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Wild Card Race

Dems Jostle Over New Election Rules as GOP Leaders Bemoan Their Party’s Death


Topic A in state political circles this week is the stunning decision by L.A. Democratic Representative Jane Harman to resign—and the scramble by candidates hoping to replace her to decipher California’s puzzling new calculus for campaigning.

Harman, the only Blue Dog Democrat in the region, disclosed on Monday that she would quit her seat to head a Washington think tank. She represents the coastal 36th District, which runs from San Pedro to Santa Monica; moderate to conservative on national security issues, Harman supported the Iraq war and has long had a strained relationship with former Speaker Nancy Pelosi, just two factors that have drawn her left-liberal opposition in recent elections.

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Within hours of her announcement, would-be members of Congress jump-started the race to capture the seat, a contest to be decided in a special election that will be scheduled by Governor Brown, most likely in June. Most prominent among them so far: L.A. City Councilmember Janice Hahn and Secretary of State Debra Bowen (whose election to Congress would set in motion another set of political dominoes to determine her successor), while antiwar activist Marcy Winograd, who challenged Harman in 2008 and 2010, is still unclear about her intentions.

Political personalities aside, the race is significant because it will be the first run in the state under “top two” primary rules, approved by voters last year to replace the traditional partisan primary system.

For the first time, if no candidate wins a majority of votes in primary balloting, a general election run-off will take place between the first and second place finishers—regardless of party affiliation. Among other possibilities, this means the election could be shaped as a classic “soul of the party” battle between a moderate and progressive Democrat; also, while Republicans are outnumbered in the district, it is possible that an attractive GOP contender could sneak into the run-off if Democrats splinter their vote in the primary.

Another wild card factor is that the shape and partisan makeup of the district is likely to change significantly after August, when the new Citizen’s Redistricting Commission is scheduled to complete its work. Voters in 2008 approved an initiative taking away from the Legislature the once-a-decade power to redraw the state’s political maps, based on new census data, and giving it to the commission, a further complication which candidates to replace Harman must consider.

Next year, of course, every other congressional incumbent and candidate likewise will be confronted with new district lines. For current members, notably Santa Barbara Democrat Lois Capps, who represents the 23rd District, these may well be less politically cozy than is now the case; Capps’s far-flung coastal district is often cited as a prime example of partisan gerrymandering engineered by Democrats to ensure election of one of their own; ex-governor Arnold Schwarzenegger, who sponsored both the reapportionment and primary voting reforms, for example, often referred to it as the “ribbon of shame.”

“It’s used as an example of how absurd the process is,” Peter Yao, chair of the new commission, said of the Capps district in an interview with the Los Angeles Times. “It does not allow people to choose the candidate. They are forced to go with the party’s choice.”

GOP RIP? Republicans are still buzzing over controversial public comments made by two former state party chairs who forecast a dismal future for the GOP in California.

Republicans, as a brand, are dead,” GOP leader Duf Sundheim told a recent UC Berkeley conference on the 2010 governor’s race, sentiments echoed by fellow former party chair Bob Naylor.

The two, joined by former Republican state senate leader Jim Brulte, told the conference that the dominance of California Democrats in last November’s election, at a time when the GOP made major gains elsewhere in the nation, is likely to continue for years. Among other factors: Republicans are losing crucial support among women and independent, decline-to-state voters, at the same time that their refusal to support a “path to citizenship” for millions of immigrants who entered the country illegally has alienated the growing bloc of Latino voters.

Beyond that, the right-wing voters who have dominated the state GOP in recent years tend to nominate statewide candidates who put ideological purity above political pragmatism, and who are out of step with the majority of Californians on social and environmental issues such as abortion, gay marriage, and offshore oil drilling, speakers said.

Voters have made it clear, Brulte said, that “they just don’t want Republicans in office.”

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