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Essential Politics: How three pro-impeachment Republicans escaped Trump’s wrath in primaries

A woman extends her right arm and puts a thumb up outdoors.
Republican Sen. Lisa Murkowski of Alaska flashes a thumbs-up to a passing motorist while campaigning ahead of the Aug. 16 primary. The state’s top-four system has worked to her advantage.
(Mark Thiessen / Associated Press)

In a country that seems to grow more politically divided each month, lots of people have ideas for taming the partisanship they blame for getting in the way of solving national problems.

Many of those ideas are silly — like Andrew Yang‘s proposal for a third party that deliberately lacks any ideological content and doesn’t stand for anything other than not being one of the main parties.

But sometimes, a reform comes along that does what backers intended. That doesn’t happen often, so when it does, it’s worth taking note.

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Today’s topic: The top-two primary.

Quelling partisan fires

Partisan primaries provide the main way political candidates get chosen in the vast majority of states. They’re also powerful drivers of political polarization.

Especially when one party has a lopsided majority in a state or district, elected officials fear losing their primary far more than losing the general election. Because of that, members of Congress, state legislators, governors and others tailor their positions to appeal to the voters who show up for primaries. Those tend to be the most committed partisans — people on the right in the GOP and the left among Democrats.

Gerrymandered election districts, which are drawn as nearly as possible to guarantee one party’s success in the general election, worsen that problem by making the primary the only election that counts in much of the country.

That results in the election of officials who are more ideologically extreme than the average voter. That’s one of the biggest reasons why compromises that have broad appeal across party lines often get blocked in Congress or state legislatures if they involve any of an ever-expanding list of issues on which the parties have staked out opposing positions.

Sometimes, the power ideological extremists have to dominate primaries backfires and produces candidates who can’t win a general election. That problem can hurt either party, but has especially bedeviled the Republicans in recent years — Sharron Angle in Nevada and Christine “I’m not a witch” O’Donnell in Delaware in 2010 are outstanding examples.

That appears to be cropping up again this year.

In primaries for Senate and governor in at least half a dozen competitive states, Republican voters have chosen nominees with troubled personal histories and ones who stand far to the right of their state’s average voter, most often candidates endorsed by former President Trump. At least some of them probably will lose this fall, depriving the GOP of seats it might otherwise have won.

Pennsylvania provides the clearest example: The GOP nominee for the Senate, Dr. Mehmet Oz, and for governor, Doug Mastriano, both trail their Democratic opponents by sizable margins in recent polls. Mastriano has a strongly right-wing voting record as a state legislator, while Oz, a celebrity TV doctor, has no previous political experience and has been easy to ridicule as out of touch with Pennsylvania voters. The campaign is not over yet, but their prospects for recovery are dimming.

The likelihood that the Democrats will win the Pennsylvania seat held by Republican Sen. Patrick J. Toomey is a big factor in making strategists in both parties, as well as independent analysts, think the party has a better-than-even shot at keeping control of the chamber this November.

Even when primaries don’t trip up parties that way, they do routinely produce candidates far away from the ideological center of the electorate.

Take Wisconsin: The state is so closely divided between Democrats and Republicans that just 1 percentage point separates the two parties’ shares of the electorate.

But although the state’s voters are evenly balanced, “the candidates they have to choose from tend to be substantially to the left or the right of the average voter,” said the state’s leading pollster, Charles Franklin of Marquette University in Milwaukee.

The state’s two senators — Ron Johnson, one of the chamber’s most conservative Republicans, and Tammy Baldwin, one of its most liberal Democrats — illustrate the point.

Reducing the power of the ideological extremes was one of the main selling points in California when former Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger and others, mostly moderate Republicans, asked voters in 2010 to approve a ballot measure, Proposition 14, that set up the top-two primary system the state has used for the last decade.

The idea, borrowed from Washington state, is that all candidates appear on the same primary ballot, and the top two vote getters, regardless of party, advance to the general election. Because candidates can get votes from anyone, not just their own party members, they have an incentive to moderate their positions and appeal across party lines.

The results for candidates targeted by Trump this year delivered powerful evidence that the reform works as advertised.

Eleven Republicans who voted to impeach Trump were up for reelection this year — 10 in the House plus Sen. Lisa Murkowski of Alaska. Of the seven whose states have traditional partisan primaries, not one has survived — four bowed out without even trying. Most famously, Rep. Liz Cheney lost her primary in Wyoming this week by 37 points.

But four of the pro-impeachment Republicans come from states that have ditched the partisan primary — California, Washington and Alaska, which this year began using a top-four system that also includes ranked-choice voting.

Three of those four — Murkowski and Reps. Dan Newhouse of Washington and David Valadao of Hanford in the Central Valley, made it through to the general election. The primary structure allowed them to appeal to voters beyond the Trump faithful who dominate GOP primaries.

The top-two system didn’t accomplish everything that backers wanted: Schwarzenegger and his colleagues hoped it would provide space for moderate Republicans to survive in an increasingly Democratic California. That hasn’t happened, although the system does appear to have made life somewhat easier for moderate Democrats in the Legislature.

Nor does the system guarantee success for centrist candidates: In Washington, Newhouse won his primary, but Rep. Jaime Herrera Beutler, who also backed impeachment, lost. Like any system, it also has features that clever politicians can manipulate, as Democrats have proved in California, most recently in the June primary for attorney general in which they spent money to boost a conservative Republican, believing he would be easier to beat in the fall than a more moderate candidate.

