New Primary Rules Force Politicians to Think

John Wildermuth
Journalist and Political Commentator

For those folks still saying California’s primary election changes aren’t doing a thing, take a look at the House vote to end the government shutdown.

Seven of California’s 15 GOP congressmen (and yes, they are all men), went against the majority of their Republican brethren and supported the Senate plan to end the House GOP-led shutdown and send hundreds of thousands of federal employees back to work.

Now it could be a coincidence that two of the seven, Gary Miller of Rancho Cucamonga and Hanford’s David Valadao, are among the Democrats top targets in 2014 and represent district that, when redrawn before the 2012 elections, became instantly more competitive.

Nah.

Both Miller and Valadao are experienced politicians capable of testing the wind to know how the shutdown was playing in their districts. And unlike officeholders in the safe districts that the state Legislature’s old “incumbent protection” redistricting plan provided before 2012, they know that they will have to explain their votes to everyone in the district, not just their party faithful.

Valadao’s Central Valley district, for instance, has a 47 percent to 32 percent Democratic majority and President Obama took 55 percent of the presidential vote there in 2012. Valadao, who owns a family dairy, won an easy victory over a Democratic opponent for the open seat, but those numbers say he is always going to be a Democratic target.

Miller, who was first elected to Congress in 1998, already can thank the primary rules changes for his job. An election scramble among Democrats in 2012 split their vote so badly that the two leading candidates in the new “top two” election were both Republicans, with Miller coming out on top.

Democrats called Miller’s election a fluke and vowed to win back the San Bernardino County seat. With Democrats holding a solid 55-45 registration edge in a district where Obama took 57 percent of the vote, most experts already are writing Miller’s political obituary.

But there’s a reason we have elections. And politicians know you don’t win a tight race by alienating big chunks of the people whose votes you desperately need.

Both Valadao and Miller represent districts with big Latino populations and it turns out that Latinos really, really disliked the government shutdown. A poll released Oct. 17 by the Natural Resources Defense Council found that 82 percent of the Latinos surveyed disapproved of the job Congress was doing, 70 percent opposed the shutdown and 71 percent didn’t like the way Republicans in Congress were doing business.

If you’re a GOP congressman in a heavily Latino district, you don’t have to be a political genius to know what the crowd-pleasing vote would be.

Now geography – and voter registration – isn’t always destiny. Republican Jeff Denham’s Turlock district looks a lot like Valadao’s and Miller’s, albeit with a narrower Democratic edge. Yet he was perfectly happy to vote against ending the shutdown.

Vulnerability – or lack of it — might play a role in that decision. While Denham is typically listed a Democratic target for 2014, even the party leaders don’t really believe that.

“Jeff would be hard to get,” John Burton, the state Democratic chair, told The San Francisco Chronicle. “The shutdown doesn’t look good … but Jeff’s an affable guy.”

But Miller and Valadao can also see the downside of Denham’s vote. Americans United for Change, a liberal advocacy group, already is firing off e-mails charging “Denham recklessly and irresponsibly voted against the bipartisan deal to end the Tea Party government shutdown, despite its toll on the nation’s economic growth.”

It’s a safe bet the shutdown vote is going to be a major focus of the Democratic effort against Denham next year and will be used to pull more money into the contest against him.

Again, that’s trouble neither Miller nor Valadao need.

Yet, as Freud may or may not have said, “Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar.” There are plenty of reasons a Republican may have voted for or against the shutdown bill, not least of which may be a sincere belief that vote was the best choice for the country.

But politicians, Democrats and Republicans both, in districts where perpetual re-election is no longer a guarantee at least have to consider the political ramification their choices will have on all the voters in the district. That’s a stretch they didn’t have to do in years past.

That’s a change in California and one that’s good for the state and even better for the people those politicians represent.

John Wildermuth is a longtime writer on California politics.

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