Friday, February 13, 2015
Texas runoff harks back to 1-party state | Last Word
The wild and woolly race for Leticia Van de Putte’s seat in the Texas Senate is both a throwback to Lone Star days of old and a Texas test of a new election reform in California.
Because this is a special election, the first round was not a pair of separate primaries for Democrats and Republicans.
It was, in effect, an “open primary,” open to Republicans, Democrats, Libertarians, Greens and even Whigs.
But this particular race is in a district that leans Democrat.
So the two candidates who won the most votes – State Representatives Jose Menendez and Trey Martinez-Fischer -- are both Democrats.
If this were a normal primary, anybody who had voted in a separate Republican primary would be barred from voting in the run-off.
It would be a Democrats-only affair.
But because it’s a special election, everyone is welcome.
This makes it like old times, when Texas was a one-party state.
From the end of Reconstruction – when the Republican Party was truly the Party of Lincoln – Texas and the rest of the former Confederacy was uniformly Democratic.
The political battle wasn’t between Republicans and Democrats.
It was between conservative Democrats and liberal Democrats.
The Democratic primary was all that mattered, and so even Republicans voted in the Democratic primary.
Now, once again, Republicans get to side with the Democrat of their choice.
But if this feels like the politics of the 19th and most of the 20th centuries, it also resembles the politics of 21st century California in the wake of a reform of its primaries.
In 2010, California voters passed a proposition making its primaries like Texas’ special elections.
There is only one primary and one ballot, featuring Republicans, Democrats and anyone else.
The two top vote-getters – whether Democrat or Republican – face each other in the general election.
The proposition was backed by Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, himself a moderate Republican.
The argument was that the parties had become too polarized.
Redistricting had left few districts that weren’t heavily Republican or Democrat.
The result was lower voter turnouts in primaries, and candidates who went further to the extremes to appeal to their “base.”
By doing away with the separate primaries, it was believed, candidates would have to appeal in the runoff not just to their “base,” but also to independents and members of the other party.
The result would be more moderate winners.
Californians disagree on how effective the results have been.
There is some evidence that the new system has led to some moderation.
In the 2012 elections, more than a dozen Republican candidates refused to sign the Grover Norquist pledge not to raise taxes – previously a staple in nearly every Republican race.
Others argue, however, that because Democrats in California, as in Texas, turn out at lower rates than Republicans, Democratic candidates sometimes have to be more strident to rally the base.
Menendez is working hard to reach out to Republicans. And the Republican-oriented Texans for Lawsuit Reform have spent over a half million dollars attacking Martinez-Fischer and boosting Menendez.
Meanwhile, Martinez-Fischer has appealed to Democrats by accusing Menendez of “partnering” with the TLR, which he says spent more than half a million opposing Leticia Van de Putte in her race for lieutenant governor.
“… the Republicans are partnering with Jose Menendez, who is willing to sell out Leticia Van de Putte and San Antonio families for political gain,” Martinez-Fischer charged in a mailer that hit San Antonio mailboxes this week.
Menendez has a tall hill to climb.
He won only 25 percent to Martinez-Fischer’s 46 percent in the first round.
So Menendez is fighting to get nearly all the 48 percent of two Republican candidates combined to win.
And both candidates are trying to increase the anemically low turnout in the first round, which took place during the Christmas holidays.