It looks like the open primary has saved Tom Harman again. The Orange County
assemblyman, who is considered a moderate Republican, clung to a 236-vote
lead over more conservative Dana Point Councilwoman Diane Harkey in the race
to succeed Republican John Campbell, who was elected to Congress late last
And like his first election to legislative office, it may have been
Democrats who put Harman over the top in a district that is considered safe
Harman originally was elected to the Assembly in 2000 during the state’s
brief experiment with a blanket-primary format. The format came thanks to a
voter-approved initiative in 1996, in which Californians opted to allow
voters from any party to choose candidates from any political party.
All of the major political parties, including the Republican, Democrat,
Green, and Peace and Freedom Parties, opposed the measure and eventually
succeeded in getting the U.S. Supreme Court to alter the state’s primary
system. But that was after the 2000 election. By then, a crop of moderate
legislators, including Harman and fellow Orange County Republican Lynn
Daucher, R-Brea, had been elected to the Assembly.
Although voters from any party could choose candidates from any party in
California’s 1998 and 2000 primary elections, ballots were color-coded so
vote-counters could tell which ballots were from voters of various political
parties. An analysis of votes cast in both Harman and Daucher’s 2000 primary
races against more conservative Republicans found that both of the eventual
winners of the Republican primaries actually lost the Republican vote.
“We do know this much: Daucher and Harman got fewer votes among Republicans
than their more conservative opponents,” said Tony Quinn, editor of the
California Target Book, which monitors Congressional and California
legislative elections. “Both would not have won without the open primary.”
Although the Supreme Court overthrew the voter-approved blanket primary, it
did nothing to alter the state’s special-election laws. Under those rules,
in the event of a political vacancy, candidates from all parties appear on
the same ballot. If no candidate receives 50 percent of the overall vote,
then the top vote-getters from each political party meet in a runoff
That meant that in last week’s election to replace Campbell, Democrats once
again had the opportunity to pull the lever for Harman. And although ballots
are no longer color-coded–so we will never actually know how many Democrats
voted for Harman, given the fact that he appears to have won by such a slim
margin–it is likely that Democrats once again put Harman over the top.
“Tom Harman is the bastard child of the open primary,” said Adam Probolsky,
an Orange County political strategist who worked on the Harkey campaign.
In 2000, Harman actively courted Democrat votes. This year, while Harman
himself did not directly appeal to Democrats, a group of labor unions
traditionally aligned with Democrats, including the California Correctional
Peace Officers Association (CCPOA), spent thousands on Harman’s behalf,
communicating with Democrat voters.
The independent expenditures were run by the Sacramento political-consulting
firm McNally-Temple, which used to handle many of the moderate Republican
political campaigns, and has worked with CCPOA for years.
While Harman appears to have squeaked by because of the odd circumstances,
Quinn says that with this year’s graduation of the open-primary class of
2000, some safe Democrat seats are destined to be represented by more
liberal members, while several Republican seats now held by moderates will
be served by conservatives come November.
Specifically, Quinn cited the seat now held by Assemblyman Joe Canciamilla,
D-Pittsburg, the co-convener of the Assembly Moderate Democratic Caucus.
Canciamilla’s wife, Laura, is currently running against Contra Costa County
Supervisor Mark DeSaulnier. And while the race is not a slam dunk for
DeSaulnier, Quinn says “he appears to have the bulk of the endorsements from
the Democratic establishment.”
In the San Fernando Valley, the seat currently held by moderate Republican
Keith Richman, D-Northridge, is all but certain to be represented by Santa
Clarita Mayor Cameron Smyth. “It’s all sewn up for Smyth,” says Quinn. “And
he’s much more of a traditional conservative than Richman.”
Quinn helped conduct a study of voting patterns during the open primary and
found that in districts that were safe for one party, voters from the other
party crossed over in large numbers and voted for the candidate from the
party that most closely matched their political views.
“In the heavy one-party districts, a large majority of the opposite party’s
people crossed over,” he said. “[Former San Diego Republican Assemblywoman]
Charlene Zettel was one that was probably elected because of the open
primary. [Marin Democrat] Joe Nation was another one that got elected
through that system. He made a special pitch to the Republicans.”
But that experiment has now fallen by the wayside. In 2004, Governor Arnold
Schwarzenegger backed a measure to reopen California’s primary system under
a revised plan that likely would have passed constitutional muster. But the
effort was opposed by political parties, and Democrats and Republicans in
the Legislature banded together to place a competing measure on the ballot
meant to create confusion and take votes away from the open-primary