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Will the Early Primary Affect California's Other Races?

March 05, 2000|Steve Scott | Steve Scott is political editor of California Journal, a nonpartisan monthly magazine covering state government and politics

SACRAMENTO — Less than 48 hours after his comeback victory in the Michigan primary, Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) stood in front of a crowd of enthusiastic Sacramento college students and listened to a question. Given the controversy surrounding gay marriage, the young man wondered what the senator thought about Proposition 22, the California initiative that would outlaw such unions.

"Personally," said a tight-jawed McCain, "I would vote against it."

A minor buzz went through the assembled media. Had McCain, an ardent opponent of gay marriage, just taken a stance at odds with his legislative history? Well, as it turns out, he had, but it was an accident. Operating on two hours sleep, McCain had answered under the mistaken impression that Proposition 22 legalized gay marriages. When told of the actual wording of the measure, McCain proclaimed to reporters that he would vote "yes."

"I guess I don't know the California propositions as well as I should," McCain explained.

McCain's temporary befuddlement is excusable. Presidential candidates have never had to weigh in on California's quirky ballot propositions and contested local races this early. Neither, for that matter, have voters. But in an attempt to give the state a voice in the selection of presidential candidates, the Legislature relocated the primary from June to the first week in March.

The reaction of voters has been nearly euphoric, at least by recent standards. Goosed by McCain's upset victory over Texas Gov. George W. Bush in the New Hampshire primary, Republican registration ticked up for the first time since 1994. One poll showed that three of four Californians were paying attention to the GOP race. But all this new interest brings with it a mystery. How will a competitive primary affect other ballot contests? What, if anything, will those down-ballot combatants do for the presidential warriors?

It's difficult to find either a candidate or a consultant in these other races who has anything good to say about the accelerated schedule. They especially complain about raising money for political campaigns during the holiday season.

McCain's wins in New Hampshire and Michigan took care of the apathy factor, at least for Republicans. But with that heightened interest comes another problem: Suddenly, all their turnout predictions, used to decide how much to spend and where to target the all-important direct mail, were rendered useless.

"The budgets were all set up for one turnout model," said GOP political consultant Wayne Johnson. "Now there are all these [new] people who are not getting mail, not getting phoned, not getting talked to."

This new dynamic will only increase the advantages of GOP candidates with name recognition, such as U.S. Senate candidate Tom Campbell. Candidates with the ability to raise and spend more on direct mail and media buys will also be helped by the surge of interest in the GOP contest, a delicious irony given McCain's signature advocacy of campaign-finance reform.

Strangely enough, the biggest fallout from increased Republican participation may occur in contested Democratic primaries. Because the state's blanket primary allows voters to cast ballots for anyone in any race, all these freshly minted voters could go shopping for the most interesting contest. State Sen. Hilda Solis (D-El Monte) has directly appealed to Republicans in her upstart bid to unseat longtime incumbent Rep. Matthew G. Martinez (D-Monterey Park). In the pitched battle for a Westside state Senate seat, supporters of liberal Democratic Assemblyman Wally Knox (D-L.A.) have criticized opponent Assemblywoman Sheila J. Kuehl (D-Santa Monica) for her ties to the state's trial lawyers.

For most of the ballot propositions, the impact of the early primary was felt long before the Straight Talk Express emerged from the presidential roundhouse. Initiative advocates had to race to place their issues before voters. The record $42-million campaign to qualify Propositions 30 and 31--referendums to decide the future of new laws expanding the right to sue insurers--was made necessary, in part, by the desire of the insurance-company benefactors to get the issue before voters sooner rather than later. Other propositions were forced to boost their fees to signature gatherers to as much as $4 a signature to ensure a spot on the March ballot.

Yet, most political observers believe the surging interest in the GOP presidential contest will not influence the fortunes of any of the ballot propositions. Consider Proposition 25, the campaign-finance-reform initiative backed by millionaire gadfly Ron K. Unz. Despite McCain's political identification with campaign reform, and his early endorsement of the measure, the proposition has actually lost ground in the most recent statewide Field Poll.

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