Thursday, September 17, 2009




It's become almost as predictable as the sun coming up in the morning. The California Republican Party appears about to shoot itself in the foot - again.

The GOP usually does itself in by taking positions that the vast majority of Californians oppose - anti-abortion, anti-gun control and more.

So bad are things that state Republicans now number barely 31 percent among all registered voters, compared with almost 45 percent for the Democrats. That's about a 3-2 advantage for Democrats going into every election, with the category of independent, decline-to-state voters now at about 20 percent and fast catching up to the Republicans.

But things are never bad enough that diehard conservatives in the GOP won't try to make them worse. Their latest proposal will be voted on at the party's state convention later this month in Indian Wells.

That's when delegates decide whether to exclude independent voters from their primary elections, both statewide and in district votes for Congress and the Legislature.

The reasoning for this, as expressed by longtime activists: Why let someone who doesn't care enough to join your family help decide the family's future?

There are, of course, lots of reasons why one might want to give decline-to-state voters a voice in a party primary. Here are two: If they're allowed to participate, they might eventually care enough about the party to join it. And academic studies have repeatedly shown that voters who cast a ballot for a candidate once are far more likely to do it again the next time they get a chance.

That's the reasoning Democrats have employed for the last decade, encouraging independent voters to take part in their primaries and then retaining the vast majority of those votes in November runoff elections.

Some Republicans understand this dynamic. State Sen. Abel Maldonado, possibly the party's leading moderate, calls the exclusionary plan "just crazy…I've never, ever seen a business…run by eliminating 25 percent of the market share. Anyone would walk away from that deal."

This kind of reasoning doesn't sway many Republican purists. "In most cases, the decline-to-states don't vote in either party's primary, anyway," says Stephen Frank, a former head of the conservative California Republican Assembly. "I just don't think people care about this."

They probably don't and won't - until primary Election Day early next June. Then some voters who like one or more of the GOP hopefuls for governor or the U.S. Senate and planned to vote for them might suddenly be told "sorry, you can't," at their polling places or find their absentee ballots include only local candidates and propositions, no Republicans.

How likely are they to vote Republican a few months later, in November?

Frank says it won't matter. "People don't care about this. They care about prison releases and taxes and health care and real issues. This is all inside baseball."

Democrats don't see it that way. They've actively courted decline-to-state voters. Since the two major parties combined in the late 1990s to get California's short-lived "blanket primary" system killed by federal courts, Democrats have invited independents to vote in every primary election.

"Democrats will continue to welcome decline-to-state participation in our primaries," said state party spokeswoman Kate Folmar.

Republicans saw the results of that policy - increased Democratic domination - in several elections, then began allowing independents into their primaries. But it didn't help them much in runoff elections, so now they may go back to their exclusionary ways, even though gubernatorial candidates Tom Campbell and Meg Whitman disagree with the conservatives.

Essentially, Republican delegates who vote to expel independents from their primaries will be saying they want to keep control of their own affairs, even if that makes them consistent losers.

The GOP (joined this time by party-line Democrats) will also firmly oppose next June's open primary ballot proposition, which would have all candidates in all primaries listed on the same ballot, with the top two vote-getters matched in the runoff, regardless of party affiliation.

None of this, say the die-hards, has anything to do with the party's minority status. Rather, they blame moderates like Maldonado who occasionally vote with Democrats to pass budgets or approve new taxes.

"As long as we help raise taxes and deficits, we will be a minority," insists Frank.

This may not make much sense in a state where the party constantly blamed by Republicans for big government and big spending also has the biggest numbers. But it's what most of the GOP apparently believes.

Which will make it no big surprise if the GOP again does itself in with the fast-growing corps of independent voters.

Email Thomas Elias at For more Elias columns, visit

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