California effort to alter '08 race stalls

The initiative promised to end the winner-take-all system. Now there's no money to solicit voter signatures.

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

California's Presidential Election Reform Act was supposed to end the state's winner-take-all jackpot (55 electoral votes) for presidential candidates.

Because the proposed ballot initiative was likely to provide an unusual windfall for Republicans – perhaps as many as a third of the state's electoral votes – it sent Democrats into paroxysms when it was announced in August.

But just two weeks after activists began collecting signatures to meet a deadline at the end of November, two initiative leaders resigned Sept. 27, effectively shuttering operations.

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"We have stopped gathering signatures because we have no money," says Mike Arno, head of a Sacramento, Calif.-based grass-roots firm that was hired to collect signatures.

What scared donors away is a story of political will unleashed by Democrats both in and out of California who opposed the initiative, political analysts say.

Early polls showed the measure had a respectable chance of success, with 47 percent supporting the idea and 35 percent opposing it, according to a California Field Poll taken in mid-August.

But before signature-gatherers hit the streets, the California Democratic Party took out TV, radio, and print ads against the proposal, which was unusual since it hadn't been vetted by voters. The state party sent out 800,000 e-mails to solicit an eventual army of 800 volunteers who went to petition sites and talked people out of signing.

"From Day 1, we were out on the field blasting everything they were doing – and it went down in flames in record time," says Bob Mulholland, spokesman for the California Democratic Party.

The Democrats' army of self-proclaimed "fraud busters" also lobbied newspaper editorial boards and bloggers, articulating why they believed it was a blatant power-grab.

The initiative would have required California's electoral votes to be distributed according to the popular vote winner in each congressional district. If the measure had passed, it probably would have changed the outcome of the 2008 presidential election, while creating a domino effect for other states to similarly rewrite their electoral rules, many political analysts said.

Eventually, 16 newspapers, including The New York Times, the San Diego Tribune, the San Francisco Chronicle, the Orange Country Register, and the Sacramento Bee, editorialized against it.

All the opposition publicity was impeding the effort, observers say. In a little more than 10 days, Mr. Arno's firm collected 100,000 signatures, 334,000 shy of what they would need by the end of November to qualify for the June 2008 ballot. And the campaign received just two checks – one for $175,000 and the other for $5,000, Arno says.

"The Democrats did a very good job of frightening away potential donors," says Dan Schnur, a former Republican consultant who teaches political communication at University of California, Berkeley and the University of Southern California. "The hiring of people to counter petition-gatherers on the street is a very aggressive pushback. Getting donors to step out in public while that is going on in the early going is a challenge."

Heading up the opposition against the initiative has been Democratic consultant Chris Lehane, former press secretary to Al Gore and spokesman for Californians for Fair Election Reform. His push was backed by wealthy donors, including real estate investor and movie producer Stephen Bing, who is supporting Hillary Rodham Clinton for president.

Last week, it was revealed that Paul Singer, a billionaire hedge-fund executive and a major New York fundraiser for GOP presidential candidate Rudolph Giuliani had donated the $175,000 to initiative proponents. He had given the money to "Take Initiative America," a company formed by a lawyer based in Missouri.

By the time Mr. Singer's identity came out, opponents had cast doubt on the operation because the Missouri corporation didn't fully disclose the source.

Foes, such as Mr. Lehane, threatened legal action, claiming that the donation violated federal campaign-finance laws if the Giuliani campaign could be linked to it. "If you're a presidential candidate, you or your agents can't direct money to a campaign that impacts the presidential campaign … and there's no better way to rig the campaign than to impact the electoral college system," Lehane says.

Giuliani has denied any link between his campaign and Singer's donation to the initiative; no connection has been proven. Even so, the damage was done.

"It became a situation in which we needed transparency to effectively advocate our position, and we were not served by keeping things secret or shadowy," says Kevin Eckery, spokesman for the initiative campaign told the Monitor before he resigned Thursday. "Although we never had anything to hide, certainly having this unfold this way was going to make fundraising more difficult."

Analysts point to several other reasons for the initiative's failure to gain traction. A recent San Francisco Chronicle poll showed the percent of people supporting it dropped to 25 percent. Organizers did not allow themselves sufficient time to gather signatures. And state Republicans, notably Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger and Rep. Dan Lungren, came out against the initiative.

"To me, what we have in place works," said Mr. Schwarzenegger. "I feel like if you all of a sudden in the middle of the game start changing the rules, it's kind of odd."

National Democratic leaders, Democratic National Committee chairman, Howard Dean and Sen. Barbara Boxer of California also took aim at the measure, comparing the tactics used to those employed in the "Swift Boat Veterans for Truth" campaign, which attacked Democratic presidential nominee Sen. John Kerry in 2004.

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