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Editorial

The GOP strikes back

Proposition 14 eliminated some party primaries. But Republicans are taking steps to retain their clout.

March 23, 2011

California's annual budget stalemates helped persuade voters to approve a series of ballot initiatives in recent years aimed at reducing the bitter partisanship and gridlock in Sacramento. Among them was Proposition 14, a measure passed last year that eliminated party primaries in races for the Legislature, statewide offices and Congress. Last weekend the state Republican Party responded by announcing that it would begin holding unofficial primaries in 2014 to nominate candidates before the official ballots are cast. It's no surprise that the party would take such a step in an effort preserve its influence, but the GOP's move won't necessarily undermine the new system.

Proposition 14 replaced party primaries with an all-comers preliminary election in which every candidate for an office competes. The two top vote-getters in that contest move on to the general election, regardless of party affiliation. By giving all of a district's voters the chance to select the top two candidates, though, sponsors of the proposition hoped to promote candidates with broad appeal, not just those who played to their party's most conservative or liberal factions.

Both major parties opposed Proposition 14 last year because they feared it would reduce their clout. At last weekend's GOP convention, several responses were considered. Some Republican leaders backed a proposal to let a handful of party insiders designate nominees, Politburo-style, in advance of the all-comers primary. A party committee rightly rejected that proposal, as well as a plan to give incumbents the nomination automatically. Instead, delegates agreed to pick nominees by canvassing registered Republicans in advance of the official primary.

Giving a nominee the party's imprimatur could bestow a crucial advantage in fundraising and name recognition. Nevertheless, the nominee's ability to compete in the general election will still be determined by every voter in the district, not just Republicans. That should preserve one of the most important benefits of the new system, which is to encourage officeholders to make pragmatic choices that advance the interests of their district as a whole, even if it would generate a fierce backlash from a powerful faction within their party. Under the previous system, a number of incumbents' tenures were cut short by just that kind of backlash in the party primary.

Democrats hold their convention next month, and they may also look for a way to tilt the results of the top-two primaries. But if they do, they should follow the GOP's lead and watch how Proposition 14 works in 2012. Its effect isn't likely to be as profound as supporters wish, but it's not likely to be as harmful to the state's parties as some might fear, either.

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