Uprooting intense partisanship in Washington would be easier if fewer legislators represented safe, ideologically homogenous districts. Or so reformers have long maintained. Now, with the final results in from legislative races in California, that thesis will get a real-world test.
California conducted two important election experiments this year. It switched from a system of traditional party primaries to one in which the top two candidates move on to the general election regardless of their party affiliations. In addition, it took redistricting powers out of the state legislature and invested them in a nonpartisan citizens commission.
This is not to say that politics changed overnight. More than four in five races in California for the U.S. House of Representatives this year included an incumbent legislator, and more than nine in 10 incumbents won. Spending reached predictably astronomical levels, with close contests in the 10th and 52nd Congressional Districts each attracting more than $8 million from outside groups -- a vast amount to devote to individual House races.
Yet there were promising returns. Two races featuring longtime incumbent Republicans Dan Lungren and Brian Bilbray were so close they were decided only in recent days (both lost). Among races with candidates from opposing parties, 18 percent had a victory margin of less than 10 points, more than double the 7 percent average over the past decade, according to the Public Policy Institute of California. Meanwhile, there were nine congressional districts and 19 state districts featuring general election candidates from the same party; most of those races were more competitive than in the past.
In the heavily Republican 8th District, the top-two system worked according to plan, with Democrats helping to elect Paul Cook, the more moderate of two Republican candidates. In the heavily Democratic 15th, Republicans returned the favor, helping to oust a sometimes-cantankerous incumbent, 81-year-old Pete Stark, in favor of Eric Swalwell, a challenger almost 50 years younger. And in the marginally Democratic 31st District, where a crowded field of Democrats allowed two Republicans to claim the top spots, the victor, Representative Gary Miller, now has greater incentive for moderation.
The new system won’t resolve the Republican Party’s struggles in the state. Republicans lost seats in both the state legislature and the congressional delegation. But more-competitive districts and a top-two primary system may create more opportunities for Republican moderates to win seats, regain influence and shape a better future for their party.
California was not alone in its experimentation. In Arizona, which adopted a similarly nonpartisan redistricting process, three House districts were newly competitive; the race for the seat of former Representative Gabrielle Giffords was so close it was only decided over the past weekend.
Less-partisan districts and a top-two primary system won’t eliminate the partisan incentives that dictate much behavior in Washington. But early returns suggest Californians have adopted smart election innovations that may provide a boost to moderate political leaders of all stripes. If it works in California, it can work elsewhere.
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