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Republicans vote to nominate candidates by mail to sidestep 'top-two primary' system

California Republicans vote to enact a sweeping end-run around the spirit of the "top-two primary" system adopted by voters as Proposition 14. The party decides to conduct a mail-in nominating process with all registered GOP voters before the primary election.

March 20, 2011|By Seema Mehta and Maeve Reston, Los Angeles Times
  • Mike Spence wrote the proposal to conduct a mail-in nominating process with all registered GOP voters before the primary election.
Mike Spence wrote the proposal to conduct a mail-in nominating process… (Lori Shepler / Los Angeles…)

Reporting from Sacramento — California Republicans voted Sunday to enact a sweeping end-run around the spirit of the "top-two primary" system adopted by voters, deciding to conduct a mail-in nominating process with all registered GOP voters before the primary election.

"This is going to energize the party because you are going to have candidates that have to organize earlier, they are going to have to talk to Republicans, they are going to be held accountable by Republican voters," said Mike Spence, the conservative party activist who wrote the proposal.

The move is an attempt to blunt the effects of Proposition 14, which changed the system to allow candidates from all parties to compete in a primary, after which the top two vote getters compete in a general election — even if the two candidates are from the same party. The ballot measure, approved last year, was intended to create competition and loosen the grip that the state's most partisan voters have on primary elections. Democrats are expected to take up the matter when they hold their convention next month.

Under the GOP measure approved Sunday, the candidate who wins the mail-in nomination contest will be listed as the official Republican candidate on party mailers and will have access to party resources.

Backers of the ballot measure acknowledge that the Republicans' move will expand GOP influence in the primary but said Proposition 14 will still influence elections.

"The top-two primary will force candidates to acknowledge all voters and all parties when they take positions," said Adam Mendelsohn, a GOP strategist who worked to pass Proposition 14.

Approval of the nomination plan came after a contentious weekend battle.

A conservative faction led by outgoing party Chairman Ron Nehring lobbied for a plan that would allow a small number of insiders to select nominees. Critics said that would lead to cronyism and the nomination only of strongly conservative candidates who would fare poorly in general elections.

Legislative and congressional leaders pushed a proposal in which incumbents would be automatically endorsed in most cases. That plan was criticized as self-serving; some said it would allow elected officials to stray from party ideals without consequence.

Ultimately, a third proposal emerged that called for allowing all 5.3 million registered GOP voters to cast mail ballots to pick a nominee before the primary, starting in 2014, and it gained steam after receiving the blessing of U.S. Rep. Tom McClintock (R-Granite Bay), an influential figure among party activists.

"It's inclusive, it is little-D democratic, and I think it will be a great revival of the Republican Party in California," he said at a late-night rules committee meeting Saturday.

The plan was narrowly approved there, clearing the way for a floor vote Sunday, when it was easily approved by more than 1,000 delegates on a voice vote. Details about how the party will conduct the mail balloting or how much it will cost remain unclear.

The stopgap measure for 2012, in which candidates must receive the blessing of two-thirds of the state board, means that few if any endorsements will be made next year because of the makeup of the 22-member state board, said former state party official and conservative blogger Jon Fleischman.

As the convention concluded, delegates also delivered a final slap to former Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, formally chiding him for shortening the voluntary manslaughter sentence of the son of former Assembly Speaker Fabian Nuñez, a Los Angeles Democrat. The move infuriated the victim's family, which was not notified beforehand, and the San Diego County prosecutors who won the conviction.

Incoming California Republican Chairman Tom Del Beccaro, meanwhile, vowed Sunday to defy the "naysayers" who question the state party's relevance after it failed to win a single statewide office last year.

Acknowledging the party's need to rebuild after crushing losses last fall as Republicans nationwide made major gains, Del Beccaro said he is embarking on a 20-city tour to try to reach California voters of all persuasions.

"Quite frankly, we have trapped ourselves into talking to the converted instead of inspiring a new generation of voters," he said.

seema.mehta@latimes.com

maeve.reston@latimes.com

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