Tuesday, April 5, 2011




For the umpteenth time in the last 20 years, the extreme conservative activists who run California’s Republican Party have shot themselves in the foot. They have, that is, if they’re more interested in winning elections than merely retaining control of their own dwindling party’s apparatus.

The latest self-destructive move came at the party’s late-winter state convention, where activist delegates voted to stage an end-run around the “top-two” open primary election system that now allows all voters to cast ballots for any candidates they like, regardless of party. That system gets its first large scale test in the statewide primary set for next spring.

Here’s what the delegates decided: The GOP will send mail ballots to all the party’s registered voters starting in April or May of 2014, asking them to decide which candidates the party should endorse in the primary that June. The party – which has never previously endorsed in its primaries – can then throw support and money to those candidates.

Here’s the big problem (assuming this scheme ever comes off): Casual voters are less likely than die-hard conservatives to return those mail ballots, which means the party’s right wing figures to continue to dominate party choices, as it has in virtually all GOP primaries of the last 20 years. This has produced almost nothing but Republican defeats.

The difference between die-hard voters and the general electorate has been clear in every special election of the modern era – many fewer voters turn out in those elections and the outcomes have tended to favor conservatives and their causes more than general election results, where casually-interested voters are more likely to express their preferences.

All-mail balloting where voters must supply their own postage will tilt even further to the right than special elections or the Republican primaries of the past.

So virtually all candidates the party endorses from 2014 onward will most likely be extreme conservatives of the sort that are unlikely to win election in a state where Democrats outnumber Republicans by almost a 3-2 margin (44.6 to 30.1 percent in the latest count).

If that were all there was to it, this would mark no change at all for the GOP. It would be backing essentially the same kind of candidates who have lost every top-of-ticket race – except those involving Arnold Schwarzenegger – since 1994, and most lesser contests as well. Meanwhile, the party honchos expect to keep control of what little is left of their party these days.

But there may be more to it. For when primary election day (or absentee ballot-marking time) comes around, it won’t just be Republicans voting for Republicans anymore. Democrats will be able to vote for Republicans if they choose.

In districts where Republicans hold sizeable majorities – under the upcoming new redistricting plan, there will surely be some of those in places like Orange and San Diego counties and the largely un-urban counties of north-central California – at least some of the Democrats present will choose to vote for a moderate Republican in the primary if they believe such a candidate has a chance to make a runoff between the top two primary election vote-getters.

So the mere fact that the party’s most conservative elements back one candidate and award him or her the party endorsement might not scare off others. If other Republican candidates stay in, Democrats might become more likely to vote for a Republican bucking the party establishment than they would for many others.

When an upstart candidate like that manages to build a coalition of moderate Republicans and Democrats, the endorsed Republican just might lose an all-GOP top-two runoff. That, of course, is just what the open primary is designed to do – create more opportunities for moderates in both parties to form coalitions across party lines.

If and when that happens, that winner will automatically become a Republican state convention delegate with the power to appoint or influence the selection of others.

So the conservative Republican establishment may have set up a chain of circumstances that could eventually turn their party more moderate and get rid of the conservative clique that’s dominated it for many years.

Which would surely be a classic example of self-interested politicians shooting themselves in the foot.

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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