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Opinion, Election, Santa Monica, Columnist

Jury Still Out On Top Two Producing More Moderates

Thomas B. Elias, Columnist
Santa Monica Mirror Archives
Thomas B. Elias, Columnist

Posted Jun. 30, 2012, 2:05 am

Tom Elias / Mirror Columnist

Will the instinct for survival trump ideological purity among California politicians?

That’s the major question still remaining about the “top two” primary election system adopted by this state’s voters in 2010, which got its first full-scale tryout in the June primary election.

Wolves have been out in force, baying their complaints from the moment the primary’s results became known. Their major complaint: The new system, which saw the top two vote-getters in each legislative and congressional district make their way into this November’s general election runoffs, did not produce many moderates.

Didn’t it? On the surface, maybe not. But that won’t necessarily be the way things stay. Take the 31st congressional district, located entirely in San Bernardino County. Democrats have a 45-31 percent voter registration advantage in that district, but two Republicans, the carpetbagging incumbent Gary Miller – he moved from a neighboring district to avoid facing fellow GOP incumbent Ed Royce – will square off against Bob Dutton, former GOP minority leader in the state Senate.

Between them, the two Republicans netted just under 52 percent of the primary vote on a day when not many Democrats turned out. But Democrats will be out in force in November, when many more key issues, plus a presidential election, will share the ballot with Dutton and Miller. Even in June, Democrats got over 48 percent of the district’s vote. So neither Republican can win this fall without taking a lot of Democratic votes.

Both Miller and Dutton have long been conservative ideologues. But that’s where political survival instincts may enter: If this race continues as tight as it was in the primary, one of these men may look to Democrats as the key to victory. Once a dialogue with Democrats begins, it’s reasonable to expect one or both of these candidates to moderate their tough stances on immigration, labor issues and more. For with Democrats needed to win, the Republican base will be less important.

There will also be checks on the future behavior of the winner. If that person votes only the GOP party line in Washington, he will surely face very strong Democratic opposition in the next top two primary, in 2014.

So survival issues alone could make one of these longtime right-wing Republicans into a de facto moderate.

The same for Democrats, who will vie in the great majority of fall races with same-party matchups.

Take Assembly District 50, where incumbent Democrat Betsy Butler faces Santa Monica’s ultra-liberal Mayor Richard Bloom in a district that also covers much of West Los Angeles and Malibu, then crosses the Santa Monica Mountains to Agoura Hills. Butler won the primary over Bloom by less than 200 votes, while Bloom eked into the runoff by about 700 votes over the third-place finisher. Bloom appears likely to go after the 24 percent of primary voters who went for an even more liberal candidate in June, but Butler reportedly made quick overtures to Republicans. Within less than two weeks after the primary, for example, she had already spoken with realtor groups that normally back the GOP, said a member of the Santa Monica Board of Realtors.

So it’s plain the liberal Butler knows she needs Republican votes to win. She may not have been a moderate before, but who knows that that will do to her voting behavior if she wins a second term in Sacramento?

And there’s the 26th Congressional District, where Democrat Julia Brownley needs many of the 18 percent-plus of voters who went for independent Ventura County Supervisor Linda Parks in June. With conservative Republican state Sen. Tony Strickland pulling more than 44 percent of the primary vote to Brownley’s bare 26 percent, she can’t win without a lot of Parks voters.

She’ll only get them if she can convince them she’ll be a more independent voice in Congress than she’s been as a down-the-line liberal in the Legislature.

The same dynamic can also work in places like the 15th Congressional District in Alameda and Contra Costa counties, where longtime Democratic Rep. Fortney (Pete) Stark faces intra-party rival Eric Stalwell, who polled just five points less than Stark in June, when an independent got 21 percent of the vote.

Those independents are now key to the outcome, and both Stark and Stallwell know it. Will Stark, a stalwart liberal for his entire 39-year tenure, make any departures to attract them? Will he have to behave differently if reelected than he has up until now?

The upshot is that while known moderates may not have fared all that well in the new primary system, at least two dozen races all across the state still have the potential of changing the way candidates campaign and the way at least some of them will behave in office.

So the top-two critics are blasting away far too soon. Only when we’ve seen the effects of candidates’ need to reach outside their parties for a full term or two will we really know what the new system has wrought.

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