In California, new primary system faces big test

(CBS News) Mitt Romney may have the Republican presidential nomination locked down, but Tuesday's California primary will not be without import. As voters across the state head to the polls, they'll be testing out a new "jungle" primary system in a state with significantly redrawn district maps. And with Democrats pinning high hopes on California for their 2012 congressional prospects, the election is shaping up to be as high-stakes as it is unpredictable.

"Anybody who tells you they know how this will turn out is lying," said Dan Schnur, a former Republican strategist who is now the director of the Jesse M. Unruh Institute of Politics at the University of Southern California. "We've never done this before. No one knows what will happen."

A new nominating process

Chief among the factors that impacting Tuesday's results is the fact Californians will be testing out the results of a newly-enacted open primary system for the first time en masse. Thanks to Proposition 14, the ballot measure that Californians approved in June 2010, candidates running for U.S. Congress, the state legislature, or other statewide offices now compete in a non-partisan open primary. Whether Republican or Democrat, Independent or Libertarian, Tea Party or Green Party, everyone's in the same contest. Only the top-two vote-getters will compete in November.

Subsequently, two candidates from the same party could end up running against each other in the general election -- a scenario many are expecting to see play out in dozens of races across the state.

One likely example of this is in California's 30th congressional district, where Democratic Reps. Howard Berman and Brad Sherman -- two incumbents going up against each other as a result of redistricting in the state -- are expected to finish in first and second place. If that happens, they'll compete again in November's general election to hold on to their seats.

According to Allan Hoffenbloom, publisher of the nonpartisan California Target Book, which analyzes California congressional contests, the open primary system will provide a new outlet for the independent voters in the state to express their political beliefs. According to the latest voter registration, 21 percent of California voters identified as having no party affiliation.

"Under the closed system independents basically had very little impact," said Hoffenbloom. "This is the first election in which independents get a ballot just like everybody else. They can vote for anyone they want. This is also the first time that independents can actually enter the primary and run as independents."

Moreover, the new system could compel candidates to run on a broader -- and less partisan -- appeal.

"What we're noticing is that California's races and California's primaries have become more personal and less ideological as candidates play to a wider audience, which they've never really had the chance to do before," said David Wasserman, the House Editor of The Cook Political Report, in an interview with Hotsheet. "It's creating an atmosphere in which more strategic voting takes place. It's more conducive to voters crossing over... when their own side doesn't have a chance of winning. That has allowed candidates to run closer to the middle than they ordinarily would."

That doesn't necessarily mean, however, the top-two candidates will be ideologically more moderate.

"There's a lot of people who will tell you that this will lead to the election of more moderate politicians. That may or may not be true," said Schnur. "My own opinion is that the competitive elections lead to the election not of more moderate candidates but more responsive candidates."

A redrawn map

California's new primary process isn't the only change voters will encounter at the polls on Tuesday: Since its last election, the state has undergone a dramatic redistricting process, conducted for the first time by an independent commission, that will make a number of races competitive for the first time in years. Of the state's 53 congressional districts, nine have no incumbent on the ballot.

The old rules, according to Schnur, "essentially prohibited compromise" because districts were drawn in such a heavily partisan fashion that an incumbent faced little competition from a challenger from the other party. He pointed out that of the 265 individual elections that have taken place since the last time California's districts were redrawn, only one has gone to a candidate of the non-incumbent party.

"You knew that you would never lose a general election campaign," he said. "You could have that job as long as you wanted unless you decided to compromise on the other side of the aisle."

This time around, however, the districts were drawn with the specific intent of introducing competition into the system.

And according to Wasserman, a dozen seats previously safe for one party or the other are now in play.

"[The redistricting process] took a map that was entirely uncompetitive and created about a dozen seats that are at least somewhat competitive between the parties in November," he said.

Democratic hopes for the House

Democrats are hoping to capitalize on this new competitiveness to make big gains in the House of Representatives this fall.

House Majority Leader Nancy Pelosi has gone so far as to say that the "road to the majority runs through California," an assessment with Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee deputy executive director Jennifer Crider readily agrees.

"For the past decade only a single seat changed control in California," Crider told Hotsheet. "This cycle Democrats could pick up four or five seats in California while protecting our incumbents."

Brock McCleary, Deputy Political Director of the National Republican Congressional Committee, acknowledged in an interview that Democrats could pick up a few seats in California. But if the Republican strategy goes as planned, he says, they'll have to spend a lot of time and money in their efforts to do so.

"The strategic objective for Democrats is to run the table in California. It's really the only way for them to have a legitimate conversation about putting the House in play," he said. "Our strategic objective is to tie them down and make them fight for races and spend money in California" to detract from their efforts elsewhere.

Because California is generally more Democratic than Republican (43 percent of the state's voters are registered Democrat, 30 percent Republican), Democrats are expected to gain the advantage in the recent redistricting. But Wasserman suggests that edge may not be quite as significant as Democrats may hope.

"Democrats probably need four or five [pick-ups] from California to take back the House," he said Monday. "Today it's looking more like they'll get two or three."

"Redistricting has created new opportunities for both parties," he added.

High-cost candidacies

The newly-competitive nature of California's primaries, as well as the perception of high-stakes, is leading to high-cost campaigns for candidates all over. In the 30th congressional district, the campaigns for both Berman and Sherman have already spent millions on the primary.

"If you know that the outcome of a congressional race is absolutely safe, you don't spend any money on it," said Schnur. "But because there are more competitive races now, that means that there are campaigns where a significant amount of money can make a difference."

And while outside groups have contributed significant resources as well - Berman has benefited from more than $500,000 in super PAC money, and Sherman has benefited from more than $400,000 in super PAC funds - Crider expects that the full impact of the super PACs won't fully be felt until after the primary.

"That will mostly come during the general election," she said.