SACRAMENTO – California's reputation for electing ideologues has been a source of endless frustration in the Capitol, allowing the most ardent liberals and conservatives to hold up legislation and block approval of the state budget until one or two finally compromise.
Starting this week, it was supposed to be different. When voters passed a 2010 initiative to move the top two candidates in each race on to the general election regardless of party affiliation, the goal was to give moderate voters the opportunity to cross party lines in primary elections to elect more moderate lawmakers.
But for the majority of districts in Tuesday's open primary, political observers said, that was not the case.
“It’s business as usual,” said Scott Lay, a political blogger and Community College League of California president and CEO. “If you look at the actual results in most districts, it could have been a regular primary.”
Although the strict definition of moderate, liberal and conservative often is difficult to pinpoint, in some races it was clear that the most ideological candidates advanced to November. That was the case in the Assembly districts that cover San Bernardino County and Irvine.
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Assemblyman Tim Donnelly, R-Twin Peaks, earned just over half the votes from San Bernardino and will move onto the general election with Democrat John Coffey. Big Bear Lake Mayor Bill Jahn, the third candidate in the race and the more moderate Republican, missed out on the top two with 19 percent of the votes compared with Coffey's 29 percent.
Similarly in Irvine, Assemblyman Allan Mansoor, R-Costa Mesa, and Democrat Robert Rush will be on the November ballot after earning 43 percent and 33 percent of the votes, respectively. Third candidate Leslie Daigle, a moderate Republican, walked away with 24 percent of the votes.
"Those races really ended up looking a lot like a traditional primary," said Paul Mitchell, a Sacramento political consultant. "The most conservative would win."
While some California voters may not find a long list of moderates on their November ballot, they will see a fair amount of races where both candidates are from the same party. Voters will choose between two Democrats or two Republicans to represent their district in 27 races for Congress, state Senate and Assembly – out of 153 contests.
“Very few are running moderate,” said Lay. “Democrats are running to be liberal, and Republicans are running to be conservative. Neither one of them is more moderate than the other.”
Political observers will have to wait until November to determine if the more moderate candidate in those races wins or loses. But even here, it's a matter of interpretation.
In many cases, the deck was stacked in favor a single party. In two-thirds of the races where a single party advanced to November, the winners faced opposition from another party. But in a third of those races, the dominate party in November had no competition from the opposition, whether it was Democratic or Republican.
The new primary system also failed to help third-party candidates. Not a single Green Party or Libertarian candidate advanced to November to face a Democrat or Republican.
The new primary did produce some surprises. The results of the congressional race in San Bernardino caught people off guard, Lay said. In this swing district, two Republicans advanced to November, shutting out a Democratic candidate thought to be a rising star.
Incumbent Rep. Gary Miller, R-Brea, will face fellow Republican state Sen. Bob Dutton, R-Rancho Cucamonga, after receiving 27 percent and 25 percent of the votes, respectively. Democrat Pete Aguilar missed out on the top two with 23 percent of the votes.
“One of the stars of the Democratic class, Pete Aguilar, was edged out into third place in what would have been one of the biggest swing districts in the country,” Lay said.
If the new open primary accomplished anything, it was forcing more expensive races in November for a handful of candidates. The new system means Democrats or Republicans will battle each other twice – in the primary and again in November – when many would have sailed through because the voter registration in their districts is so lopsided.
“You’re going to have an utter war over an Assembly race that in any other cycle would’ve been decided in June,” Lay said. “It’ll make things a lot more expensive.”
In the Assembly district for West Los Angeles, Assemblywoman Betsy Butler, D-Marina del Rey, and Santa Monica Mayor Richard Bloom, a Democrat, made it to the November ballot with a difference of 102 votes. Another Democrat, Torie Osborn, took third, and Republican Bradly Torgan fell into last place, 789 votes behind Butler.
The Assembly district covering the foothills will also see a one-party race in the general election. Republicans Rico Oller and Frank Bigelow, who is considered more moderate, will face off in November after earning 33 percent and 29 percent of the votes, respectively, compared to Democrat Tim Fitzgerald’s 18 percent.
The open primary structure also forced candidates to spend more money on their campaigns for the primary, said Mitchell, a political consultant.
“In the old days, if you knew who your opponent was going to be, you’d just save for November,” Mitchell said. “(Now), you can't just sit on your butt and wait for the general (election) to come.”
Mitchell pointed to the state Senate race in Ventura County where Republican Todd Zink beat incumbent state Sen. Fran Pavley, D-Agoura Hills, by just over 1 percent of the votes – a win that Mitchell said would “help drive money and resources” and “open some doors.”
“There’s a really real impact as a result of that race,” Mitchell said.
Major "no party preference" candidates also failed to make it to the general election, Mitchell said, even with the open primary structure that was supposed to benefit them. The change in the election system also allowed independent candidates for the first time to run in primary elections under a "no party preference" affiliation.
Union City Mayor Mark Green, who was running for the Assembly district in Hayward, came 4 percent of votes behind making the top two, and Ventura County Supervisor Linda Parks missed the general election by about 8 percent in the congressional district race in Ventura County.
“It ended up being a disadvantage,” Mitchell said. “For now, there’s going to be a lot of naysayers for that strategy.”
But Parks said money was what "won the day," not partisanship.
"It's a difficult campaign to win no matter what your party is," Parks said. "Independent candidates don't have the infrastructure. They don't have the mega-million dollars in PAC money."
Parks, a Democrat-turned-Republican-turned-independent, could not say whether the open primary structure would eventually lead to more moderate lawmakers getting elected, but Parks said it is necessary.
"I became an independent, and I'm going to stay that way for the rest of my life," she said. "The campaign that we just witnessed was another example of why we need more independents. It shouldn't just be about parties."
Gabriel Lenz, an assistant political science professor at UC Berkeley, said he was surprised no-party preference candidates did not benefit from the open primary.
“I don’t know why they (voters) didn’t seem to cross over to vote for them,” Lenz said. “It’s in some ways more likely that they’ll do that in the general than the primary. People will pay a little more attention.”
Lenz led a recent study released on Election Day out of the UC Berkeley Institute of Governmental Studies showing the open primary ballot would give moderate candidates a 6 to 7 percent boost in voter support compared with a traditional primary. The report also found that only 8 percent of respondents said they could "definitely identify the most moderate candidate."
“It didn’t surprise me, but I still find it disappointing,” Lenz said. “Voters see themselves as moderates for the most part and they tend to see politicians much more extreme.”
But identifying the moderate candidates was not the only problem – Mitchell and his consulting team estimated a low voter turnout of 5 million for Tuesday’s election.
“Maybe the strangeness of having two Democrats and two Republicans running against each other will get more voter attention,” Lenz said. “But those are just hopes.”