Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Incumbents versus activists in California

I mentioned a while back the efforts by California Republicans to adapt to Proposition 14, the top-two primary system that voters approved last fall. The party had originally proposed conducting pre-primary endorsements of preferred candidates, so Republican voters would have an idea of whom the party preferred going into a primary election. This proposal, put forward by state party chair Ron Nehring, included a litmus test: the party would not endorse its own incumbents if they had supported a tax increase or if they had endorsed a candidate of another party in a general election.

Well, surprise surprise, the incumbents didn't like this plan. No, none of them plan to vote for a tax increase, but they don't like having their hands tied by the party and they don't like facing an automatic penalty for any future decision they might make. So incumbents on the party's rules committee recently amended the litmus test portion of the proposal to appear as follows:
Nine months prior to the close off filing, any incumbent legislator, statewide elected official, member of Congress, United States Senator, or member of the State Board of Equalization seeking re-election to the same office my request an early nomination. Any such request shall be conveyed to the Board of Directors. If no director objects within 30 days of receipt thereof, then such incumbent will be deemed the nominee. In the event of an objection, the Board of Directors shall vote on such nomination and may elect such incumbent as the nominee by majority vote. The Board of Directors may withdraw a nomination by a two thirds votes.
In other words, the re-nomination of the incumbents is automatic unless party officials take serious and rapid steps to stop it. This is, to my mind, a perfect manifestation of the traditional struggle between party activists and officeholders. You'd think they'd agree on just about all areas of substance, and they largely do, at least at first. Republican incumbents in California have largely been selected through the processes of socialization and nomination to be very conservative. Yes, occasionally a moderate like Abel Maldonado or Arnold Schwarzenegger will sneak through, but that's very rare. (Notably, Schwarzenegger only got in through the 2003 recall, which had no primary.)

So why would party activists be concerned about their ability to punish incumbents for un-Republican behavior? Because politicians are unreliable partisans once they're in office. They quickly learn that party activists are not the only people in their districts, and they figure they can increase their electoral safety margin by moderating somewhat. They also might get to know legislators in the other party and discover that they have good ideas once in a while. On top of that, many politicians have an innate desire to win the approval of others. Advancing an agenda is good, but being popular has its appeals, too.

If Republican party activists just elected good people and let them do their jobs, there's no telling what might happen. They could vote to balance the budget by raising taxes! They might be persuaded that public schools are underperforming and vote to raise teacher pay! They might decide that, as much as they personally despise abortion, it's not right to force poor women to carry a baby to term! Cats and dogs sleeping together! Mass hysteria!

So the party likes to keep the axe of de-nomination hanging precipitously and visibly over incumbents' heads. They don't use it that often because they don't have to; Republican incumbents know they'll be punished for going too moderate, so they stay conservative. The party keeps the skulls of apostates like Abel Maldonado on pikes atop the castle walls as reminders.

Update: The state GOP has also proposed conducting its own mail-in nomination contest among registered Republican voters.

(h/t Eric McGhee)

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