Thursday, January 27, 2011




When all its candidates for statewide office lost in last fall’s election, most by large margins, it was easy to presume that the California Republican Party was left with no “bench,” no corps of promising potential future candidates from which to draw in future votes.

But the conventional wisdom may be wrong on this count, as it often is. For California’s political system is in for a major shakeup in the next two years. That’s partly because the new congressional and legislative district lines to be drawn by a citizens commission are likely to throw many current officeholders into new and competitive districts, often with two or three incumbents forced to compete against each other.

This, of course, could force some existing members of Congress to seek other offices – like the statewide ones swept this year by Democrats. But the open primary system that’s scheduled to debut next year could have even larger implications in those same statewide races for governor, lieutenant governor, attorney general, controller, insurance commissioner and treasurer.

The new system will let all voters opt for anyone they like in primaries, meaning Democrats can cast ballots for Republicans if there is no serious contest in their own party’s race – as when Gov. Jerry Brown ran last spring – and Republicans can vote for Democrats. Party registration may not mean so much anymore, even in fall runoff elections, for study after study has shown that when people vote for a candidate once, they are comfortable doing it again and again. So Democrats who vote for a Republican in the spring might well vote Republican in the fall, too. And vice versa.

This bodes extremely well for two Republicans who lost last year: Steve Poizner and Abel Maldonado. Maldonado, appointed lieutenant governor last spring by then-Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, never even would have made the ballot if he’d had to run in a Republican primary. The few other GOP legislators who, like him, voted for a 2009 budget compromise with Democrats, became anathema to their party and were defeated or had extremely close calls in their primary contests.

Poizner, a billionaire Silicon Valley entrepreneur who spent 25 million of his own dollars seeking the GOP nomination for governor a year ago, only to be outspent 3-1 by fellow billionaire Meg Whitman, would have run very differently had he not faced a partisan primary.

Rather than run to the right, as he did by taking a firm stands against any sort of immigration amnesty and opposing measures aiming to mitigate global warming, Poizner in an open primary could have been the moderate Republican he always was before, both as a state Assembly candidate in 2004 and as insurance commissioner the last four years.

Meanwhile,Maldonado may be his party’s best hope for denting the huge Latino majorities that have provided the Democrats their winning margins in every top-of-ticket race of the last 17 years that didn’t involve a movie star. He’s actively urging the party to abandon its firm stance against any kind of immigration amnesty, pointing out that it makes no sense to antagonize the fastest growing voting bloc in the state and nation. And his Latino heritage could draw a lot of Democratic crossover votes next time he runs for something – which he will surely do.

Poizner, meanwhile, talks openly about future political involvement. “I am actively looking for ways to help California get back on track,” he says. “I could run for the U.S. Senate next year, but only if (Democrat) Dianne Feinstein doesn’t. But I’m more comfortable in a situation where I can run something, like I did in the insurance department.”

Poizner ran that office in as consumerist way as most Democrats would have. He spurred rate reductions from companies like Allstate and AAA, and he created the new “pay-as-you-drive” car insurance system where some companies now let drivers pay less if they drive less. “That’s a way to save people money and to accomplish something for the environment by getting a lot of drivers off the road and onto public transportation,” he said.

Poizner is one who hopes the next crop of major GOP hopefuls doesn’t include many self-funded super-wealthy candidates. “People that are successful in business don’t naturally make the transition to politics, where so much is public and you can’t be autocratic,” he said.

That's why he sought lower offices before running for governor. “I’m now a much more seasoned politician, well aware that everything you’ve ever said or done can be used against you,” he said.

The bottom line: California Republicans are not bereft of quality potential candidates for the state’s top offices, and the new open primary might also push the party toward moderation. Which could at least give it a chance in this state where registered Democrats far outnumber Republicans.

Email Thomas Elias at His book, "The Burzynski Breakthrough," is now available in a soft cover fourth edition. For more Elias columns, visit

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