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Politics

As a service to readers in time zones where prudence dictated a date with the sandman before West Coast returns were in, here are some gleanings from yesterday’s California primary, which didn’t make much national news beyond the inclusion of Meg Whitman and Carly Fiorina in various Women’s Night stories.

Befitting a jurisdiction where unhappiness with the political status quo is extraordinary even by 2010 standards, turnout in California for the primary failed to meet even low expectations; less than a fourth of the state’s 17 million registered voters bothered to cast ballots (more than half, it is estimated, by mail). And while there was little drama in the top-line contests–Whitman and Fiorina easily won the once-competitive Republican gubernatorial and Senate primaries, while Jerry Brown and Barbara Boxer won the Democratic nods with only token opposition–there was a lot going on down-ballot.

First of all, California’s rich tradition of troublesome ballot initiatives was burnished yesterday as voters approved Proposition 14, which essentially abolishes party primaries in favor of a “jungle primary” system where all candidates compete without partisan ballot lines and the top two finishers compete in the general election. Prop 14 is just the latest in a series of efforts–all previously overriden by the courts or defeated by voters–to deal with perceived partisan polarization and gridlock in the state. It was the brainchild of then-state-senator, now Lt. Gov. Abel Maldonado, who made its submission to voters the condition for a tie-breaking budget vote that enraged many of his fellow-Republicans.

Gov. Arnold Schwarzenneger made approval of Prop 14 a personal project, and his PAC was the largest contributor to the campaign (which also drew support from the Chamber of Commerce and several corporate figures). The opposition, composed of Democratic Party and union activists, plus members of minor parties who would lose their general election ballot lines under a jungle primary system, didn’t spend much money or gain much attention, presumably because polls convinced them Prop 14 was sure to pass easily. In retrospect, this may have been a major strategic error, since Prop 14 was approved by a relatively narrow 54-46 margin, and won in counties (e.g., LA, Marin, Santa Clara) where a more energetic liberal opposition might have made a big difference. And even as voters approved Prop 14, they rejected Prop 15, which would have created a small public campaign financing pilot project.

California’s expertly gerrymandered U.S. House districts have always reduced the number of competitive contests, so most of the action yesterday involved intra-party challenges for relatively safe seats. An exception was CA-11, where Democrat Jerry McNerny is thought to be vulnerable. The GOP nomination was won by establishment figure Dave Harmer, who turned back outspoken conservative Brad Goehring. In CA-19, the retirement of Rep. George Radanovich produced a competitive GOP primary, with his protege, Jeff Denhman, edging former Fresno mayor (and Club for Growth favorite) Jim Patterson. And in CA-42, incumbent Republican Garry Miller struggled against self-financed Tea Party activist Phil Liberatore, but narrowly prevailed.

In the one notable Democratic House primary, Rep. Jane Harman easily beat progressive activist Marcy Winograd in a rematch from 2006.

The down-ballot statewide contests produced a lot of interesting results. Most surprisingly, the above-mentioned Lt. Gov. Abel Maldonado (appointed by Schwarzenneger to the post when Democrat John Garamendi was elected to Congress in a special election), routinely reviled as the worst of RINOs by California conservatives, beat conservative standard-bearer Sam Aanestad by 20 points, carrying not only northern and central coast areas but also several SoCal and Central Valley counties where you’d figure his name would be mud. Maldonado will face an even more famous name in November, as San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom (who dropped a gubernatorial bid earlier this year) easily bested LA political power Janice Hahn in the Democratic primary.

The Democratic primary for Attorney General featured a self-funded campaign by former Facebook chief privacy officer Chris Kelly, who ran some pretty abrasive attack ads against front-runner Kamala Harris deploring her record as a DA in San Francisco. Harris responded with her own ads blasting Kelly for his privacy-maintenance record at Facebook. Harris won the multi-candidate primary handily, beating Kelly 33-16.

In a possible glimpse of California’s political future in a “jungle primary” system, the non-partisan primary for state Superintendent of Public Instruction featured a twelve-candidate free-for-all in which the two candidates with most polarized views, retired school superintendent Larry Aceves and Democratic legislator Tom Torlakson, will apparently meet in a runoff (Torlakson barely edged another Democratic legislator, Gloria Romero, and there’s a chance provisional ballots and late-counted mail ballots could change the results). Aceves has called for legislation allowing his office to override collective bargaining agreements with teachers’ unions, while Torlakson is a down-the-line supporter of teachers’ unions. This could get interesting in the general election.

California invariably generates a few exotic “celebrity” candidacies, and aficionados of political theater were disappointed when “Birther” activist Orly Taitz lost 3-1 to former NFL player Damon Dunn in the Republican primary for Secretary of State. Contrarion blogger (or, as his Spanish-language ballot ID called him, a redactor de blogs) and would-be scourge of the public-sector unions, Mickey Kaus, did even worse in his quixotic challenge to Barbara Boxer, pulling only 5%.

They should have taken a lesson from the far more typical contemporary California pol, Meg Whitman, whose Death Star of a campaign spent close to $80 a vote, with lots more where that came from.

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