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California Republicans aim to avoid another top-two race that pits Democrat vs. Democrat

California Republicans aim to avoid another top-two race that pits Democrat vs. Democrat
California Republicans at the party's 2015 fall convention in Anaheim. (Allen J. Schaben / Los Angeles Times)

In an effort to avoid an embarrassing repeat of the Senate election in 2016, when no GOP candidate appeared on the November ballot, the California Republican Party may change its rules and pick sides in the primary.

Party leaders hope that creating an endorsement process for statewide candidates would allow GOP voters to unite behind a single person in a multi-candidate primary field, increasing the chances that a Republican wins one of the top two spots in the primary and makes it to the general election.

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Last year, then-state Atty. Gen. Kamala Harris won her party’s endorsement in the race to replace Barbara Boxer in the U.S. Senate. That endorsement came with a flurry of mailers, an army of volunteers and, most importantly, the ability to raise millions of dollars through a joint fundraising agreement. The California Democratic Party didn’t attack Democratic Rep. Loretta Sanchez, but Sanchez received none of the benefits of state party support. The two women prevailed in the top-two primary, thanks in part to nearly a dozen little-known Republican candidates who divided the vote.

"Democrats provide guidance by endorsing early, before the primary. One reason [for Republicans] to do this is to put us on equal footing and give us as good a chance as possible to make sure our nominee gets on the November ballot," said Harmeet Dhillon, the state's Republican national committeewoman and the author of one of two proposed bylaw changes that would allow a candidate to receive the endorsement if he or she is backed by 60% of delegates at a state party convention.

The proposals will be up for a vote in October at the California Republican Party convention in Anaheim.

The effort faces concerns about its effectiveness in a state where GOP voter registration is at a historic low of 25.9% — more than 18 points behind the Democrats — as well as potential backlash from activists who already are weary of establishment Republicans' influence on the state party.

Party Chairman Jim Brulte, perhaps the embodiment of the GOP establishment in the state, suggested that he prefers such decisions be made at the ballot box rather than in the convention hall.

"I think there's value in discussing endorsements," he said. But "as a general rule I trust voters more than I trust party insiders."

The proposals are an attempt to blunt the effect of Proposition 14, which changed California's election system so that only the top two vote getters in a primary advance to compete in the general election — even if they are both from the same party. Previously, a nominee from every political party represented in a race appeared on the November ballot. Last year's Democrat-versus-Democrat Senate race was its first real test of the new procedure statewide, and some Republicans fear a repeat performance in the 2018 gubernatorial contest.

Voters approved Proposition 14 in 2010 at the behest of then-Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger and others who argued that it would loosen the grip that the state's most partisan voters have on government. It applies to all elections except presidential contests.

The California GOP tried to create an endorsement process for statewide elections in 2011, when they voted to conduct a mail-in nominating system that would survey all registered Republican voters before a primary. But the effort was scrapped two years later because of expense and unwieldiness.

The renewed push comes as some Republican leaders are concerned that not having a GOP gubernatorial candidate on the ballot could dampen their party's voter turnout, which could harm their efforts to protect California House Republicans, whom Democrats are trying to oust to win back control of Congress.

There are signs that some Republican voters did sit out the 2016 Senate race because their party did not have a candidate on the ballot. Half of the state's likely Republican voters said they wouldn't vote for either Harris or Sanchez in a poll conducted by the Public Policy Institute of California. Ultimately, nearly 2 million more voters cast ballots in the presidential race than in the Senate contest, according to the secretary of state's office.

Clockwise from top left: Democratic California U.S. Sen. Kamala Harris, former U.S. Rep. Loretta Sanchez (D-Orange), former state Republican Party Chairman Tom Del Beccaro, businessman Ron Unz and former state Republican Party Chairman George "Duf" Sundheim.
Clockwise from top left: Democratic California U.S. Sen. Kamala Harris, former U.S. Rep. Loretta Sanchez (D-Orange), former state Republican Party Chairman Tom Del Beccaro, businessman Ron Unz and former state Republican Party Chairman George "Duf" Sundheim. (Los Angeles Times; Associated Press; delbeccaroforsenate.com)

In related fallout, delegates at the convention will consider a resolution to support the repeal of Proposition 14. It's a symbolic move since any real reform could only occur at the ballot box, but it too is causing a public spat.

Four former GOP legislative leaders are arguing that the top-two primary system should remain in place because it results in costly Democrat-on-Democrat races that drain resources they could otherwise spend against Republicans.

"Since when is a 200-million-dollar civil war among Democrats a bad thing?" former Republican Senate Leader Bob Huff and former Republican Assembly leaders Robert Naylor, Sam Blakeslee and George Plescia wrote in a letter to delegates.

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Former state GOP Chairman Ron Nehring countered that their arguments were "bizarre."

"Proposition 14 should be repealed — immediately — so every voter in California has the opportunity to vote for a Republican in general elections," he wrote to delegates. He described the choice between Sanchez and Harris as similar to "choosing between vanilla and French vanilla. A choice between two Democrats is no choice at all."

The endorsement issue has a greater chance of causing a dust-up at the convention, in part because of the makeup of the nearly 1,500 delegates who would ultimately vote on endorsements if the effort is successful. Elected officials and their appointees make up a large share of the delegates, buttressing the concerns of GOP activists.

Kim Sprague, a Republican volunteer from Ladera Ranch, opposes the effort because she believes it gives too much power to those who have overseen the dramatic decline of the GOP in California.

"I have not only zero trust in the establishment, but I blame them for a lot of our issues, so they are not the people I want making decisions for me," Sprague said, adding that she was sympathetic to the proponents' desires to boost Republican prospects in the top-two primary. "That's a legitimate issue, but we can't solve that between now and November."

Others question whether a party endorsement would have any real impact.

There would be a post-convention bounce and the accompanying media coverage shortly before absentee ballots are mailed to voters. The state party also communicates its preferred candidates to its members, and candidates could tout the endorsement in mailers and voters guides, as the Democrats do.

Jon Fleischman, an influential conservative blogger and former state party official, supports the effort but called it "milquetoast."

"It's really a glorified straw poll at convention, the bonus being able to say in the secretary of state's brochure that you've been endorsed by the party on Page 27 that no one reads," he said. "[T]his is really kind of an exercise in rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic anyway."

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