State Republican Party leaders seek to hold onto clout despite open primary

Reporting from Sacramento -- The major political parties are scrambling to blunt the effect of the “top-two” voting system that Californians approved at the ballot last year.

Party bosses’ bid to retain their clout, which the new “open primary” was intended to dilute, comes to a head for the state GOP this weekend.

At the party’s convention, which opens Friday, a group of conservatives including the California party chairman wants to codify the power to crown their party’s nominees with early endorsements — long before voters even cast their first ballots for statewide, congressional and legislative offices.

Such a move would pit the activists against the GOP’s leading congressional and state legislators, and help preserve the most conservative members’ hold on the party machinery. Democrats will tackle the nomination issue at their convention next month.


“A reform designed to move California politics to the center may actually move it a bit more to the extremes,” said Thad Kousser, a political scientist at UC San Diego.

Normally, the parties keep their powder relatively dry until after voters nominate candidates in primary elections. Candidates campaigning in primaries often tack toward the radical wings of their parties, which tend to control the organizations.

The new system was meant to end that. It replaces primaries for each party with a single one for all candidates of all affiliations, open to all voters. The top two finishers, regardless of party affiliation, face off in a general election. Party leaders were so worried about the change that they laid the groundwork for an end-run around the ballot measure last year, even before voters approved it.

Party endorsements typically come with money, mailers, TV ads and voter-canvassing efforts that can help favored candidates edge out rivals. Early endorsements would give party officials a tool for shaping races early and more leverage over incumbents, Kousser said.


The effect could be felt most immediately in Sacramento, where fear of party retribution, among other factors, has kept Republicans from compromising with the Democrats who control the Legislature.

For example, Democratic Gov. Jerry Brown wants voters to bless his plan for billions of dollars in tax extensions to help balance the state budget, and he needs some Republican support to place the issue on the ballot. Conservative GOP activists are campaigning hard against Brown’s proposal, and the continuing threat that the party’s backing could be yanked at reelection time and transferred to a challenger can act as a cudgel.

“It’s a way to punish people who cut a deal with Jerry Brown,” Kousser said.

The ramifications of early endorsements could be especially significant for the GOP in largely Democratic California. Republican registration in the state has steadily declined over the last two decades, and some leaders fear further erosion if the conservative core continues to dominate the party.


But state Chairman Ron Nehring said the new voting system, which he called a “cockamamie scheme to make political parties irrelevant,” has left him and other officials little choice but to impose early endorsements.

“There is no functioning democracy on the planet without vigorous political parties,” Nehring said. “Democratic elections require political parties for the same reason that football requires teams: Without them, there’s chaos.”

All but three Republicans in the Legislature oppose the endorsement idea, saying it would hurt the party’s ability to expand its elected ranks. In a letter to convention delegates this month, the GOP’s leading legislative and congressional members offered a competing proposal aimed at protecting incumbents and limiting endorsements to rare circumstances.

“Voters are better suited to picking our best candidates than small groups of insiders are,” they wrote. “This is how our candidates and party continues to reflect the concerns of the broad base of Republican voters.”


Others worry about the effect of early endorsements on party moderates.

The open primary is “about getting reasonable people to go to Sacramento and not be afraid of governing,” said former Lt. Gov. Abel Maldonado, a Republican from Santa Maria who as a state senator leveraged his budget vote to get the new system on the ballot.

Republican candidates seeking party backing in an open primary would still be forced to woo the conservative core rather than appeal to the wider electorate. Under the activists’ proposal, a relatively small group of party insiders would select a nominee.

Some of the most conservative lawmakers say they’ll work within the open primary system so that voters choose nominees, even if that means more moderate candidates.


“We need to grow this party,” said state Sen. Tony Strickland (R-Thousand Oaks), who has been working to broker a compromise with party officials before the convention opens.