With the latest entrant into California’s Secretary of State campaign comes this irony: I’m not the best-known Republican in the race, but I am the only Republican.
When I asked Dan Schnur’s advice about my run for Secretary of State last April, he asked me why I was running. My answer was simple: with my background in encouraging civic engagement through technology and better processes at the local level I could promote the “civic health” of California. Dan, looking amused, replied (and I’m paraphrasing here), “that’s nice, but you need to tie your campaign to a larger issue because most folks don’t know about the office.”
At the end of our conversation, Dan added (again, paraphrasing), “you might start to hear some people talking about me possibly running for Secretary of State.” What an odd way to end our conversation I thought, but these last couple weeks have clarified both his advice, and his concluding words. As I read Dan’s reasons for running as a “No Party Preference” (NPP) candidate, I’m struck by the “larger issue” he’s staked out. He appears to be taking on party politics – starting with the California GOP.
It’s one thing to say that the secretary of state should conduct the office in a non-partisan way, as I have argued. It’s quite another to say that a “moderate” third party should emerge in what is today barely a two-party state. Shortly before word circulated about his own NPP run, Dan wrote in the New York Times, “The prospect of a serious independent or third-party movement at the national level remains a long shot. But keep an eye on California, whose voters recently instituted a primary system in which the top two finishers regardless of party affiliation now go on to a general election.” Keep an eye on California, indeed.
Later in the piece, Dan lays his dream on the table: “The next logical step is for principled independents, with no inherent obligation to the base of either party, to emerge as a vital political force in state capitals across the country.”
Ah, yes, the dreaded “base of either party” – those engaged, informed, and yes, partisan Californians who are the enemies of every good government reformer.
Before we further confuse parties with uncompromising partisanship, let’s clear up a couple myths:
1. The Myth of California NPP Voters as a Monolithic Group of Moderates and Independents: One interesting development in California voter engagement has been the incredible growth of “no party preference” voters. As PPIC noted in their August 2013 report on the subject, NPP voters have increased from 15.3% of the electorate in 2003 to 20.9% in 2013. But blanketing this group with a single term – like “Independent” – is a little bit like calling a room of UCLA, USC, Cal and Stanford supporters, “football fans”. They may all love college football, and they may all support the PAC-12 over the Big 10, but that’s where the agreement ends.
Research by Cal Tech’s Michael Alvarez and Andrew Sinclair on California’s NPP voters uncovers a wide disparity in political support among those who register NPP. For example, in common parlance “moderate Republican” refers to someone socially liberal (on abortion and gay marriage) and fiscally conservative, while the “moderate Democrat” can be seen as the opposite. But Alvarez and Sinclair found that less than 5% of NPP voters fit this “moderate Republican” category, while only about 4% fit the “moderate Democrat” mold. Far more NPP respondents (almost 18%) held “partisan Democrat” views– supporting a mix of tax increases and cuts, along with approving gay marriage, supporting choice on abortion, and backing the national health care law.
2. The Myth that Parties are Filled with Extremists: Having reregistered as NPP back in 2011, Dan recently suggested that with the Republican Party’s apparent consumption by social conservatives and Democrats’ vice-grip hold on status quo big government policies, “I’m not sure that either party would have me.”
California’s last Republican governor was a moderate on social issues, our last gubernatorial nominee was pro-choice, and even former Republican Governors Pete Wilson and George Deukmejian’s positions on issues like abortion are not ideologically pure. We have a rumored Republican gubernatorial candidate in 2014 in Neel Kashkari who is also a moderate on social issues. This is also becoming increasingly true of legislative candidates too. Just last month, moderate Republican Susan Shelley came within a few hundred votes of winning the 45th Assembly seat, and the story is similar where it matches the politics of the district, like Catharine Baker, who is running well in the 14th Assembly District.
Unlike Washington’s gridlock, California’s real political plague isn’t too much party debate, but too little. Even many of my Democrat friends are concerned about California’s one-party rule. In particular, they worry about what former Mayor of New York Mike Bloomberg called the “labor electoral complex.” The answer to this challenge in California lies not in weakening parties, but rather in strengthening the Republican Party to rebalance the system. In politics, organization beats disorganization every time.
Parties do have their problems, but they reflect important differences in our understandings about the role of government in our lives, and provide points of connection between citizens at the local level and the distant machinations in Sacramento and Washington, DC. If you care about civic engagement, you should care about the “health” of parties.
As Secretary of State, I will continue to support and defend the decision of all Californians to register as NPP, just as I would for their right to register as Democrats, Republicans, Greens, Libertarians or any other party. But in California, there is a difference between NPP voters and NPP candidates-especially when the latter is drawn from one side of the aisle.
To overcome its many long-term challenges, the Golden State needs both increased civic engagement and a revived Republican Party—two things I will prioritize in the coming months.
In 1976, another California Republican felt pushed to the edges of his party. In an impromptu speech at the contentious Republican Convention that year, Ronald Reagan declared, “This is our challenge; and this is why here in this hall tonight, better than we have ever done before, we have got to quit talking to each other and about each other and go out and communicate to the world that we may be fewer in numbers than we have ever been, but we carry the message they are waiting for.”
I believe Reagan’s words are still true for today’s California – for reasons both similar and different. And as a Republican candidate, I don’t decline to state it.