Election 2012: On the trail of the moderates

Rival political forces are pushing into California’s  middle ground in the 2012 elections in a quest for moderate candidates, hoping to rebuild a Legislature in which hyperpartisanship has trumped negotiation and compromise.

They have a long way to go.

And in addition to the new strategies, there is uncertainty over the real impact of two new, voter-approved electoral features – the top-two primary and the boundaries drawn by an independent redistricting commission.

Will the new rules help or hinder the drive for moderates? Will more moderates ease legislative gridlock?

“Beauty is in the eye of the beholder. Let’s say the new maps produce eight swing districts that have competitive elections. Fast forward to November of next year and there are eight new members who are more moderate. Then, the real analysis is that how moderate they are depends on who you ask,” said Sacramento political strategist Andrew Acosta.

“If you get somebody who is a true moderate and is independent, they’re going to make somebody mad. So I don’t know if this ends gridlock or not, but clearly what we have today isn’t working,” he said.

The rule changes are accompanied by rival Republican and Democratic groups who are targeting moderates in the opposite party. Just who is a moderate and who isn’t is a work in progress, although strategists say there are about two dozen, perhaps more, between the two houses.

For Democrats, the idea is to put together enough votes for a state budget. For Republicans, the goal is to get a more favorable hearing on key policy issues.

“The last time we had an open primary was in 1998 and everybody voted for everybody, Democrats and Republicans, although it wasn’t a top-two primary,” said veteran political strategist Richard Temple. “We saw an increase in moderate Republicans and Democrats who both got elected; it did indeed produce some more moderates.”

“Arguably,” he added, “there will be a few less overwhelmingly partisan districts, but to me that top-two primary won’t be a big player.”

Ambiguity also surrounds the newly drawn districts, scheduled to be unveiled this week.

The maps are intended to reflect balance and communities of interest, rather than the incumbent protection that was engineered into the existing districts.

The new maps, at least theoretically, are intended to promote competitive districts – a rarity in California, political reformers note, in which none of the 120 legislative districts changed hands in the two elections leading up to 2008 when voters approved Proposition 11, which set up the commission.

But drawing competitive districts, assuring balance and keeping communities of interest is harder than it sounds.  

The commission’s marching orders are daunting: The districts must be relatively compact, avoid obvious gerrymandering, be roughly equal in population, avoid confusing “communities of interest” with the politicians or their parties, comply with the Voting Rights Act, be geographically contiguous and each Senate district should, when practical, be composed of two Assembly districts.

Voters said – twice – they want an independent commission to draw districts. But will the new districts, when all the requirements – some of them conflicting – are drawn in really make a difference?

“The net effect is small,” said Paul Mitchell, a Democratic political strategist and publisher of The Redistricting Report. “For example, in Sacramento, putting together Davis, West Sacramento and downtown takes from the progressives and then disperses them among the conservatives, and that probably will repeat itself all over the state.”

“Redistricting does not necessarily create a melting pot,” he added. “It’s more like setting up a food tray with separate sections, and it’s not a big bowl.”

Of the 120 legislative districts, perhaps a half dozen will be competitive, perhaps a few more. The commission also will draw 53 congressional seats and the four districts of the Board of Equalization.

“Based upon the historical standard of ‘safe’ versus ‘competitive’ districts, there likely will be a few more competitive legislative and congressional districts,” noted a recent analysis by Democratic strategist Garry South and Republican Jim Brulte, a former minority leader of the Assembly and Senate.

The stakes are high, especially in the term-limited Legislature, where powerful interests seek allies. Both major parties are targeting so-called moderates – business-friendly Democrats and social service-friendly Republicans – in hopes of getting a better shake in the Capitol.

Republican-dominated corporate interests have sought out business-friendly Democrats for years, with some success.

Now others are taking a similar approach. The result is a fired-up push toward the center, although whether it actually plays out on a significant scale and results in more moderate lawmakers remain to be seen.

“We for years have supported some Democrats. You can call them ‘moderate Democrats,’ or you can call them ‘new Democrats,’ but as soon as you give them that label, they can change that label,” said Kim Stone, who heads the Civil Justice Association of California, a group that seeks tort changes to limit class-action lawsuits and traditionally draws Republican support.  

Stone, like a number of other Capitol players, believes her organization’s best shot in the Legislature stems from moderates in both parties.

The 700,000-member Service Employees International Union, a major Democratic political force, is targeting moderate Republicans district-by-district in hopes of assuring the two-third majority required in both houses to pass the state budget with new taxes.

The group spent $2.5 million last year, but is likely to spend far more next year as it expands its ground game in 2012. SEIU notes that more than a fourth of its membership are either Republicans or decline to state, and the union believes that will translate into an effective ground game in targeted GOP districts.

The new elective landscape in which the top two candidates face each other in the general election regardless of party affiliation, means that candidates who hope to do well in the general will have to cast a wider net in the primary. That, at least in theory, will result in a general election in which the final two candidates with the broadest appeal square off.

For Democratic strategist Steven Maviglio, an adviser to SEIU, the change is clear.

“One guy told me that in ‘my first round I just had to talk to Democrats, and now I have to talk to everybody.’ So yes, it will make a difference.”

“You not only have to win the Democratic vote as in the old days, now you have to win the Republican and DTS (decline to state) vote as well.” But, he added, “nobody really knows how all this is going to play out.”

A classic example of the new math may be the Personal Insurance Federation of California, which represents California’s biggest insurers. It has donated $32,500 to the state Democratic Party, hired a Democratic labor organizer as its new political director and intends to target business-friendly Democrats in hopes of electing lawmakers who it says will offer a fairer shake in policy committees.

For PIF, the 2012 elections represent a continuation of the past.

“I don’t think it’s a new focus,” said PIF President Rex Frazier. “There
may be a new focus articulated by SEIU seeking moderates among Republicans. For us, that’s not necessarily an issue, where someone is a moderate or a conservative on a tax issue, for example. That wouldn’t impact groups like ours.”

The group and its allies successfully pushed business-friendly Democrats, such as Sen. Lou Correa of Santa Ana over Republican Lynn Daucher; Ron Calderon of Montebello over Rudy Bermudez; Rod Wright of Inglewood over Mervin Dymally and Juan Vargas of San Diego over former Assemblywoman Mary Salas. In the 2006 Correa-Daucher contest, Correa won a tight race in part because of the support of business interests. Correa also has endorsed former Assemblywoman Lori Saldana in her election bid. Vargas, a former chair of the Assembly Insurance Committee who went to work for an insurance company after leaving the Assembly, won a squeaker last year over Salas. 

The drive for policy-friendly lawmakers motivates the campaigns on both sides. “That animates the IEs (independent expenditure committees) and I don’t think that’s going to change. We still expect most districts to have a Republican and a Democrat to run against each other, even in a top-two primary,” Frazier noted.

But despite all the analyses and  number crunching, nobody really knows how the new system will play out.

“The state Lottery hasn’t solved the education funding problem, and redistricting reform won’t create common sense districts that maintain all cities, unify all communities of interest, avoid funny shapes and ‘gerrymanders’ and create competitive elections,” Mitchell wrote in an analysis last week in Capitol Weekly.  “It is unlikely that the commission process will meet the voters’ expectations, and the only real benefit to an early release is giving the public and media a chance to come to grips with that reality.”

Acosta was more succinct.

“It’s as clear as mud.”

Ed’s Note: Corrects original, 35th and 36th grafs, Vargas over Salas, and notes that Correa has backed Saldana.

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