PLEASANTON, Calif. — For three decades, it was no surprise who would be elected to Congress from this liberal district near Silicon Valley. In every election since 1972, Pete Stark faced little challenge in the Democratic primary. Every time, Republicans effectively ceded the race. Every time, Stark would win in a landslide.
In an effort to achieve a more bipartisan sensibility in both congressional and state legislative races, California dramatically changed its rules, abolishing the traditional primary system and replacing it with one in which voters could vote for anyone, regardless of party. The top finishers faced off in a general election, even if they were members of the same party.
It meant even people like Stark, the longest serving of the 53-member California delegation, were vulnerable to a challenge by someone who could stitch together a new coalition that included independents and Republicans. And come election night 2012, Eric Swalwell — a 31-year-old Democrat who wasn’t even born the year Stark was first elected — did just that, winning in one of the biggest upsets in the country.
How? He courted the district’s Republicans, which make up just 23 percent of registered voters.
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