Funny political bluff story of the week in California: this Contra Costa Times report that labor groups are considering whether to back moderate Republicans in legislative primaries next year. This would supposedly be a way to punish the conservative Republicans who -- as we speak -- are refusing to put Gov. Jerry Brown's plan to extend temporary tax increases on the ballot.
You might be inclined to laugh at first blush. Wouldn't labor support -- particularly from public employee unions -- thoroughly poison the prospects of the moderate Republican challengers who accepted it?
The answer is obvious: yes, labor support would be poison. But the unions are seeking to exploit fear and confusion about what may happen when the new "top two" primary rules, approved by voters last year (with the backing of the pictured Arnold Schwarzenegger and former Lt. Gov Abel Maldonado), take effect in the 2012 legislative elections.
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In the top-two primary, candidates of all parties appear on the same ballot together. And the top two vote getters, regardless of party, advance to the general election.
So the labor plan assumes that in very Republican districts, two Republicans would advance to the general and that labor's support could be decisive.
Good luck with that. Studies of how top two works in states that have tried it (namely Washington and Louisiana) show that it's exceedingly rare for two candidates of both parties to advance, and still rarer for the moderate to win. And attempts to predict how top two primary would work in California suggest that there would be few if any districts with two Republican nominees. There would more districts that produce two Democratic nominees -- which would offer an opportunity for Republicans or anti-tax groups to hurt labor by intervening in the primary. Of course, the same problem that would defeat this supposed labor strategy -- the taint of getting Republican support would cost more votes than it gains -- would be in play here.
The reality is: the top two primary won't make our election system more competitive. Stronger medicine (including adding to the number of legislators and electing some through proportional representation) is necessary to get real competition across the state, and right now, that sort of approach is not on the political table.
And a closing irony: top-two primary will have much greater impact if the other big political reform idea of the past decade, the citizens redistricting commission, fails to create more competitive districts. In fact, top-two primary would work best to promote the election of moderates if the redistricting commission produced heavily partisan (and thus non-competitive) Democratic and Republican seats. It is precisely in a heavily partisan district that one party is most likely to produce two nominees.