Ever since California changed their election laws in 2010, I’ve been thinking about how to orchestrate a progressive insurgency from the Golden State. Despite my obsession, my ideas are still somewhat nebulous. Now I’m beginning to think about how the moderate, pro-business right can use some of the same ideas to revive the right’s fortunes in California and take the fight to the Tea Party.
The need is obvious. The Republicans are doing so badly in California with women, Latinos, Asians, and young people, that their party is effectively dead. Business leaders have already concluded that it’s more promising to support moderate Democrats than to spend a dime on Republicans.
The business community, always focused on the bottom line, increasingly sees moderate Democrats as the best investment for campaign dollars. The GOP just hasn’t been producing.
“We’re going to be redoubling our effort to help elect Democrats who understand business,” says Rob Lapsley, president of the Business Roundtable.
That’s what is happening right now in Georgia, where business leaders are lining up to fund Michelle Nunn’s Democratic campaign to win an open Senate seat.
“The vast majority of Americans say they don’t want the government to shut down, they want middle ground,” said John Wieland, founder of John Wieland Homes and Neighborhoods Inc., who together with his wife penned checks totaling $10,400 to Nunn’s Democratic U.S. Senate bid. In the 2010 midterms, the Wielands each gave $4,800 to the Republican Senate candidate.
“Michelle understands that middle ground, and that’s why we wrote the checks,” Wieland said.
It’s a sentiment shared by some business donors from Virginia to Arkansas, and one Democrats want to spread as the parties vie for control of the Senate in the 2014 midterms.
But why give to Democrats if you can find reasonable Republicans instead? If control of the Republican Party is slipping away from business leaders, maybe California is the place to attempt a comeback.
With 53 congressional seats, California lawmakers are collectively 12% of the House of Representatives. It’s incredibly easy to get on the ballot, and their nonpartisan blanket primary system makes it possible to run against a Republican without diminishing the right’s chances of electing a candidate. Likewise, it is possible to run against a Democrat without diminishing the left’s chances of electing a candidate.
Unlike in most states, California holds a primary where candidates are not formally endorsed by the parties. Instead, candidates indicate which party they “prefer.” You can say that you prefer the Republican Party or the Tea Party or the DisneyLand Party. And because no one can win without achieving a majority, and there is a second election between the two top vote getters, you won’t normally hurt your side of the political divide’s chances by bleeding off some of their votes.
To give a brief example of what I mean, in the 2000 presidential election in Florida, Ralph Nader got enough votes that would have otherwise gone to Al Gore to make the election close enough to steal. The result was eight years of catastrophe with George W. Bush as our president. Under California’s primary rules for most elections, there would have been a second election without Nader on the ballot. Al Gore would have won. Moreover, a lot of people would have been freed up to express their support for Nader in the first go around because they wouldn’t have had to worry that it would hurt Gore’s chances.
One result of this system is that it is possible to have the top two primary vote recipients come from the same party. When this happens, the two meet in a general election, and the more moderate candidate has the advantage because the other side of the political divide will be more inclined to vote for them.
What I have mind is basically a two-step process. It works a little differently for business-minded people on the right than it would for progressives on the left. The first step is to come up with a party name that clearly indicates that the candidate is on the right, but also that they are not from the socially-conservative, xenophobic Tea Party wing of the right.
The business community would provide seed money for a couple dozen candidates and run them in the districts where they are either likely to wind up in a general election against a conservative Republican or a fairly far-left Democrat in a somewhat competitive district.
In a race between a conservative Republican and a moderate “Republican,” the Democrats and independents in the district will vote in large numbers for the “Republican.” And in districts that are competitive, a far-left Democrat may not be able to hold enough of the middle to beat a moderate challenger. This would be particularly true if the moderate were pro-choice, pro-gay rights, pro-immigration reform, and environmentally responsible.
The second step is key. To illustrate it, it will be helpful to give this hypothetical right-wing party a name. Let’s call it the Republican Reform Party. The second step is that all the people who are elected on the Republican Reform Party ticket will agree to go to Congress and vote for one of their own on the first ballot to elect a Speaker of the House.
I need to explain how this would work. The Speaker of the House is elected by the entire body of the House of Representatives, not by the members of any one caucus. And the Speaker must win an absolute majority (218 votes) of the 435 members. Right now, I think there are 233 Republicans and 200 Democrats, with two vacancies. So, if 16 Republican Reform members were elected and refused to vote for a Republican on the first ballot, no one would get a majority. At that point, they could negotiate with the Republicans to get a moderate Speaker with the threat of voting for the Democratic candidate on the second ballot. They would have the power to make or break the Speaker both before they were elected and then every day after they were elected. That is because any member can call for a new election on the officers of the House at any time.
So, the goal would be to get about sixteen Republican Reform members elected. Washington and Louisiana have similar electoral systems and sixteen additional congressional seats to pick from. Added to California’s 53 seats, that makes 69 seats in states with these kind of primaries. Could a Republican Reform Party funded by moderate business leaders find sixteen winnable races in that pool of 69 seats?
I think it’s possible.
For starters, some new polling shows that Tea Party members are currently more satisfied with the Republican Party than non-Tea Party members. And the non-Tea Party Republicans are beginning to really pine for a third party alternative.
The most recent Wall Street Journal/NBC News poll, offers a stark window into widening divisions within the GOP over strategy and what kind of leaders Republicans want going forward…
Asked if they would be more likely to vote for an independent or third-party candidate for Congress if one existed in their district, just 19% of Democrats said they would.
But among all Republicans, that number was 28%. And among wavering Republicans—who constituted nearly a quarter of the poll’s registered voters—the desire to vote for a third-party candidate was a startling 41%.
There is no reason for business leaders to prefer a party that is as socially conservative as the modern GOP. While some in the energy producing industries might like climate change denialism, most business leaders have no use for such silliness. But, more than anything else, business leaders want a viable right-wing party that will protect their interests. They don’t have that anymore. California business leaders have already internalized this, but so far their only solution is to try to buy off Democrats. Some business-minded Republicans are talking about getting involved in Republican primaries, but they won’t get very far with that. In ordinary primaries, the most conservative candidate starts out with a huge advantage.
It’s time to try something else. The Republican Party’s national future can be seen in the California Republican Party’s present. It is doomed. And it’s already worse than useless to the business community. It’s time to launch a real third party effort in California, Washington, and Louisiana.