And, of course, not everyone sees reducing partisan sway over elections as a worthy goal. In Washington and California, organized parties — including some small groups like the Libertarians, as well as the two major ones — fought hard against the top-two system, opposing it on the ballot and challenging it unsuccessfully in the Supreme Court.

For those who think voters may benefit from less partisan choices, however, this year’s results have provided powerful evidence that top-two is a reform that works, enough to win over some analysts who had doubted that the change would accomplish much.

“I’ve been a skeptic of it,” Franklin said. “But the evidence is increasingly coming in that it works.”

New statewide poll

We’ll be rolling out the results of our latest UC Berkeley Institute of Governmental Studies poll over the next week.

First up, Melanie Mason reports that by hefty margins California voters don’t want either President Biden or Trump to run again in 2024. And if Biden doesn’t run again, voters who can take part in the Democratic primary would favor Gov. Gavin Newsom over other possibilities, including Vice President Kamala Harris. In the Bay Area, where Newsom and Harris began their political careers, the governor would lead the vice president by 12 points, the poll found.

For more results from the poll, on key races and issues including abortion and attitudes toward the drought, look for more stories starting Sunday.

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The latest from Washington

— Biden signed the third landmark bill of his tenure into law Tuesday, as he and fellow Democrats pointed to the legislation as evidence that American government is working once again. As Eli Stokols reported, the new law’s nearly $400-billion investment in clean energy subsidies will mark the United States’ most serious effort yet to combat climate change. A cap on prescription drug costs will ensure that seniors on Medicare pay no more than $2,000 a year for their medications. And an extension on COVID-19 pandemic subsidies will lower healthcare costs for 13 million Americans.

— Now that the bill has been signed into law, Democratic lawmakers, Cabinet members and allied organizers and activists are kicking off a public relations campaign aimed at ensuring voters understand — and appreciate the benefits of — the $700-billion legislation, Stokols and Priscella Vega wrote. Top Democrats believe that popular, long-sought policy changes in the Inflation Reduction Act will help their party retain congressional majorities in November’s midterm elections. “It’s good to be back on the offense,” said Democratic pollster John Anzalone, who has longstanding ties to Biden.

Paul Rusesabagina became known as a rare hero in one of modern history’s ugliest chapters: the slaughter of hundreds of thousands of Rwandans in the 1994 genocide. His efforts to save people inspired books and a movie. But today, Rusesabagina is starting his second year in prison on a terrorism conviction in the country he said he once hoped to save. And because Rusesabagina is a legal U.S. resident, his fate, Tracy Wilkinson reports, has become a point of contention between the U.S. and Rwandan governments.

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The latest from California

— Los Angeles has rolled out its curbside composting program to an initial group of 40,000 homes. The program encourages residents to deposit coffee grounds, egg shells, moldy bread, spoiled fruit, uneaten lasagna and all manner of other kitchen leftovers in the green waste bins where they already dump their yard trimmings. As Jim Rainey reports, all of this may sound routine to many Bay Area and Orange County residents who have participated in residential composting programs for years. But because of its vast scale, Los Angeles could have a transformational effect on diverting food waste, experts say.

T.J. Cox, the former Democratic congressman from the Central Valley, was indicted this week on charges of swindling at least $1.7 million from business partners and several companies and allegedly using some of the money to help finance his narrow victory in 2018. The indictment didn’t come as a huge shock to those who have followed Cox’s career — questions about his finances have swirled around him for years and contributed to his loss when he sought reelection in 2020. Now, however, Cox is seeking to portray himself as a victim of political persecution. “Politics is a tough game,” Cox told reporters. “I wouldn’t be in this position but for the politics. I think we know that.” There’s no evidence to back that up, Mark Barabak writes, and “there is something sordid and cynical about pandering to those who believe the worst about government and its institutions,” especially when they’re already under attack from Trump and his followers.

— California hospitals have long sought to weaken legally required — and costly — seismic upgrades meant to ensure their doors can remain open to patients after a major earthquake. Now, Melody Gutierrez reports, the hospitals have a new and unexpected ally — Service Employees International Union-United Healthcare Workers West, which is supporting the watered-down seismic standards in a deal giving the employees it represents a wage bump. The last-minute alliance has infuriated other unions, which accused the Service Employees of making a backroom deal that skirts the legislative process and puts patients, healthcare workers and communities at risk.

— Five years ago, Los Angeles City Councilman Mitchell Englander took a fateful trip to Las Vegas with a clutch of businessmen and city staffers, accepting a free hotel room, expensive liquor and an envelope containing $10,000, among other things. That trip eventually led to criminal charges, a guilty plea and a 14-month prison sentence for Englander. Now, as David Zahniser reported, the Ethics Commission has levied a $79,830 penalty against Englander for violating city gift laws

— Two activists are suing real estate developer Rick Caruso’s company for the right to protest against the mayoral candidate at his flagship shopping mall. As Julia Wick reported, the lawsuit was filed Tuesday on behalf of leftist former mayoral candidate Gina Viola, the Youth Climate Strike Los Angeles group and Sim Bilal, an organizer for that group. Bilal and Viola had been denied permission to hold anti-Caruso events at the Grove, the developer’s open-air retail complex in the Fairfax district.

As Wick and Zahniser also reported, Caruso is engaged in a fight over plans to modernize and expand L.A.’s storied CBS Television City studios, located next to the Grove. The development battle could complicate Caruso’s message as a businessman focused on strengthening the region’s economy. And it raises questions about how Caruso, if elected, would respond to businesses whose activities are potentially at odds with his company’s interests.

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