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New Primary System Shakes Up California Elections


California voters also turned out yesterday, and one thing is clear: The state's new open primary system has shaken things up. Under the new system, the top two candidates will move onto the general election, regardless of party. And in quite a few races, this means come November, two candidates of the same party will face off. NPR's Tamara Keith has that story.

TAMARA KEITH, BYLINE: When all the votes are counted, nearly 30 congressional and state legislative races will feature a Democrat on Democrat or Republican on Republican contest this fall. By far, the highest profile intra-party battle will be a November rematch between Democratic Congressman Brad Sherman and Howard Berman. For residents of L.A.'s San Fernando Valley, that means a whole lot more of this...


UNIDENTIFIED MAN 1: Brad Sherman took on Wall Street and fought to stop the $700 billion TARP bailout.

KEITH: And this, an ad featuring actresses Wendie Malick and Betty White.


WENDIE MALICK: Betty, if you want a friend in Washington, do you know what you do?

BETTY WHITE: Get a dog. That's what I've been told.

MALICK: Hmm. And what else?

WHITE: Reelect Congressman Howard Berman.

KEITH: The two congressmen were forced to compete for the same seat by the state's independent redistricting process. They've spent millions of dollars already, and are expected to spend millions more over the next five months. Sherman came out of yesterday's voting with a 10-point lead, but Dan Schnur says it's still anyone's race.

DAN SCHNUR: Even though Sherman comes out of this primary with an advantage, it's going to be tooth-and-nail all the way through.

KEITH: Schnur is director of the Jesse Unruh Institute of Politics at USC. He says, up until this year, both men were easily able to win reelection in their heavily Democratic districts by appealing to their Democratic base. Now, he says, they're going to have to reach out to a whole new set of voters.

SCHNUR: The great irony in the Sherman-versus-Berman race is two longtime Democratic stalwarts, almost icons, are going to have their campaign decided by who can best reach out to Republican voters.

KEITH: In this new district dominated by Democrats, about a quarter of registered voters are Republicans. And another quarter are independent, so-called no-party-preference voters. In all of the more than two dozen races that will feature two candidates from the same party, Schnur says the rules of campaigning are changed, rewarding...

SCHNUR: Those candidates who talk not only to their most fervent ideological supporters, but those who are willing to reach out across the party spectrum in order to gain the necessary support. That can't help but to be a good thing - not necessarily for the two political parties, but certainly for the voters.

KEITH: In fact, Schnur says the two political parties fought hard against both the state's new independent redistricting system and the top two primary. Kim Alexander, president of the California Voter Foundation, says no-party preference voters will play a bigger role in the new system. They now make up about 20 percent of California's electorate and she says will have a much stronger voice in deciding races.

KIM ALEXANDER: Most of them were decided in the primary, where you only needed a plurality of the vote to win, and the general election was not competitive because the district leaned so heavily towards the Democrats or the Republicans. Now, we see in those so-called safe seats, they're going be competitive all over again because of the new open primary rules.

KEITH: Alexander says there's one word to describe the shift in California's political landscape that took shape yesterday.

ALEXANDER: We have an enormous amount of competition coming out of this election, and I think that's very exciting for California voters.

KEITH: She figures some 40 percent of the races in California this fall will be competitive - quite a change for a state where November used to be largely irrelevant. Tamara Keith, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Tamara Keith has been a White House correspondent for NPR since 2014 and co-hosts the NPR Politics Podcast, the top political news podcast in America. Keith has chronicled the Trump administration from day one, putting this unorthodox presidency in context for NPR listeners, from early morning tweets to executive orders and investigations. She covered the final two years of the Obama presidency, and during the 2016 presidential campaign she was assigned to cover Hillary Clinton. In 2018, Keith was elected to serve on the board of the White House Correspondents' Association.

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