Nothing gets nastier than intra-party politics.  Exhibit A is the runoff between Congressmen Howard Berman and Brad Sherman in the newly drawn 30th Congressional District.  In a debate last week, Sherman blew a gasket and grabbed Berman roughly and seemed to be challenging him to duke it out in the playground.  A deputy sheriff intervened and the two candidates resumed their verbal debate.

While this is a contest between two veteran  Democrats, it seems likely that Republican voters will determine  who wins on November 6.  Sherman led Berman  in the primary by ten points, but several Republican candidates on the ballot combined for about 40% of the vote.  True, the low turnout primary skewed more than usual to the GOP, but even in this solid Democratic district, Republicans have consistently managed to get 30-40% of the vote.  John McCain got 31% in 2008 and Meg Whitman got 35% in 2010.  If either Berman or Sherman is able to score heavily among voters who generally support Republicans, they are likely to prevail.

It has been widely noted that Berman and Sherman have similar, mainstream Democratic voting records.  Berman, however, has a much more substantial record in Washington on issues ranging from national security to intellectual property protections for the entertainment industry and funding for the 405 freeway improvements.  Sherman isn’t much of a player in Washington, but has devoted himself to the permanent campaign–concentrating on non-stop fundraising and ubiquitous appearances at ceremonial events in his district.  Sherman has been counting on his greater familiarity  to trump the fact that his legislative accomplishments are almost non-existent

Sherman’s lead in the Primary is probably attributable to the fact that his old district comprised over half of the newly drawn district–about twice the turf represented by Berman.   Turnout in the General will be much higher, so there is a big pool of voters for both candidates to woo.  Democrats are slightly under half of the registered voters in the district, while Republicans have 25% and 20% state no party preference.

In choosing between the two candidates, Republicans and more conservative independents  would seem most likely to gravitate toward Berman. Even though they have similar voting records on most issues, Berman has been an advocate of free trade and Sherman an opponent.  Berman has the strongest national security credentials of any Democrat in Congress and has been a stalwart leader in assuring the United States’ strong backing of Israel.  A number of prominent Republicans have endorsed Berman including Senator John McCain, Senator Lindsay Graham, former Mayor Richard Riordan, Supervisor Mike Antonovich, District Attorney Steve Cooley and President Reagan’s Secretary of State, George Schultz.  Independent Senator Joe Lieberman has also endorsed Berman.  Sherman hasn’t attracted any big name GOP endorsements. On the Democratic side,  Sherman touts an old endorsement from Bill Clinton, but Berman has strong backing from Governor Jerry Brown, Senators Feinstein and Boxer, Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa and Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky.

The wide-open nature of this race is another example of what the new Top Two Primary system will mean to California.  Under the old system, Sherman probably would have prevailed in a Democratic Primary on the basis of having represented more of the district and he would have swept away the Republican nominee in November.  Instead, a larger electorate comprised of Democrats, Republicans and independents will get to decide.

The contest has gotten heated with Sherman attacking Berman for his foreign travels.  Secretary Schultz and former Secretary of State Madeline Albright jumped to Berman’s defense pointing out that international visits and inspections are part of the job description for the posts Berman held as Chairman and Ranking Member of the House Foreign Affairs Committee.  Trips to places like Pakistan, Moscow and the Middle East are hard to label as junkets.  The Berman camp has pointed out Sherman’s lack of legislative impact, his profiting from loans to his campaign war chest and his habit of claiming credit for things he had nothing to do with, like securing funding for improvements on the 405 Freeway.  Sherman’s debate meltdown may be a sign that he is feeling the heat.

This donnybrook will continue for the next three weeks.  For once, in this Democratic District, Republicans and independents won’t have to be powerless spectators, since they will have a huge say in who wins.