Friday, March 18, 2011

CONGRESSIONAL RACE MAY BE FIRST REAL TEST OF ‘TOP TWO’ PRIMARY

CALIFORNIA FOCUS
FOR RELEASE: FRIDAY, APRIL 1, 2011, OR THEREAFTER

BY THOMAS D. ELIAS
“CONGRESSIONAL RACE MAY BE FIRST REAL TEST OF ‘TOP TWO’ PRIMARY”

The first real test of California’s new “top two” primary election system will likely come on July 12, when two high-powered and well-known Democrats vie to replace the long-serving Jane Harman in a strongly Democratic coastal district of Los Angeles County.

The new system calls for the two top finishers in all primaries to face off in a runoff election, regardless of party. It also allows for outright victory by any candidate who draws more than 50 percent of the total vote in any primary.

It’s almost certain than neither of the two big-name Democrats – Los Angeles City Councilwoman Janice Hahn and California Secretary of State Debra Bowen – will win the seat outright in June. That’s because voter registration in the district is about 45 percent Democratic, 28 percent Republican and 22 percent decline to state, meaning there will almost surely be enough Republican primary votes to prevent any Democrat from getting an immediate win.

But if Hahn or Bowen, both proven vote-getters with enduring popularity at opposite ends of the district, can pull large numbers of independent voters, it’s possible this district could see the first-ever Democrat vs. Democrat runoff race at mid-summer.

There is, however, a wild card here. Leftist Democrat Marcy Winograd, a self-described “progressive” and a high school teacher who twice gave Harman stiff primary challenges (she won 37 percent of the Democratic vote in 2006 and 41 percent in 2010), could sneak into the runoff if she hangs onto most of the voters who previously went for her.

Hahn, who entered the race only moments after Harman announced she would move on to become head of the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington, D.C., has tried to position herself as the mainstream, pro-defense, pro-Israel Democrat in this race. Call her a “blue dog,” similar to the departed Harman.

Hahn, sister of former Los Angeles Mayor James Hahn and daughter of the late longtime Los Angeles County Supervisor Kenneth Hahn, won election to the city council three times with ease from the district’s southern portion centered on her city's harbor area and has strong name recognition throughout the district.

Bowen, meanwhile, lives in Marina del Rey at the north end of the district, but represented virtually all of it for eight years in the state Senate – because in California, state senators each have about 200,000 more constituents than members of Congress. So Bowen is well known and liked in all parts of the district she shared for years with Hahn and Harman. But her strongest support probably would come in the north end of the district, around the Venice, Marina del Rey and Westchester areas.

But Bowen lacks major endorsements. Ted Lieu, who won a February special election in the state Senate district with 57 percent of the vote in the first round, backs Hahn.

Plus, Bill Rosendahl, the liberal Los Angeles councilman representing the areas of Bowen’s base, was also quick to endorse council-mate Hahn, jumping on her bandwagon while Bowen – with almost four years to run in her term as secretary of state – was still mulling over whether to run.

Bowen, best known for cleaning up problems with California’s electronic voting machines, was a consistent liberal vote in the Legislature, in particular showing little sympathy for polluters.

The best-known Republican in this race is Mike Webb, the elected city attorney of Redondo Beach and a former city prosecutor. He’s almost certain to get at least 25 percent of the June vote, and will probably make the eventual runoff if Winograd splinters the Democratic vote enough to preclude an all-Democrat runoff.

Something similar happened early in March in Northern California’s fourth state Assembly district, where so many Republicans vied to replace new state Sen. Ted Gaines, who has moved into the state Senate, that a Democrat actually led the primary voting result in a rock-ribbed Republican district. So the runoff pits Gaines' Republican wife against a Democrat, rather than being GOP on GOP.

A Bowen-Winograd or Hahn-Winograd runoff race would surely test the premise that led to last year’s passage of Proposition 14, which set up the top two system. The idea was that in districts like this one, where voter registration heavily favors one party or the other, occasional races between rivals from within the same party could lead to election of more centrists.

It’s not known for sure just yet whether Hahn or Bowen will emerge as the more moderate Democratic candidate in this contest. But you can count on one trying to capture the bulk of Republican votes in the runoff, if and when they face off either with one another or with Winograd.

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Email Thomas Elias at tdelias@aol.com. His book, "The Burzynski Breakthrough," is now available in a soft cover fourth edition. For more Elias columns, visit www.californiafocus.net

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