican to “no party preference” so she could run as an Independent. On the Board of Supervisors, she has often sided with the more liberal members, so her election strategy is to pick off centrists and somehow make the runoff against either Brownley or Strickland. Will it work? We shall see.

Finally there is the unusual situation in the very Republican 8th Congressional District that covers much of the San Bernardino County desert. Longtime GOP Rep. Jerry Lewis is retiring, and that has set off a rush of wannabes for this safe seat. Ten Republicans with various political bases within the district are running, but there is an interesting independent candidate as well: former Republican Assemblyman Anthony Adams of Hesperia.

Adams was a key vote for a tax increase favored by Democrats and former Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger in 2009, and for that he was nearly recalled and forced to forego re-election to the Assembly. So now he is running for Congress in the GOP seat, but not as a Republican; he too is running with “no party preference.” There is a nominal Democrat in the race, but if enough Democrats cross over to vote for the Independent Adams, he might have enough votes to make the runoff against one of the 10 Republicans.

Voters tell pollsters they are sick of partisan gridlock, and more people than ever are registering as independent. Now, at least in these three races, we have a chance to see if the electorate that says it wants to shun partisanship really means it.

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