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The GOP searches for relevance post-Proposition 14

March 21, 2011 | 12:03 pm

GOP conventionThe California Republican Party has responded first to the state's new open primary system, agreeing to hold informal primaries of its own before the official ones. The Times' editorial board endorsed the ballot initiative that created the new system (last year's Proposition 14), yet I kinda like what the GOP decided to do. It seems like the most democratic way for the party to try to retain its voice in elections.

Under Proposition 14, the state will no longer hold individual party primaries. Instead, the primary elections will pit candidates from all the parties against one another, with the top two vote-getters advancing to the general election. The point is to promote candidates who can appeal to voters on both sides of the right-left divide, rather than ones that cater just to party loyalists.

The major parties, which opposed the initiative, are now trying to figure out how to preserve their influence over elections. The state GOP considered three options at its convention last weekend, according to The Times' Seema Mehta and Maeve Reston, all of which would bestow the party's imprimatur on a candidate before the open primary: having a "small number of insiders" pick the official GOP nominee, giving Republican incumbents the party's endorsement automatically and inviting registered Republicans to vote by mail in a primary-before-the-primary. The party's chosen candidate would receive its financial support in the official primary, giving him or her a leg up on other right-of-center candidates in the race.

The first option smacked of Chicago-style machine politics, and the second was little more than a political entitlement program for incumbents. The party's rules committee went for option three, which the delegates approved by voice vote.

You might argue that the pre-primary is, as Mehta and Reston put it, "a sweeping end-run around the spirit" of the new primary system. (I'm still trying to figure out how one would run around a spirit, but I digress.) But what are the parties supposed to do in a new system that essentially amounts to a general election and a runoff? If Republicans are divided, it will be harder for them to get anyone from the GOP on the final ballot in a swing or left-leaning district. The same, by the way, can be said for Democrats in swing and right-leaning districts.

Does that undermine Proposition 14? I don't think so, at least not necessarily. A key supporter of the measure was then-Lt. Gov. Abel Maldonado, a former Republican state senator who paid a heavy price among the party faithful for supporting a budget deal that involved tax increases. Maldonado (and the Republican governor who appointed him, Arnold Schwarzenegger) argued that by succumbing to the far-right's siren call, the GOP was consigning itself to a permanent minority in the Legislature. His hope was that Proposition 14 would elevate Republicans with a more centrist message.

The pre-primary could act as a countervailing force to that moderating influence. But the new system still gives more centrist members of both parties the chance to win, should the official GOP or Democratic Party standard-bearer be out of touch with most voters in that region.

How good that chance is, of course, depends on the candidate's ability to build a grass-roots organization and get his or her message out. We'll have to see if the party backing makes a crucial difference in a candidate's fundraising and name recognition; if it does, then perhaps the entrenched forces of the establishment will defeat the good intentions of Proposition 14 after all.

For Republicans, this isn't an academic question. Whatever you think of Maldonado, the results from last November suggest that he's dead-on about his party. Despite the overwhelming national tide in favor of the GOP, state Republicans lost every statewide election, lost a seat in the Assembly and gained no ground in the state Senate.

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A proposal by five Republicans to Gov. Brown may point the way to a compromise spending plan

The party of no-governing

-- Jon Healey

Photo: Rep. Jeff Denham (R-Madera) speaks March 18 to delegates at the California Republican Convention in Sacramento. Credit: Steve Yeater / Associated Press

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