Thursday, April 26, 2012




As the “top-two” primary election system embodied in the 2010 Proposition 14 was being debated exactly two years ago, backers tried to comfort skeptics by pointing out that Californians already had experience with the system. The two leading vote-getters, they noted, have long advanced to runoffs whenever there’s been a special election anywhere in California.

          And that’s essentially true. The top-two, or “jungle primary” system voters adopted for themselves and will use for the first time next month, will put the two leading finishers in every legislative and congressional race into November runoffs, regardless of their party affiliation.

          But U.S. Sen. Dianne Feinstein appears about to expose one wasteful difference between the new primary system and the way special elections have long operated: In special elections, if one candidate gets more than 50 percent of the first-round vote, there’s no runoff. That candidate simply wins. Not so with the new primary setup. No one running for Congress will win outright next month.

          The 78-year-old Feinstein has exposed that weakness – a result of the Constitutional requirement that members of Congress be regularly elected in November – because she’s essentially scared off all substantial opposition in her fourth run for reelection to the U.S. Senate.

          Feinstein’s position contrasts sharply with where her friend and colleague Barbara Boxer was as she ran for reelection two years ago. “I have to essentially reintroduce myself to the electorate every six years,” Boxer said then. “There are so many new voters, it makes each run different.”

          Boxer also has a reputation as one of the most vulnerable members of the Senate, perpetually drawing well-funded GOP opponents like her last one, former Hewlett-Packard Corp. CEO Carly Fiorina. Yes, Boxer has beaten them all off since getting elected in 1992, but it’s never been simple or easy.

          Feinstein, on the other hand, has not been seriously challenged
since she ousted appointed Republican incumbent John Seymour in the same year. (Feinstein was first elected to serve the last two years of then-Gov. Pete Wilson’s Senate term, after Seymour occupied the seat for the middle two years.)

          She won’t get much of a challenge this year, either. While she has 23 primary election opponents, none drew better than 2 percent of likely voters polled in early April by the Survey USA service, compared with 51 percent for Feinstein and 30 percent undecided.

          That survey produced one of the more remarkable political press releases of modern times, when Republican Dan Hughes sent out an email soliciting donations and proclaimed the poll “shows me ahead.”

          Actually, the north San Diego County businessman was virtually tied for first among the Feinstein challengers with anti-autism activist and former IBM executive Elizabeth Emken. But 12 other hopefuls trailed by just 1 percentage point, leaving Feinstein with a massive edge. At least one private poll had Orange County dentist and lawyer Orly Taitz, best known as the “queen of birthers” – those who question whether President Obama was born in America – as the top potential Feinstein opponent.

          There is no way Feinstein will end up with as massive an edge as the polls now show in either the primary or the runoff she cannot avoid, if only because their ballot identification as Republicans assures plenty of votes from party members for Hughes, Emken or Taitz, even if most GOP voters have little idea who they are.

          For sure, the poll numbers mean those candidates will not draw big campaign bucks, as big money will flow to candidates in other states deemed far more likely to succeed.

          How did Feinstein become so secure? Essentially, she followed the pattern set by the late Democratic Sen. Alan Cranston, who served four terms from the 1960s into the ‘90s. Like Cranston, Feinstein has maintained liberal support by steadily backing gun control, women’s rights and other causes popular among liberals. Also like Cranston, she maintains strong ties to the state’s business community and her staff performs ably in constituent service.

          Add those things together with leadership on state water issues, a solid record as mayor of San Francisco for more than 10 years and the chairmanship of the Senate Intelligence Committee, and you get a candidate who’s almost untouchable. The main reason she doesn’t poll favorable ratings well above the current 51 percent level is because of party labels. But hers is the top rating among major California politicians.

          All of which makes for a strong possibility that Feinstein will draw more than 50 percent of the June 5 vote. It would then be a complete waste of millions of campaign advertising dollars and huge amounts of candidate time for her to be stuck into a runoff, but there she will be regardless.

      Email Thomas Elias at His book, "The Burzynski Breakthrough: The Most Promising Cancer Treatment and the Government’s Campaign to Squelch It," is now available in a soft cover fourth edition. For more Elias columns, visit

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