You've heard the one about the rats deserting the sinking ship. Well, this is the one where GOP moderates are deserting a capsizing California Republican Party. Or is it that moderates have been thrown overboard?
The state GOP is roughly 13 points behind the state's Democratic Party in voter registration, and only 9 points ahead of "No Party Preference" registration, which has doubled from the 1996 presidential election cycle, while both major parties have lost members.
Last Tuesday, former state legislator and California Secretary of State, Bruce McPherson -- touted as "the only Republican who could get elected in Santa Cruz" -- became the latest high visibility, moderate Republican to walk away from the GOP and reregister as a NPP voter.
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He follows several others, who in the throes of California's first experiment with the free-for-all, top-two primary, opted out of the GOP. No prominent Democrats switched to NPP.
Among recent Republican converts to NPP are Ventura County Supervisor Linda Parks, who failed to make the November run-off for the 26 CD seat; and former Assemblymember Anthony Adams, who was targeted by GOP conservatives after he voted for a state budget that included temporary tax increases. He switched just before entering (and ultimately losing) the primary for an open Inland Empire Congressional seat.
National headlines were made when Nathan Fletcher, another former legislator, labeled "fiscally conservative but socially moderate," renounced the GOP in the middle of his race for San Diego mayor, after California Republicans endorsed a more-conservative candidate. Fletcher, too, missed his run-off.
McPherson, however, came in first in the non-partisan primary for Santa Cruz County supervisor, with 49.66 percent of the vote to Democrat Eric Hammer's 37.76 percent.
McPherson knows he has to reach out to independents and Democrats in a run-off. Decrying the "strident" nature of today's hyper-partisan politics, he declared "I don't want to be identified as right or left" and renounced his party affiliation.
McPherson has long been identified as a classic moderate Republican legislator (now pretty much extinct in Sacramento). He's a throwback to earlier days when moderate Republicans and pragmatic Democrats worked across the legislative aisle to reform education, build dams and highways and create civil rights protections.
In a political system so partisan that even reforms explicitly designed to embrace the middle prove difficult, there appears to be little room for moderate Republicans. The McPherson path to political relevance through non-partisan elections --followed less successfully, but comfortably, by mayoral candidate Fletcher -- may point the way for moderates who have been virtually excommunicated from the GOP.
It will take several election cycles for our new primary system to prove itself, or not. We certainly need to educate voters about what it means and how it could play out with -- or without -- their participation. And it will take a while to determine whether, when NPP candidates win office, they will operate as political "free agents" or will bind themselves to party caucuses, as legislators do now.
It will take time for the new reality to set in, but GOP moderates -- like McPherson and Fletcher -- who have read the signals, are coming to understand that their only road to political relevance may well be "No Party Preference" registration.
Sherry Bebitch Jeffe is a Senior Fellow at the USC Price School of Public Policy and the political analyst for NBC4.