THE BLOG
06/07/2010 09:05 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

California Primary Preview

Several states hold primaries this Tuesday, many of which may have implications beyond their state. For instance, the primary runoff election in Arkansas will likely be the closest-watched race (at least by Democrats), to see if challenger Bill Halter can pull an upset against sitting Senator Blanche Lincoln, who enraged many by her corporate-friendly work on the health reform. Other states will also have interesting races to watch, but today I'm going to concentrate on California's primary. Call me parochial if you will (I live in the Golden State), but there are a few California races worth watching tomorrow.

The biggest of these will happen on the Republican side, as challengers for governor and senator vie to become their party's nominees. But there are a few propositions worth taking a look at as well, although (spoiler alert) the one where voters will decide the legalization of marijuana will not be on the ballot until November. Sorry, we'll just have to wait a few months to see how that one turns out.

For now, let's take a look at a few key races which will be decided tomorrow.

 

Republican gubernatorial primary

Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger is term-limited this year, and therefore there will be an open race to replace him. Democrat (and former Governor) Jerry Brown has cleared the field of all serious Democratic opponents already, so he will skate to his party's nomination. The contest to see who takes him on in the fall from the Republican side has been a bruising and very expensive race, so far. The two main challengers on the GOP side are Meg Whitman and Steve Poizner.

Steve Poizner is a very wealthy former Silicon Valley executive who is actually a pretty liberal guy in normal times (he donated to Al Gore's recount effort, for instance), and is now trying to paint himself as an ultra-conservative Republican, to win the primary.

Meg Whitman is an ultra-wealthy former Silicon Valley executive who is actually a pretty liberal gal in normal times (she has donated to Barbara Boxer, for instance), and is now trying to paint herself as an ultra-conservative Republican, to win the primary.

That may sound a bit cynical, but it's been a cynical type of race.

Whitman has the bigger campaign chest -- she has already pumped over eighty million dollars (mostly of her own money) into just the primary race. Even in notoriously-expensive California, that is a jaw-dropping amount of money for just a primary, I should point out. Poizner realized this early on, and picked one issue that serendipitously has morphed into a big one for Republicans this year -- getting tough on illegal immigration. Really tough. Really, really tough.

While both candidates' ads have made much of how liberal the other candidate is, as well as exploiting perceived weaknesses in the other's record (read: sling that mud!), the main battle has been over immigration. All other issues, such as Whitman's pathetic voting record (she infamously used the excuse "I was busy" to explain why she apparently hasn't bothered to vote in any election for about the past three decades) have fallen by the wayside, as Poizner and Whitman vie to see who can lose a bigger portion (in the general election) of the 30 percent of the California electorate who is Latino.

This continues a broad tradition of California Republicans looking for short-term political gain by exploiting the immigration issue, but ignoring the long-term damage to their party which comes as the inevitable result of doing so. Jumping into this fray is even former governor Pete Wilson, who certainly knows a thing or two about how to exploit immigration fears (Wilson is a past master of this particular art form).

But while Poizner looked for a while like he was going to catch up to Whitman's huge lead in the polls among Republicans, his campaign seems to have topped out well below what it will take to win tomorrow. Whitman's money will likely carry the day, here.

Look for a hard pivot (immediately after the primary votes are counted) by the winning candidate to paint themselves as moderate as humanly possible, to have even a chance in the general election. Extreme right-wing Republicans have a hard time winning statewide contests in this very blue state, although that is the position demanded of candidates in the Republican primary. Jerry Brown's chances against either candidate will depend on how effectively either Poizner or (more likely) Whitman convinces us all that those forty bazillion television ads they ran for the primary were all just kidding, and that they're really quite a moderate Republican.

 

Republican Senate primary

Once again, the Democratic side of this race is not in question. Senator Barbara Boxer faces no challenger in her primary credible enough to defeat her nomination for re-election. Over on the Republican side, it's a bitter three-way fight.

Carly Fiorina is a wealthy former executive from Silicon Valley, a seeming trend this year among Republican candidates. Tom Campbell is a moderate Republican who has previously held office, a comparative rarity this year among Republican candidates. Chuck DeVore is also an experienced politician, but is running as an ultra-conservative Tea Party candidate with no real chance of winning tomorrow's primary (even the vaunted Sarah Palin endorsement went to Fiorina, I guess since Palin decided DeVore just simply didn't have a credible shot at it).

Campbell has the best chance of winning in November's general election against Boxer, who is seen as vulnerable by Republicans in Washington (although seen as much less so by actual Californians, it should be noted). But Fiorina looks like she's going to win tomorrow. Fiorina has pumped a lot of money into this race, although interestingly enough -- unlike the Whitman/Poizner race -- they seem to be concentrating their media buys on Republican areas of the state (I've talked to many San Francisco Bay area folks who cannot get within ten feet of a television set without seeing a Whitman or a Poizner ad -- but who have yet to see a Campbell or a Fiorina ad on their televisions).

The smart money on this race, as in the gubernatorial primary, is on the one with the most money -- Carly Fiorina. Campbell started with higher name recognition, but Fiorina has pulled well ahead of him in most polls. The irony here is that Campbell was originally running for governor, but jumped races because he was afraid of Whitman's bottomless supply of money -- only to be defeated by Fiorina's mountain of cash.

This is actually fairly good news for Boxer's chances in the fall. Campbell, being a true moderate, would have been much tougher to run against in November, but Fiorina's appeal among independents may be a lot more limited than many believe at this point. Fiorina ran Hewlett-Packard as CEO for a while, and her leadership is in serious question, both from former employees and from the general opinion within the business community (although there are voices, to be fair, that said she did a wonderful job there -- but there are many more that say she destroyed the culture of the company, including one of the founders' grandsons). DeVore may make a bigger splash tomorrow than the polls predict, but even if he winds up in second place, he's still only going to serve as a spoiler in the race, as few give him any chance of winning. Meaning the Tea Party's influence in California has been somewhat overrated by national pundits.

