California's Prop 14: Winners and Losers

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Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger (right) reviewed Prop. 14 with Carl Guardino, CEO of the Silicon Valley Leadership Group, in April. Paul Sakuma / AP

For having such an ordinary name, California’s Proposition 14 will have a seismic impact on the politics of a state used to ground-shaking events. Dubbed the “open-primary initiative,” the measure that voters approved Tuesday night by 54 percent effectively does away with party nominees in state elections beginning in 2012, lumping all candidates together in a preliminary election with only the top two facing each other in a runoff in the fall. A look at the measure’s winners and losers:

WINNERS:
Independent candidates.
Running as an independent not only means that you have no friends (just ask Charlie Crist), it also means you have to find creative ways to compete for money against the big-party candidates. In the wake of Prop 14, state party machines will presumably no longer be able to cleanly get behind just one candidate. Policy differences notwithstanding, big-party candidates may have just as much trouble raising money as the smaller guys.

Voters. The dance that all party candidates do—play to the extremes of their base in the primary and then try to keep a straight face as they label themselves centrist for the general election—is no more. The backers of Prop 14 figured that by eliminating primaries, candidates would have to be moderate from the beginning, making them more genuine and believable. Candidates will also have to cater to all voters, not just ones in their party.

Moderate Republicans. The Golden State is among the bluest in the nation. It used to be that any Republican candidate would have to be really Republican to attract the state’s limited conservative votes (found mainly in the ag-heavy central valley). Prop 14 flips that. Hard-right candidates won’t find much favor with the general electorate, and centrist Republicans could reasonably pick up left-leaning voters.

Business associations. There’s nothing worse in business than to be on the opposite side of the party in power. Now, there won’t be any specific party uniformly in power, just liberal officials and conservative officials across the spectrum. The lack of extremes means that candidates will no longer be for or against industry X. They’re more likely to take a lukewarm stance on business regulation, especially for unpopular industries.

LOSERS:
State-party powerhouses.
The California Democratic and Republican parties will still be able to support candidates and label their choice on the ballot, but there’s no longer any system to ensure that all Democrats are united. With no primaries, a handful of Republicans, for instance, can toss their names into the ballot, making life much harder for party leaders, who won’t be able to influence whom their party chooses.

Small parties. The biggest challenge to the measure (in court, mostly) is likely to come from smaller parties. The old system meant that, no matter who the Dems or Repubs chose, the Green Party, for example, would still get a candidate on the general election ballot. Now, Green’s only shot will be in the primary, where it’ll have to compete with the whole gamut of candidates, making it immensely more difficult to make it to the top two.

Voters. In both camps on this one. Yes, candidates will play more to the sentiments of the broader electorate, but in the attempt to limit the number of, say, Democrats in the race, backroom bartering could increase among party leaders. They’re now more likely to offer uncompetitive candidates incentives (like administration jobs) to drop out of the race to avoid splitting the vote and costing a more competitive candidate the race. If transparency is the goal, there’s room here for it to backfire.

Labor unions. California’s Democratic majority is usually kind to labor leaders. But some now fear a day when they’d be asked to vote between two Republican candidates if no progressive made it into the top two. It’s a bizarre thought that a state as blue as California would only give voters a choice between two conservatives, but stranger things have happened.

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