By PETE GOLIS
“The people love extremes, sir. You get people riled up with extremes. You can’t have a rally of moderates.”
— Comic Stephen Colbert, in mock interview with California Lt. Gov. Abel Maldonado, the author of Proposition 14.
True or false: Fewer than one in four Sonoma County voters is a Republican.
The answer is, true. According to the April 9 report from the secretary of state, Republicans account for 22.9 percent of the registered voters. There are more than twice as many Democrats, 52.5 percent and almost as many decline-to-state voters, 19.5 percent.
While it may be pleasant to pretend that local legislative races are competitive, if you’re a Republican who wants to win an election here, good luck with that. (In 2008, Democrat Barack Obama outpolled his Republican rival, John McCain, by more than three-to-one.)
It’s been more than 15 years since a Republican won a congressional or legislative election that involved Sonoma County. (Extra points if you named Rep. Frank Riggs of Windsor. He served three non-consecutive terms — and then fled to Arizona.)
One-party domination, however, does not lead to contented voters. It’s a common refrain in each November election: I voted, but I wasn’t happy about my choices.
More often than not, closed primaries leave voters with a choice between a Republican nominee whose views place him to the right of most voters and a liberal Democrat supported primarily by public employees’ groups.
In the vast space between these two party nominees, you find frustrated voters — moderate Democrats, decline-to-state voters, moderate Republicans — all of them weary of the polar ideologies that have crippled state government.
How disillusioned are state voters? The Public Policy Institute of California reported last week that among likely voters, the state Legislature has an approval rating of 11 percent.
This dissatisfaction drives the current campaign for Proposition 14 on the June 8 ballot. In simple terms, this measure decrees that the top two vote getters in the June primary, regardless of party, will run-off in November.
In places like Sonoma County, a new study found last week, that could mean that both candidates are Democrats.
The report by the Center for Governmental Studies focuses on legislative and congressional districts in which one party enjoys a supermajority, defined as an advantage in registration of 25 percent or more.
If you want to know why you don’t see Republicans excited about winning elections in the North Bay, consider this: In the seven legislative and congressional districts that touch Sonoma County, Democrats enjoy supermajorities in five and substantial majorities (defined as a registration advantage of more than 20 percent) in the other two.
Primarily in the Bay Area and Los Angeles, Democrats have supermajorities in 15 of 40 Senate districts, 28 of 80 Assembly districts and 19 of 53 congressional districts.
These one-party districts are the product of partisan redistricting plans, but they also speak to patterns of migration. California is growing its own version of red states and blue states — Republican majorities in the inland counties, Democratic majorities along the coast.
It is in these super-majority districts, the CGS study says, that Proposition 14 would be most likely to produce November elections featuring two candidates from the same party.
If the measure was in force during the 2006 and 2008 elections, the report recounts, candidates from the same party would have been general election opponents in 11 legislative and congressional districts.
What can’t be predicted is how the law might change the political calculus of individual districts.
Over time, the CGS study says, open primaries would tend to move California’s political debate toward the center because candidates could no longer depend on the most conservative Republican voters or the most liberal Democrats to secure a party’s nomination.
It’s no surprise, then, that the interest groups that thrive in the current political environment oppose Proposition 14. When public employees’ unions and the Howard Jarvis Taxpayers’ Association are joined in opposition, we come to the moment in which groups that prefer political combat find common ground.
“(The system is) dysfunctional because the party bosses on both sides want to manipulate everything,” Lt. Gov. Abel Maldonado, the author of Proposition 14, told Stephen Colbert. “We’ve got to end that.” Maldonado, sworn-in as lieutenant governor on Tuesday, turned up on Comedy Central’s “The Colbert Report” on Thursday.
In both parties, the professional politicians want to characterize Proposition 14 as an attack on the two-party system, but most of the wounds are self-inflicted.
More than one in five California voters now refuses to affiliate with any political party. The number of decline-to-state voters has increased by half since 1998.
Whether they are decline-to-state voters or merely disgusted, millions of Californians no longer feel at home in either party.
With the start of absentee balloting only a week away, Proposition 14 asks voters to decide whether their frustration with the political dysfunction in state government trumps their historic loyalties to one party organization or the other.
For now, we live in a state in which people are embarrassed by their government, but incumbents win elections anyway. If you want people to have faith in a democracy, this is no place to be.
Pete Golis is a columnist for The Press Democrat. CLICK HERE to read his blog, Golis Being Golis.