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Will California's nonpartisan primary result in more moderate candidates?

Under the new format, the two candidates for California office receiving the most votes will advance regardless of their party affiliation. Proponents say it will result in less partisanship.

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Critics say the new system will just be costlier and more confusing, bringing more candidates into the race.

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“Right now there’s just confusion,” says Barbara O’Connor, director emeritus of the Institute for Study of Politics and Media at California State University, Sacramento. She notes that 26 candidates are running against veteran Sen. Dianne Feinstein. “I talked to several who filled out absentee ballots who were dumbfounded at the configuration of the ballot. Those who habitually vote for a full party slate now have to actually read them to see who is in it.”

Other analysts say the new primary has already made California’s House races much more competitive. From 2002 to 2010, for example, California held 265 elections for its 53 House seats, but only one seat ever switched parties, according to Kyle Kondik, House editor for the University of Virginia Center for Politics. But this year, 13 of the state’s 53 seats are rated at least somewhat competitive.

“I suspect that California will have a far less stable House delegation this decade as opposed to last,” says Mr. Kondik via e-mail. 

He says the key race to watch is California’s 26th Congressional District, which is held by Republican Rep. David Drier, who is not running for reelection.

“Because of the top-two primary, it’s possible that the Democrats’ preferred candidate, Assemblywoman Julia Brownley, won’t even make the general election,” says Kondik. “That’s because there are three other Democrats in the field, plus state Sen. Tony Strickland (R), and Ventura County Supervisor Linda Parks, a Republican-turned independent. Democrats fear that Strickland and Parks will advance to the general, leaving them without a candidate.”

It’s too early to tell, say analysts, but the changes could come with time. California’s Target Book has estimated that close to three dozen races will pit two candidates from the same party against each other in November.

“The idea of the top-two system is to get more moderation by producing two candidates who wouldn’t feel the need to be so polarizing,” says Ms. O’Connor. “I’m not sure it will make a difference immediately, but over time I do think it will make a difference.”

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