SACRAMENTO — Last March, California voters granted themselves a bigger say in state politics by approving a mix-and-match system of primary voting that diminishes the power of party insiders and political activists.
On Saturday, Republican Party insiders and political activists, gathered in Sacramento for their state convention, talked about ways they could--and whether they should--try to snatch some of that power back.
At issue is Proposition 198, the so-called open primary law approved by 60% of California voters. The measure, vigorously opposed at the time by Republican and Democratic party leaders alike, would allow voters to ignore party labels and vote for any candidate in partisan primaries--just as in the general election.
Both parties are fighting the measure in court, on constitutional grounds. But on Saturday, the incoming state GOP chairman, Mike Schroeder, went a step further. He said the party would consider changing its rules so Republican nominees are chosen in a closed system, either at a statewide convention or at local party gatherings called caucuses.
Calling open primaries a "perversion of the Constitution," Schroeder insisted that the process would sap the creativity from politics by punishing candidates from the ideological wings of the party and favoring those of the more moderate, and mushy, middle.
"It's a question of allowing for a competition of new ideas, and Proposition 198 prevents that," Schroeder told reporters.
Open primary advocates disagree, arguing that Proposition 198 will reward pragmatism and place problem-solving ahead of ideological skirmishing, addressing one of the major frustrations of voters turned off by partisan sniping.
Separately, Democrats said they too might consider a closed nominating system if a federal judge rejects the lawsuit the major parties have filed against Proposition 198.
"Obviously, if we don't win the case this year, the party will have to meet and decide what to do," said Bob Mulholland, a political advisor to the state Democratic Party.
Speaking to reporters Saturday, Schroeder said he would direct the party's Rules Committee to study the open-primary issue and recommend a system for a members-only nominating process in time for a vote at the next party convention, in September. A ruling in the court fight is expected around November.
However, some Republicans expressed concern that the effort to override Proposition 198 would prove to be a public-relations disaster.
Gov. Pete Wilson, no stranger to fights with state party leaders, was among those who criticized the proposal. He was neutral on Proposition 198 during the campaign.
"What is wrong with it is that it doesn't allow [adequate] participation on the part of all Republicans," Wilson said of Schroeder's plan after addressing a luncheon gathering of delegates. "It creates a situation where . . . the process is not as broad as it should be."
California Republicans are coming off something less than a banner year. President Clinton swamped GOP nominee Bob Dole in November, carrying the state for a second time. Also, Democrats managed to win back control of the state Assembly and picked up seats in California's congressional delegation.
Moreover, Wilson continues to suffer dismal poll ratings, even as voter attitudes have become notably more upbeat about the future and direction of the state.
GOP leaders are particularly mindful of the drastic falloff in Republican support last fall among Latino and Asian voters, who supported Clinton in droves. A coalition of GOP ethnic groups hosted a well-attended diagnostic forum Friday, and both Schroeder and outgoing party Chairman John Herrington spoke of minority outreach in their opening remarks to reporters. A formal party resolution specifically called for greater efforts to cultivate support in the Latino community.
However, Schroeder is a central figure in a matter of particular interest to many Latino voters, the upset victory of Rep. Loretta Sanchez (D-Garden Grove) over longtime incumbent Republican Bob Dornan. Dornan has filed a lawsuit against Sanchez seeking to overturn the outcome of the election, alleging widespread voter fraud. Schroeder is Dornan's attorney in the case.
Acknowledging the potential for a backlash among Latino voters in the short term, Schroeder said opinion would ultimately change once his case was proved in court. "We're talking about outreach to Californians," Schroeder said of the party's efforts. "Not outreach to felons."