If, as expected, Fiorina wins tomorrow, she will be a formidable candidate because of her deep pockets (as with Whitman). But it will be a lot easier race for Boxer than taking on Campbell, because in the end, the further right the candidate in a general statewide election here, the harder it is for them to win.

 

Proposition 14

The first two propositions worth discussing here deal with elections and new methods of how they should happen. Since such tinkering with election reform can be exported to other areas, it's worth taking a quick look at them.

Proposition 14 would change the relationship between primary elections and general elections. California has experimented before with "open primaries" but (due to both major parties' disapproval) this reform was short-lived, and the state has since returned to a traditional primary system. Today, any voter is free to identify themselves as belonging to any particular party, or being not affiliated with any party. Voters can change this designation at will, as many times as they choose to fill out the paperwork. But whatever they are registered as around one month before a primary election, that is the party's ballot which they will get in that particular primary (independent voters get a ballot with no party races on them at all -- meaning they still get to vote on non-partisan issues like propositions). After the primary votes are counted, one candidate from each party advances to the general election in November, where they run against each other.

Pretty standard stuff, in other words. Proposition 14 would change all of this, although it would not really be an "open primary" that was tried before -- where any voter could walk into a polling place and request any one ballot from any one party, no matter what they were registered as. If Proposition 14 passes, all candidates will be on the same single primary ballot, regardless of party. But it goes even further -- candidates will no longer be required to list their party affiliation on the ballot. Only the top two vote-getters in the primary will advance to the general election, where write-in ballots will no longer be allowed.

The proponents of the measure say that this will result in moderate politicians being elected, to break the partisan gridlock in Sacramento (presidential elections will still operate as they do now, and will not change under Proposition 14). But, in reality, this is going to all but guarantee that the only candidates who make it to the general election will be either Democrats or Republicans. Third parties won't really stand a chance. Voters will only get the choice of selecting between either two Democrats, two Republicans, or one Republican and one Democrat -- with no write-in votes allowed -- in the general election.

The clause about not admitting party affiliation may sound strange, but California is a state where Republicans often don't include the word "Republican" in any of their advertising. The Republican brand is so tarnished, state-wide, that it's smarter for Republican candidates to attempt to downplay the fact that they're Republicans. There are regions of the state (as in most "blue" states) where Republicans have strong support, but in a state-wide race it's a liability for candidates to broadcast their party affiliation.

So, while some see this as an "open primary" experiment, it is such a restrictive process that the only real effect it will have on the ballot is to weed out third parties earlier, all but assuring that they never appear on the general election ballot.

 

Proposition 15

Proposition 15 would allow California to try public financing of political campaigns. This has been tried elsewhere, so it is not exactly a new idea, but would indeed be new for California. But it would be a limited test case, which would only affect the Secretary of State's office.

Proponents of Proposition 15 argue that it's worth trying public financing here, and it should be given a chance to work. The funding would come from raising fees on Sacramento lobbyists, they argue, and who likes lobbyists? It's a pretty straightforward public financing law, whose arguments have been repeatedly made in other places they've been tried, so I'm not going to rehash them here (other than to say I'd be willing to give it a try and see how it works, personally).

People against Proposition 15 point out that while it is written to only apply to the Secretary of State's election, it could later be expanded to all other state races without having to go back to the voters to get permission, since it would repeal an older law which expressly forbids public money being used in such a fashion. They also call the increased lobbyist fees as "higher taxes," and darkly warn that later on politicians could just raid other state money to pay for public financing of campaigns.

Other than these details, though, it's a classic public financing pilot program, which is limited to only one state office for the time being. Whether Californians' opinions have changed in 20 years' time (the law banning public financing was previously passed by the voters) will be interesting to see tomorrow night.

 

Proposition 16

Finally, a quick word on the most deceptive proposition on the ballot. Proposition 16 should really be titled the "Pacific Gas and Electric Company's Monopoly Protection Act," although PG&E flacks have their own cute Orwellian term for it -- the "Taxpayers Right To Vote Act." This is the poster child for special interests warping the California initiative process to achieve their own ends.

Proposition 16 would require any local town considering whether to buy cheaper (or greener) power supplies than provided by the giant PG&E to put the question to the voters. But -- although Proposition 16 will become law with a simple majority vote -- this would mean (due to the infamous Proposition 13 of the 1970s) that cities would have to gain a two-thirds vote in order to switch to green power suppliers. This, as it was designed, is an almost impossible barrier for any political issue to meet.

Meaning PG&E would consolidate its near-monopoly on power in California. Nobody could experiment with possibly-cheaper or greener electrical sources without two-thirds of their constituents supporting the idea. PG&E put this on the ballot themselves (big surprise, right?) and they're gleefully expecting it to pass.

But, although it can be seen as a local issue, it points out how the initiative process can be abused by one large special interest. PG&E took ratepayer money, put this on the ballot, and then unleashed a multi-million-dollar ad campaign in its support. Opponents simply do not have the deep pockets PG&E does (as a result, of course, of their ratepayers' money), and cannot compete with ads explaining why this is such a bad deal for California consumers. Because, in no uncertain terms, if Proposition 16 passes, PG&E wins and consumers lose.

 

To close on a positive note here, if you live in any state which has a primary tomorrow, no matter your political leanings -- DON'T forget to vote!

 

Chris Weigant blogs at:

ChrisWeigant.com

Follow Chris on Twitter: @ChrisWeigant

 

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