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Tuesday, November 13, 2012

California: Effects of Redistricting and the Top-Two Primary

In 2008, California voters approved a ballot measure transferring responsibility for redistricting from the State Legislature to an independent commission. Two years later, they approved another measure giving the commission responsibility for drawing lines for the US House. Also in 2010, voters approved the "top two" primary system, in candidates for Congress, the legislature, and state offices appear on one ballot and only the top two vote-getters in the primary election – regardless of party preference - move on to the general election. The idea behind the process was to foster moderation by encouraging candidates to build cross-party coalitions in the primary.

So what happened in 2012?  Republicans had long advocated redistricting reform as a way to overcome what they saw as Democratic gerrymanders.  Under the new lines, however, Democrats won "supermajorities" (more than two-thirds) in both houses of the legislature. Time will tell if the top two process will lead to more moderation. 

In the House races, the most obvious effect of these changes was to create general election contests pitting members of the same party against each other.  And with redistricting, some of these contests involved two incumbents. 

  • CD30 (San Fernando Valley): Longtime Democratic incumbents Brad Sherman Howard Berman ran against each other.  Sherman won, mainly because redistricting tilted the new district in his direction.  The race also confirmed the old wisdom that civil wars can be the nastiest:  at one point, the confrontation got physical.
  • CD44 (Compton/L.A. Harbor):  Representative Janice Hahn beat Rep. Laura Richardson both in the primary and the general.  Richardson's main problem consisted of ethics problems and sloppy personal finances.
  • CD15 (East Bay): This is perhaps the clearest case of "top two" fulfilling its goal of fostering moderation.  Representative Pete Stark was a nasty piece of work, known for vile, bigoted comments against nearly everyone.  In a closed primary, he would probably have held his seat.  But in the general election, Eric Swalwell was able to gain Republicans and decline-to-state voters to rid Congress of Stark.
  • CD35 (San Bernardino County): incumbent Joe Baca lost to state Senator Gloria Negrete McLeod.  She is actually more liberal, but many Republicans supported her because they hate Baca for personal reasons.  (He once called a top local GOP figure a "political pimp.")  Michael Bloomberg also ran ads against Baca, but it's not clear why Baca was the target.
  • Two Democratic incumbents ran against token Democratic opponents: CD40 (East L.A. County) - Lucille Roybal-Allard vs. David Sanchez, and CD43 (South L.A. County) – Maxine Waters vs. Bob Flores.
  • CD8 (San Bernardino County): Thirteen candidates ran in the primary for this open seat.  The top two vote-getters were Assemblyman  Paul Cook, who received 15% , and Gregg Imus, who received 16% of the vote. Imus is, well, a Minuteman nut. The GOP establishment backed Cook, but Imus won 42%.  In a closed primary, it's possible that he might have outpolled Cook, so this district is possibly another win for top two.
  • CD31 (San Bernardino County): Incumbent Gary Miller beat state Senator Bob Dutton.  This district illustrated how top two can have unanticipated consequences. It leans Democratic, but Democratic candidates split the vote in the primary, allowing Republicans  to get the top two slots.