This year’s California elections will test the theory that having independently drawn districts and a top-two primary ballot will result in a less polarized, more collegial and relevant political structure.
That’s just theory, but it’s already evident that these changes are altering campaign dynamics, making the June 5 primary a political junkie’s dream and a bonanza for hired guns.
For one thing, they mean more heated intraparty contests because many politicians were thrown together by an independent redistricting commission and, for the first time, decline-to-state voters have a role in choosing who makes it onto the November ballot.
The potentially decisive role of independent voters means that campaigns in some districts are filling their mailboxes with carefully tailored appeals.
Under top-two rules, it’s possible that in several districts, where large fields of candidates fragment the voter pool, the November election could pit an independent candidate against a Democrat or Republican, while the other party’s candidate is frozen out.
When politicians of the same party run against each other, they rarely disagree on substantive issues, so some intraparty duels have become exchanges of personal attacks.
The most obvious example is the multimillion-dollar shootout between veteran Democratic Reps. Howard Berman and Brad Sherman, who were thrown together in the San Fernando Valley’s 30th Congressional District, with support for Israel an emotional flash point.
There are many others.
One is the increasingly sharp duel between Republican state Sen. Doug LaMalfa and his GOP predecessor, Sam Aanestad, in the 1st Congressional District — a huge chunk of Northeastern California. Another is in San Diego, where Democratic state Sen. Juan Vargas is vying with his predecessor, Denise Ducheny, in the 51st Congressional District.
There are dozens of such battles for legislative seats, reflecting rivalries of ideological factions in both parties, personal or family feuds, and the hopes of unions, business groups and other outside interests to gain influence as about a third of the legislature turns over this year.
One of the most heated is in Southern California’s 50th Assembly District, heavily Democratic but loaded with wealthy movie stars and financial figures.
First-term Democratic Assemblywoman Betsy Butler now represents just a tiny piece of the district, and to win re-election must get past a very formidable opponent, liberal activist Torie Osborn.
Butler has Democratic leadership support, but Osborn has many entertainment figures backing her. The district’s large and influential gay community is sharply divided, and the 50th AD is so Democratic that they may face each other again in November under top-two rules.
Dan Walters covers state politics for the Sacramento Bee.