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California candidates set to battle in new political landscape

The changed primary system and new legislative and congressional districts will probably yield intraparty fights and a lack of third-party hopefuls on the fall ballot. More contested seats are possible too.

March 18, 2012|By Jean Merl, Los Angeles Times
  • The marquee contest this year is the costly, nationally watched showdown between Democratic Reps. Howard Berman, left, and Brad Sherman, right, for a San Fernando Valley congressional seat.
The marquee contest this year is the costly, nationally watched showdown… (Jay L. Clendenin / Los Angeles…)

Filing has closed, the candidate lists are final and the curtain has risen on California's reconstructed political stage, where the contests for 153 congressional and legislative seats will play out for the first time under new rules and in altered districts.

Look for intraparty fights that will last into the November runoffs, a likely lack of third-party candidates on the fall ballot and, possibly, a larger number of contested seats, compliments of a new primary system and a redrawing of political maps that did not seek to protect incumbents.

Voters authorized the two new wrinkles in this year's elections. In 2010 they approved Proposition 14, which requires that all candidates, regardless of party, appear on a single ballot received by all voters. Only the candidates who finish first and second in the June 5 primary will move on to the Nov. 6 general election, all but eliminating the chances of most third-party candidates, who used to be granted a spot on the runoff ballot no matter how poorly they fared in the primary.

In 2008, voters stripped the Legislature of the responsibility for redrawing political boundaries for state Senate, Assembly and Board of Equalization seats and gave the job to an independent citizens commission. Two years later, voters added California congressional districts to the commission's task.

The citizens group was charged with adjusting boundaries for population shifts since the previous census, and was prohibited from taking into account a lawmaker's home and voter registration — rules aimed at eliminating the gerrymandering that the Legislature had done to protect incumbents.

Backers sold all three measures to voters as reforms that would foster the election of more political moderates and help break the partisan gridlock in Washington and Sacramento. But it will probably take at least a couple of election cycles before the effects will become apparent, political scientists and government watchers say.

"Nobody really knows how it's all going to work out," said John J. Pitney Jr., professor of American politics at Claremont McKenna College.

Because a fair number of incumbents are on the ballot and many are favored to win, "we're not going to see strong partisan Republicans and Democrats suddenly swing to the middle," Pitney said. But there's one thing he's sure of when it comes to the new primary system:

"It means a lot more business for political consultants."

Successful candidates will need to appeal to a broader swath of voters and can no longer restrict their primary campaign spending and activities to members of their own party, Pitney said. "Trying to identify who is going to vote for you is tricky."

The marquee contest this year is the costly, nationally watched showdown between Democratic Reps. Howard Berman and Brad Sherman for a San Fernando Valley congressional seat. The contentious battle started even before the redistricting commission finished its work, which last summer put the two seasoned lawmakers' homes into the same district. Neither would consider running elsewhere. (Members of Congress are not required to live in their districts.)

There are several other intraparty fights. Democratic Reps. Janice Hahn and Laura Richardson are duking it out for a district that stretches from San Pedro north through central and eastern Los Angeles County. Open Assembly seats in heavily Democratic districts on Los Angeles' Westside and Eastside and in the San Fernando Valley have at least three same-party contenders apiece. Most observers expect that all these races will head into the November runoff with two Democrats on the ballot.

And the redistricting has helped lead to a number of seats that could be won by either a Democrat or a Republican and are being eyed by both parties. They include open congressional seats in Los Angeles, Ventura and Riverside counties.

Republicans also will try to take out Democratic Reps. Lois Capps of Santa Barbara, John Garamendi of Walnut Creek and Jerry McNerney of Pleasanton. Democrats have targeted Republican Reps. Dan Lungren of Gold River and Jeff Denham of Atwater. Both national parties are counting on wins in California as they fight for control of the House of Representatives this fall.

Redistricting also produced at least one swing district in the Assembly — the 66th in the South Bay. Registration is nearly evenly divided between Democrats and Republicans, and both parties are expected to fight hard for the seat.

Other two-party battleground districts may emerge after the primary, once the November combatants are known and as the presidential election, which often affects turnout, draws nearer.

jean.merl@latimes.com

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