California voters created tectonic changes in state politics four years ago, when they approved the top-two primary election system that’s in effect in races for statewide offices Tuesday.
There is no longer any guarantee Democrats and Republicans will face off in November runoff elections. In fact, four years ago, primary election voters set up more than two dozen intraparty runoffs matching Democrat on Democrat or Republican on Republican in legislative and congressional contests. It could happen in more than one statewide race this year.
Every poll in 2010 showed that voters acted because they were sick of polarization and gridlock in Sacramento. They got what they wanted, says a new report from a University of Southern California institute funded primarily by ex-Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger.
Voters also may have inadvertently set up a de facto third political party in Sacramento, a moderate one, even if it’s not formally recognized by anyone. For lack of a better term, this group might be called the “Blue Dogs,” borrowing a name from a group of moderate to conservative Democrats who served in Congress in the 1990s and carefully picked and chose which liberal causes to support.
Just such a group now exists in Sacramento, and it promises to grow larger after Tuesday’s primary. The group has no formal organization, but that might come as its numbers grow.
Based on an analysis of all roll-call votes in both the state Legislature and Congress, USC political scientist Christian Grose found the average state legislator was more moderate over the past 18 months than for many years previously.
Diminished polarization of the parties in the Legislature took place against a background of ever-increasing partisanship in Congress, a phenomenon that applies in both the House and Senate.
Most movement, Grose found, occurred among Democrats. This may partly be because, as noted in an investigation by former Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter Gary Cohn, increasing numbers of Democratic legislators are less beholden to labor unions for their campaign money and more dependent on corporations and the state chamber of commerce.
Cohn found that some of these lawmakers – he named Marin County’s Marc Levine and Republican-turned-Democrat Steve Fox of Palmdale as prime examples – skipped or abstained from several key votes. Abstentions affected the fate of bills that aimed to help farm workers, require economic impact reports for proposed new big-box stores and require more disclosure from some health insurance companies before they raise rates.
One possible addition to the Blue Dog ranks this year might be Steve Glazer, until last year a top adviser to Democratic Gov. Jerry Brown, who later worked as a consultant to the chamber. Glazer, an Orinda city councilman, now seeks an Alameda County seat in the Assembly.
“I am trying to redefine what it means to be a Democrat,” Glazer told one reporter.
For sure, Glazer has parted company with the labor unions that support most Democratic campaigns. But that doesn’t make him any less liberal on issues from gay rights to gun control and abortion, areas of relatively little interest to business.
How many Blue Dogs get elected this fall will in large part be a product of the current primary. The more Democrat-on-Democrat races ensue, the more contests will pit union contributions against business dollars.
Their outcomes can be surprising, too, as when former Santa Monica Mayor Richard Bloom two years ago won in an Assembly district created by reapportionment over Democratic Assemblywoman Betsy Butler, a strong labor ally who previously represented a district that marginally overlapped the new one. Butler now seeks a vacant state Senate seat and will very likely this fall face another Democratic rival not funded by unions.
No one can be quite certain how all this will play out in the long term: A moderate wing for the most liberal state Democratic Party in the nation? A three-party system?
These are the kind of unpredictable developments that make voting both worthwhile and fun.
Thomas Elias is a California author. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.