Few centrists advance in California’s new primary system

SACRAMENTO — California’s new voting system may have been designed largely to shake up the polarized state Capitol, but Tuesday’s election made it clear that the promised political earthquake will have to wait.

Despite newly drawn districts and a primary system that allowed cross-party voting — changes that backers said would produce more moderate lawmakers — California could face continued partisan brinkmanship, at least for a while.

Just a few centrists emerged Tuesday in contests marked by some of the lowest voter turnout in state history, less than 25%, according to the secretary of state’s latest tally.


A handful of GOP candidates succeeded by challenging their party’s anti-tax orthodoxy, which has long stymied budget talks, but they face stiff challenges in November. Several Democrats backed by the state’s business interests — and representing a potential check on the power of labor unions — also appear vulnerable.

Still, the increased competition was undeniable — and expensive.

Experts predict that the new primary rules will result in perhaps the costliest legislative campaigns in state history, increasing the power of the special interests that fund them. Spending by labor, business and other groups in support of candidates in dozens of legislative races approached $14 million, nearly double that of two years ago.

“Competition is expensive,” said Jack Pitney, a government professor at Claremont McKenna College. “If you want cheap elections, go Soviet.”

A San Fernando Valley Assembly contest became a showdown between teachers unions and charter school advocates. Business-friendly groups spent nearly $1.1 million on behalf of charter school executive Brian Johnson, a Democrat, against union-backed Democratic candidate Andrew Lachman.

The California Teachers Assn. countered with more than $467,000 aimed at defeating Johnson, who is clinging to second place by a few hundred votes over Republican Jay Stern. Democrat Adrin Nazarian clinched the top spot.

The new rules did roil traditional politics in some ways. Business interests that normally align with Republicans spent heavily to support Democrats in a number of blue districts. Labor, known as a loyal friend to liberals, opened its wallet to back a Republican in a conservative area.

“That by itself is something that could change the culture in Sacramento,” said Allan Hoffenblum, publisher of the California Target Book, which tracks state races.

Under the old system, candidates and interest groups appealed to their own party’s members, because the primary was restricted to partisan voters. Now, because contests are open to all voters and candidates — even if unaffiliated — those who were previously ignored can play a critical role.

That has given interests such as business and labor an incentive to make strange bedfellows. Some attempts were more successful than others.

The California Chamber of Commerce and California Realtors Assn. spent more than $660,000 to boost Democrat Tom Daly, the clerk-recorder for Orange County, against union organizer Julio Perez and Santa Ana councilwoman Michelle Martinez. Daly won comfortably and is a strong favorite to best Republican Joe Moreno in November.

A group pushing moderate candidates, backed by Republican millionaire Charles Munger Jr. along with dentists and real estate agents, spent more than $568,000 on behalf of centrist Republican Leslie Daigle in her race against conservative incumbent Allan Mansoor (R-Costa Mesa). Daigle finished a distant third in Tuesday’s vote.

The Service Employees International Union spent more than $155,000 in hopes of getting moderate Bill Jahn into a runoff against Assemblyman Tim Donnelly (R-Twin Peaks), a former Minuteman and self-described “tea party” Republican who railed against illegal immigration. But Jahn received just 19% of the vote in a three-candidate race, far behind Donnelly and Democrat John Coffey.

Tuesday’s results have also pitted candidates of the same party against each other in at least 17 legislative races, prolonging nasty and costly campaigns through the fall. Under the old system, those fights would have ended in the primary, with a cakewalk to November.

Democratic Assemblywoman Betsy Butler (D-Marina del Rey), who has already spent more than $625,000 on her reelection bid, now faces a tough race against Santa Monica’s Democratic mayor, Richard Bloom. Another Democratic incumbent, Assemblyman Michael Allen (D-Santa Rosa), who has benefited from more than $250,000 in outside spending, will try to beat back a challenge from San Rafael City Councilman Marc Levine.

On the Republican side, groups that have already spent upward of $250,000 on behalf of Republican Frank Bigelow will try to ensure his election against former GOP state Sen. Rico Oller.

Supporters of the new primary said the changes reintroduced what was sorely needed in California politics: competition.

“It’s hard to argue it’s a better system where the incumbent congressman has a huge war chest and nobody else has any money,” said Raphael J. Sonenshein, executive director of the Edmund G. “Pat” Brown Institute of Public Affairs at Cal State L.A. “At least now we can make him spend it.”