Under the Influence: Money and Power in Politics

Backgrounder: The Money Behind California's Open Primaries

How Prop 14 works. Click to enlarge. (Jessica Porter)Yesterday Republican Sharon Runner of Lancaster and Democrat Ted Lieu of Torrance became the first to win office outright under the new open primary system in California. Because both candidates won more than 50 percent of the vote, respectively, neither will have to go to a runoff.

In the past, one candidate from every political party was put on a ballot for the general election. Under the new system, which was voted into law as Proposition 14 last June, all candidates are lumped into a single primary. If no one wins a majority of the vote, the top two, regardless of political party, advance to the general election. That means two candidates from the same party could face off in a general election. And that, in theory, could lead to more moderate candidates, since a Republican voter would likely pick the more conservative of two Democrats, and vice versa. It also means that third-party candidates are likely not to be represented in the general election.

So, taking a look back for a moment, who put money on Prop 14, and who stands to benefit?

The biggest donation was $2 million given by the California Dream Team, an overtly pro-business campaign committee headed by former Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger. It contributed nearly half of the $5 million in total contributions to Yes on 14.

The Dream Team only contributes money to ballot measures, not to candidates or political parties. Between 2009 and 2010 it received some of its top donations from energy and insurance companies and the California Republican Party.

Other donors to the Yes on 14 campaign included the California Business PAC, with $750,000; the California Hospitals Committee on Issues, with $250,000; and Blue Shield of California, with $50,000.

These organizations have invested a lot of money into an election law that was ostensibly meant to give voters more rights, so what's in it for wealthy business interests? In short, more business-friendly legislators.

"[Prop 14] works to benefit business, because [without it] the legislature would continue to be dominated by Democrats," and liberal Democrats tend to be hostile toward business interests, said Dan Walters, veteran state politics columnist for the Sacramento Bee.

California is full of gerrymandered districts where incumbents are rarely if ever defeated. And candidates who were successful in party primaries were often the most ideologically extreme. Some observers expect Prop 14 to change that.

And if Prop 14 does produce more moderate candidates, that could ease the political battles businesses face in the legislature. In austere times like these, with California facing a huge budget gap, the last thing businesses want is a tax-happy legislature.


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