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Independent candidates sparse despite voter gains

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POSTED November 25, 2012 7:18 p.m.

SACRAMENTO, Calif. (AP) — Even as California voters increasingly turn away from political party labels, Democratic and Republican candidates dominate the state's elections.

Just one independent was on the Nov. 6 ballot for the 100 state Assembly and Senate seats up for election, while four were running in the 53 congressional races. All of them lost.

California is not likely to see a wave of independent candidates anytime soon, given the cost of running for office and the advantages of grassroots organizing that a political party offers. In the 5th Senate District race, for example, Republican Bill Berryhill spent at least $1.8 million in his campaign against Democrat Cathleen Galgiani, who spent more than $1.6 million, according to the most recent state campaign finance reports.

Deep-pocketed independents are more likely to try for a statewide office such as governor, attorney general or secretary of state than for a post in the Legislature or U.S. House of Representatives, said Jack Pitney, a professor at Claremont McKenna College.

"The barrier to independent candidates has been the ability to finance a campaign operation. A rich person can get around that barrier," he said. "However, a seat in the Legislature might not be terribly appealing to a rich person, particularly if you're not going to be in the majority party, anyway."

Voters who declare "no party preference" have been the fastest-growing segment of the California electorate and this year hit 21 percent of its 18.2 million registered voters. That is just 8 percentage points behind those registering as Republicans, who now account for less than 30 percent.

While both parties try to court independent voters during election season, the growth in their numbers has not translated into public office.

In recent years, just two independent lawmakers have served in the Legislature, both for short periods of time after leaving the parties with which they were affiliated when elected.

Assemblyman Juan Arambula of Fresno quit the Democratic Party in 2009, a year before he was termed out of office. Assemblyman Nathan Fletcher of San Diego left the GOP earlier this year during his unsuccessful bid for San Diego mayor.

"It seems like it would be the better bet, if you're a known name, that you throw off that party label as a sign that you might be more flexible on those party platforms," said Kimberley Nalder, a professor at California State University, Sacramento and director of the Project for an Informed Electorate.

Yet supermajorities of Democrats in both houses of the Legislature make that less appealing, she said. When independents are elected, they still must choose to caucus with one of the dominant parties and could face retribution from leaders who are responsible for doling out perks, such as committee assignments, staff and offices. Those often are based on party loyalty and friendships.

"All the sort of spoils of leadership are divvied out by party leaders within the Legislature, so If you show up as an independent, the speaker of the Assembly, for example, is less likely to give out committee positions," she said.

The five candidates on the November ballot give independents hope that their growing ranks in the electorate could lead to at least a handful of successful candidates in future years. One of those, Bill Bloomfield, had a surprisingly strong showing in his bid to upset Democratic incumbent Rep. Henry Waxman in the 33rd Congressional District. Bloomfield ended up with 46 percent of the vote compared to Waxman's 54 percent.

Chad Peace, founder and director of operations at the Independent Voter Network in San Diego, said independent candidates face practical barriers because they are unable to tap into the major parties' well-established campaign infrastructure, such as political consultants and mailing lists.

His advice to independents who are considering a run for office is to start generating support and name recognition early.

"... You're never going to compete with the money and the organization you're opposing if you don't start building a name for yourself today," said Peace, who is the son of former Democratic state Sen. Steve Peace.

His online network, an information-sharing platform for independents, is funded by the Sacramento-based Foundation for Independent Voter Education. Both groups are under the umbrella of the nonprofit Independent Voter Project in San Diego, which authored the 2010 ballot initiative that created California's top-two primary system.

The need to start early in building support for an independent candidacy was the take-away lesson for Chad Walsh of Los Gatos, who ran as an independent against incumbent Democratic Assemblyman Paul Fong in Santa Clara County's 28th Assembly District. He eventually lost by a margin of 62 percent to 38 percent.

The 46-year-old attorney spent $168,000 of his own money on the campaign — "a lot more money than my wife wanted me to" — and said he can't afford to run again.

"If you're doing something like this as an independent, it's a Herculean effort. It takes everything you've got because you're building an entire political organization independently," he said. "I worked on it 24-7 for over a year."

He said Fong benefited from his own established campaign structure, the Democratic Party and the drive to approve Proposition 30, Gov. Jerry Brown's proposal to raise the state sales tax and income taxes on high earners.

"That apparatus was hitting on all cylinders," Walsh said.

He predicts the lack of money and organization will prevent independents from being elected to office on a large scale in California.

Despite the barriers to holding office, marking "no party preference" has become an attractive option for younger and minority voters who are registering for the first time. Public opinion surveys and exit polls in California show they tend to vote fairly consistently with Democrats.

Most consider themselves middle-of-the-road politically, relatively liberal on social issues and fiscally conservative — but not as conservative as many Republicans, said Mark Baldassare, president and chief executive of the Public Policy Institute of California.

Even with the growth in registered independents, political experts say party labels remain an important cue for voters, who want to know how their candidates are oriented on the major issues.

Fletcher, for example, seemed to be strong candidate as an independent — a moderate with high name recognition running for mayor in a relatively moderate city. In the end, primary voters lined up behind the Democratic and Republican candidates, leaving Fletcher to finish third and unable to compete in the general election.

"That's a real warning to others who might bolt from a party. It shows just how hard it is to run as an independent," said Thad Kousser, a professor of political science at the University of California, San Diego.

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