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State GOP tries to craft its own mail-in primary before Prop 14. takes effect

After a contentious battle, Republicans settle on a strategy to blunt the effect of new open-primary law. They'll survey all GOP voters by mail and the top vote-getter will be the party's official candidate.

March 28, 2011|By Seema Mehta, Los Angeles Times

When the California Republican Party adopted a plan to survey the state's 5.3 million GOP voters to decide who should be their party's standard-bearer in future elections, the move provided a compromise ending to a contentious battle over how to blunt the voter-approved "top two" primary system.

But there are deep questions and some skepticism over whether the party will be able to afford and administer such an ambitious undertaking.

"I don't think it will ever be implemented," said Allan Hoffenblum, a former GOP strategist and publisher of the nonpartisan California Target Book, which handicaps legislative races. "They punted.… I wouldn't be a bit surprised to see the state party change its mind between now and June 2014."

The move, made at the California Republican Party convention last weekend, was prompted by Proposition 14, which changed the state's electoral system. Under it, candidates from all parties compete in a primary, after which the top two vote-getters compete in a general election — even if they are members of 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 last week, the candidate who wins a mail-in nomination contest will be listed as the official Republican candidate on party mailers and will have access to party resources. The plan beat out two competing proposals — one by party leaders in which a small number of insiders would anoint nominees, and one by elected officials where in most cases incumbents would be automatically endorsed.

Party officials plan to put together a task force to delve into how the mail-in balloting would be conducted, and they have some time — the measure goes into effect for legislative races in 2014, and for statewide contests in 2016.

"All we have right now is one very vague sentence, but it's moving us in the direction we all want to go," said Tom Hudson, a delegate from Placer County who supported the plan. "The devil is in the details, how a system like that would be funded and administered."

Yet re-creating a state primary by mail and educating the state's GOP voters about it is expected to be a herculean task.

"It's a very large logistical feat to try to emulate the role of the Registrar of Voters, to have to deal with everything — how do you print ballots, how do you mail ballots, deal with voter ID, make sure you don't have fraud," said Jon Fleischman, a former state party official and conservative blogger who opposed the plan.

Such an effort, Hudson said, could reasonably be expected to cost millions of dollars.

That's a problem — the party had just $280,000 in the bank as of the most recent state and federal financial filings, and some argue that limited resources could be better spent on registering voters and prodding them to the polls on election day.

"It is going to be a substantial expense at a time when the party can't count on robust cash flow," said Jack Pitney, a government professor at Claremont McKenna College and former national GOP official.

GOP consultant Dave Gilliard noted that soliciting donations for the effort costs the party money it does not have.

"It's not very realistic at this point," he said. "In a couple years, you never know."

Mike Spence, a conservative party activist and the architect of the proposal, disputed that his plan would cost millions, and said technology could drive down the price tag.

"There has to be an app for that," he said, noting, "I can deposit checks by my phone."

Ideas are also being floated about raising money through advertisements, candidates' fees for inclusion in ballot statements, donations from voters and sponsorships.

"Who knows, maybe the Anheuser-Busch primary?" Fleischman said.

seema.mehta@latimes.com

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