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California and the West | CAPITOL JOURNAL

A Voters' Primer on the Lessons of the Open Primary

June 04, 1998|GEORGE SKELTON

SACRAMENTO — OK, classmates, in this the year of education, what did we learn from Tuesday's election? What were our lessons?

Let us review. We saw that:

* California voters again turned up their noses at the establishment and political correctness. They love doing that, whether the issue is property taxes, illegal immigration, racial preferences or bilingual education.

All four major gubernatorial candidates and practically every newspaper denounced Proposition 227, but the voters endorsed it by a landslide margin. (L.A. Mayor Richard Riordan and Gov. Pete Wilson did back it.) When it comes to emotional issues, people ignore all the teeth gnashing and vote their gut. The No. 1 reason they supported Prop. 227, voters told Times Poll interviewers, was simply: "If you live in America, you should speak English."

* Once again, when the Legislature dallied and deadlocked--this time on bilingual ed--the people took lawmaking into their own hands. Our hired lawmakers never seem to learn this lesson.

* Voters also possess a keen sense of fairness. It is true that opponents of Prop. 226 saturated the airwaves with misleading ads. But in the end, I believe, voters rejected Prop. 226 because they considered it unfair to organized labor. It would have tilted the playing field to the right in labor's historic struggle with big business. To use a foreign policy term, it would have been "destabilizing."

*

California's first-ever open primary was embraced overwhelmingly by voters, the Times exit poll found. But the open primary--or "blanket" primary, if you insist--had no impact on the outcome of statewide races, not even Treasurer Matt Fong's squeaker win of the Republican U.S. Senate nomination.

Moderates created the open primary to help moderates win nominations. The theory was that centrist swing voters would cross party lines to bolster moderates in competitive races. But Fong would have won Tuesday even in California's old closed primary, the Times poll showed. He was supported by Republicans, as well as crossover Democrats and independents. Similarly, in the Democratic gubernatorial race, Lt. Gov. Gray Davis won big among Democrats and crossover voters alike.

* The open primary, however, created a huge headache for Atty. Gen. Dan Lungren. Although he had no serious opposition for the GOP gubernatorial nomination, the cinch winner still was forced to spend roughly $5 million to persuade Republicans to vote for him rather than cross over into the exciting Democratic contest. Studies in Washington state, which has an identical primary system, have shown that once voters cross over to another party, they tend to stay there in November.

On Tuesday, 25% of Republicans voted for one of the three leading Democratic candidates; half of them for Davis. But only 9% of Democrats voted for Lungren.

Lungren professes not to be particularly worried. "Republican voters knew I was going to be the nominee," he says. "I don't view them as a [lasting] loss. . . . I don't think that's wishful thinking."

*

Ah yes, the gubernatorial race:

* The next governor will be a white, male, 50ish, career politician--again. The difference this time is that voters decided it in the primary. Now, the November election can be focused on public policy--not a candidate's race, not his gender, not the freshness of a face.

For the first time this decade, Democrats have nominated a male to lead the top of the state ticket. For the first time in 20 years, they have nominated a white male for governor.

* Megabucks businessman Al Checchi was right about one thing, as was multimillionaire GOP Senate candidate Darrell Issa. Both had insisted that they were "no Michael Huffington"--the former Texas oil baron whom critics derided as "an empty suit." On Tuesday, they couldn't match up to Huffington, who won his primary and almost a U.S. Senate seat, nearly upsetting Democratic Sen. Dianne Feinstein.

* Checchi was the defining force in this gubernatorial race, the "fresh face" who will be written about for decades. He spent roughly $60 per vote; Davis perhaps $5. So the important thing is not how much money you have, but how you spend it.

Davis is the Israel Putnam of California politics. Putnam was the commander at Bunker Hill who decreed: "Don't fire until you see the white of their eyes." Standing firm against tremendous pressure from supporters, Davis saved his scarce TV money until six weeks before election day, until Checchi had wasted millions on attack ads and was self-destructing.

Davis held his fire until Checchi was especially vulnerable and didn't even realize it. And that, classmates, was the crucial decision--the turning point--of Davis' stunning victory.

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