By Lucas Botello
Voters in California’s newly drawn 30th congressional district (CA-30) will have to choose between two incumbent California Democrats whose profiles are as similar as their names. Candidates Howard Berman and Brad Sherman have represented parts of the district; both are Jewish; both sit on the House Foreign Affairs Committee; and both have similar voting records.
This odd situation is the product of two state propositions passed by California voters in 2010 in order to produce more moderate candidates. One of these propositions, Proposition 20, removed the responsibility of drawing boundary lines of the Congressional districts from state legislatures and the governor and gave that responsibility to an independent citizens’ commission. As intended, the newly drawn districts consist of populations that have more of a mix of Republican, Democratic, and Independent voters, leaving fewer “safe” seats for incumbents, which should produce more moderate candidates.
This system produced a new majority Latino district (CA-29) which includes parts of both Mr. Sherman’s and Mr. Berman’s districts. Both their residences are now in the same district, CA-30. Mr. Sherman has the geographic advantage as more than half of his old district is in the new one, while only 20 percent of Mr. Berman’s old district is. Mr. Berman could have decided to run in CA-29, but with 69 percent of that district’s population being Latino, Mr. Berman considered he had a slim chance of beating former Los Angeles City Council member Tony Cardenas for the spot. So, both incumbents see CA-30 as their best chance of staying in Congress.
In the June primary, Mr. Sherman receive 42.4 percent of the vote, while Mr. Berman received 34.5 percent. Were it not for the recent change in the primary system, this contest between the two Democratic incumbents would have ended in the primary in June with Mr. Sherman proceeding to the general election against the top vote-getter in each of the other parties. Traditionally, primaries were designed so that voters registered within each party could decide among themselves who would be the best candidate to proceed to the general election and represent their respective party to the rest of the electorate. This process creates an incentive for candidates to run towards their base, meaning that Democrats try to appeal to their more liberal wing and Republicans attempt to win over their more conservative wing of their respective parties. Then, after the primary, the candidates have to make what can be an awkward return to the center in order to appeal to the general election. This is what Mitt Romney’s campaign advisor was referring to when he said that their campaign could “hit the reset button” after the primary and that campaign was like an etch-a-sketch. Voters in the general election voters are sometimes left with a choice between two candidates who have taken more ideologically extreme positions than most independent and moderate voters would like.
In an attempt to change the incentives, California voters in 2010 approved Proposition 14 that created an open primary system in which candidates running for Congress, the state legislature, or other statewide offices must compete in a non-partisan open system. Under this new primary system, voters choose any candidate regardless of their political affiliation and the top two vote-getters proceed to the general election regardless of their party. This system is designed so that moderate candidates from both parties will have a better chance of being elected and candidates generally have an incentive to appeal to a wider portion of the electorate. Washington State implemented this system in 2008 to achieve these same goals.
In the case of CA-30, Mr. Sherman and Mr. Berman are moving more towards the center to compete over the roughly one quarter of voters in the district are Republican. Mr. Berman is touting his endorsements from prominent Republican like Senators John McCain (R-AZ) and Lindsay Graham (R-SC). Republican Congressman of California Buck McKeon said “Republicans in Congress know that Howard Berman is one of the few Democrats we can partner with to advance bipartisan, commonsense legislation to deliver meaningful results for all out constituents.” Meanwhile, Mr. Sherman is advertising local Republicans like Los Angeles City Councilman Mitchell Englander and former Los Angeles City Councilman Greg Smith.
Additionally, both Mr. Sherman and Mr. Berman are fighting for the 25 percent of voters in CD-30 who are either registered with another party or unaffiliated with any party. Both candidates are displaying their endorsements from independent candidates. Mr. Berman announced his endorsement from Independent Senator Joseph Lieberman (I-CT), while Mr. Sherman publicized his endorsement from Independent Los Angeles City Councilman Dennis Zine. There is even growing pressure for Mr. Berman to endorse Independent candidate Bill Bloomfield over fellow Democrat Henry Waxman in the neighboring CA-33.
This kind of behavior is what California voters had hoped to induce, pushing members to move toward the center and become more bipartisan. This may be a model that other states will begin to adopt in an effort to combat the gridlock preventing Congress from passing laws. The current hyper-partisan gridlock is plaguing Congress, resulting in lowest number of laws passed since 1947 and contributing to Congress’s all time low approval rating. While it is true that our electorate has become more polarized, our underlying electoral system exacerbates this gridlock. Congressional Members are more ideologically extreme and less willing to compromise partly because the current primary election system in most states selects for candidates who take ideologically extreme positions.
The drawback of this system is that third party candidates are likely to be pushed out of the process even further. In the original primary system, other parties always had a candidate on the general election ballet representing them. Since California’s new primary system only allows for the top two candidates to proceed, only Democratic and Republican candidates are likely to make it to the general election. The Green Party, the Libertarian Party, the Constitution Party and all other political parties are likely to be excluded from the general election, which is when voter turnout is the highest. The concession that California’s electoral system makes to these political parties is that voters may vote in the primary for any candidate they prefer regardless of the candidates party. This puts minority parties on an equal footing as the Republican and Democratic candidates in the primary.
Critics of the new primary system also argue that the number of additional moderate candidates produced is insignificant because only a handful of primaries in the state produce candidates from the same party. Only eight of the fifty-three California House races are between candidates from the same party. Critics argue that these eight races will be the only situation in which the more moderate Congressional candidate will be favored. The other forty-five will be running in races virtually unaffected by the new rules.
If more states follow the model now used by California and Washington, the nation could start seeing the election of more moderate members of Congress who are willing to compromise, but the system might also strengthen the two-party system that some voters have blamed for the partisan gridlock. Whatever the result of this new primary system, it will likely take many years, if not decades, before a significant number of states adopt these changes and even more years before those changes have an opportunity to create a more drastic change in our national political system. In the mean time, these changes have created radical change for a few candidates like Democrats Berman and Sherman who must compete for the Republican favor to ensure their political survival.