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Primary vote was political landmark for California

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POSTED June 18, 2012 6:56 p.m.

The results are now in, and this month’s primary election appears to have given voters exactly what they wanted: a whole bunch of fall runoff contests that figure to be decided not by extreme partisans of the left or right, but rather by moderate voters occupying some kind of middle ground.

There was no excitement in the presidential primary, since ex-Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney’s nomination has been a certainty since early April, when he won a big victory in the Illinois primary, and no Democrat challenged President Obama.

But that never diminished the importance of this primary, the first contested under the “top two” rules of the 2010 Proposition 14 and the first using district lines drawn by the new Citizens Redistricting Commission. In the districts, the two leading vote-getters will vie again in November, usually Democrat vs. Democrat and Republican vs. Republican. More than 20 districts will feature intra-party contests and when the count becomes final after provisional and late absentee ballots are tallied in some close races, there may be even more. The surprise was that not even one independent without party affiliation appears to have a good shot at election this fall.

This all came about because of two widely-held beliefs. One is that state government has been dysfunctional for the last decade or two and the other is that if the influence of political parties on primary elections could be reduced, more centrist legislators and Congress members could be elected.

It remains to be seen whether these beliefs will pan out. But for sure, there should be far fewer voters than in the past who feel their wishes have been completely irrelevant in this election.

Those newly-empowered voters reside in districts that are predominantly Democrat or largely Republican.

Take the fall race between Democratic congressional veterans Howard Berman and Brad Sherman in the San Fernando Valley portion of Los Angeles. Both won substantial shares of the Democratic vote in the primary, but neither came close to going over 50 percent of the overall total. That means the eventual outcome will be decided by the district’s Republican minority, which couldn’t unite sufficiently to get a candidate onto the runoff ballot. But add a significant majority of Republican primary votes in that district to what either Berman or Sherman got, and they could decide the eventual winner.

So for the very first time in their long careers, Berman and Sherman will have to try to appeal to Republicans, while at the same time not alienating the Democratic base. It’s an entirely new tightrope for them to walk, and it’s exactly what top-two was intended to produce.

Will either or both of them move right? Time will tell.

There aren’t many Republicans in the Los Angeles County district where Congresswomen Janice Hahn and Laura Richardson will face off this fall. And Hahn’s large primary margin may mean they will remain irrelevant. But not the Democrats in two largely Republican legislative districts in San Diego and Orange counties, where no Democrats ran in the primary.

Altogether, voters created more than a score of similar situations all around the state, scenarios that could not have existed under the previous system, where the leading Republican vote-getter in the primary faced the leading Democrat and a bunch of minor-party candidates.

From now on, there will be no minor candidates to dilute the November vote, nor any write-ins, either. Those candidates had their chances in the primary and since they didn’t make it then, they were eliminated. That’s one reason this system is often called a “jungle primary.” It is certainly survival of the politically fittest. But it’s the best way that anyone has yet devised – and managed to make constitutional – to diminish the influence of party extremists in choosing legislators and congress members.

It also has now put Republicans on notice that they’d better concentrate on voter registration and reverse the slide that has seen them drop from about 38 percent of California’s registered voters to just over 30 percent in less than 10 years – or risk become irrelevant in all but a few districts.

 For the reason there will be many more all-Democrat runoffs in November than all-GOP contests is clear: There just aren’t enough Republican voters to set up many of those contests.

All of which means California politics is entering a brave new world after this watershed primary. To see what it eventually means, we’ll all have to stay tuned.

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