Welcome to the Jungle
Proposition 14 brings democracy to its knees.
What do Gary Coleman, Larry Flynt, and Arianna Huffington have in common?
Californians know the answer - they all ran for Governor in 2003, along with 133 other people. It’s no wonder the winner of that glorified popularity contest, Arnold Schwarzenegger, actor-turned-politician, was the chief advocate of Proposition 14, an initiative to turn the state’s entire ballot process into a similar circus. Copying the “anything you want!” mindset of the recall campaign, all the candidates would contest an open primary, often called a jungle primary, and the top-two would go on to compete in the general election.
The best argument against a jungle primary is the only place that has had it for 35 years: Louisiana. Actual theocrats, racists, and pedophiles have all made a serious run for public office in those 35 years. David Duke is running for Senate in 2016, for example. At least in Louisiana, the jungle primary lives up to its name. In California, we haven’t had any fun or games.
Democrats outnumber Republicans in California, the cities are overwhelmingly Democratic, and more than one-half of California voters live in a major city. If you boil down the entire electorate to just the top two recipients, the odds are two candidates popular in the major cities will win, and everyone else will be completely disenfranchised. Case in point, this year our choices for the U.S. Senate seat vacated by do-nothing Senator Barbara Boxer are Orange County-area Congresswoman Loretta Sanchez, a progressive Democrat, and Attorney General Kamala Harris, a progressive Democrat. In a year in which control of the United States Senate could be decided by a single state, the most populous state in the union just decided to sit this one out. California is going to give 55 electoral votes to a Democrat for the foreseeable future; isn’t that enough of a price to pay for living in this deep blue state?
Schwarzenegger, with the help of a faithful moderate Republican lawmaker named Abel Maldonado, actually pushed for Proposition 14 as a bulwark against partisan primaries. Maldonado even attempted to sell Republican lawmakers on the idea that it would give them a chance to compete statewide again. The unspoken part: he felt it would give a Republican like him a chance to compete statewide.
California conservative sounds like an oxymoron, but we do exist. In fact, we’re the hardest to please because we’ve been relegated to political impotence. Have you ever trapped a frightened animal in a corner? Republicans forced into a corner by progressives on the march are the least susceptible to cries of moderation in the pursuit of power. Maldonado wanted to taste the bright lights without facing questions on his extremely suspect public record.
Still, the primary process wasn’t that hard to survive if you’ve got the money. It consisted of wooing enough Republican donors, or self-financing to the tune of $40 million, for ad campaigns in San Diego, Orange County, and the San Joaquin Valley. Primary voters just needed to the know the names. Schwarzenegger had bypassed the process with the unique nature of the recall ballot but he would have been a first-choice candidate in a Republican primary anyway. Abel Maldonado, though, didn’t think he’d have the same advantage. He needed Proposition 14 so that a hungry moderate Republican could just take a spot over the protests of conservatives.
It was always a dubious prospect. One year before Schwarzenegger’s feat, the Republican nominee for Governor was Los Angeles Mayor Richard Riordan. The story goes that Riordan sat down with Republican donors and party leaders, told them he could win LA, and they connected him with all of the best minds and money to make it happen. Richard Riordan is a good man, a solid public servant, but not the sharpest political mind. Riordan lost LA, and the Republicans were made to bleed by Gray Davis and the Democrats in nearly every statewide race.
That is why it frustrates us to no end that Abel and Arnold lent their political capital to nothing less than an act of disenfranchisement. The Republicans were suffering from a self-inflicted wound, an unconstitutional anti-immigrant ballot initiative that would have cut off welfare for the children of illegal immigrants and ended bilingual education. Hispanics, the fastest-growing set of voters, had about four more years before becoming the most powerful force in California politics, and making Republicans scream for such an act of hostility. As if the post-Proposition 187 era wasn’t proving tough enough on Republicans, here was our own Governor and Lieutenant Governor telling voters to put an end to the primary process that could effectively sideline the harshest rhetoric.
Still, that is the way forward under this landscape. Republicans would be wise to create a coalition of middle-class voters and conservatives to combat the influence of big city Democrats. Progressives pandering to LA and San Francisco voters often ignore the problems facing suburban families. These families are concerned about personal safety, their finances, their property tax rates, the cost of healthcare, rising tuition, and opportunities for the next generation. These are issues in the Republican wheelhouse. The War on Poverty and school choice also provide ample room for reform-minded conservatives to offer real solutions, new opportunities, to convince all Californians they care about the plight of children and families in both the suburbs and the cities. An opportunity agenda bridges the gap between the two communities, unlocking a pathway to the middle class and beyond. Too many people think “politics” is simply the art of ignoring everyday problems and conservatives have an obligation to prove them wrong. It isn’t about winning elections, but doing what’s right, and hoping to earn the privilege to serve.
And that calls for burning the jungle down.
All ballot-qualified parties in California, not just the Republicans and the Democrats, opposed Proposition 14 for the same reason - it would shut out independents. How could it be a reasonable reform for advancing more moderate candidates and a motivated attack on independent voices? It was never a reasonable reform for advancing moderate candidates. Sure enough, only three elections since its inception, the moderates are relegated to moderate-voting regions, conservatives have grown more out-of-touch and conservative/populist as winning in more conservative areas promulgates pandering, and progressive Democrats have come to dominate city and state politics.
While the parties opposed Proposition 14, the business community was all-in on the open primary, openly arguing it would lead to more business-friendly legislation. Business-friendly legislation, it must be stated, is not always market-friendly legislation. Prop 14 proponents pointed to “ideologues” that were supposedly blocking progress, but often failed to name them, and California brewed up a toxic mix of cronyism that only exacerbated with the passage of Proposition 14. Now, business groups that had often sided with Republicans would be trying to push Democrats toward their preferred policies, but the tables turned - Democrats would soon emerge the clear kings of the jungle.
In 2012, nine of our Congressional races were between two candidates of the same party, and seven of them between two Democrats. Twenty-eight state legislature races featured candidates of the same party. While Republicans aren’t signing as many pledges against increasing taxes, they have been spending more than ever to woo Democrats as if every election is a general election. It didn’t work. Just one election after the first open primary, the Democrats attained super-majority status in the state legislature. Gridlock was broken by sheer dominance.
Proposition 14 didn’t even deliver on its promise to make politics as interesting as the recall campaign. There’s nothing exciting about choosing between two Democrats who vary only on how much, and how quickly, they can spend taxpayer money. California deserves real competition between the best ideas and principles for governing a state as diverse and innovative as ours. Proposition 14 denies California voters a voice if they don’t live in San Francisco or Los Angeles. It has silenced the voices of conservatives and moderates that could offer a different direction for the cities and the state. It empowers special interests to control elections. It hasn’t made California, or our two major parties, more bipartisan and open to compromise. It has blown a hole in the dam, drowning Republican and independent voices altogether.
Only one group came out on top, the Democrats, and it would be interesting to see if they would side against open primaries now. Proposition 14 should face a recall.
You can follow the author on Twitter @CACoreyU