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.
“I knew the game had changed,” Swalwell said in an interview at his campaign headquarters here, where he is already gearing up for the 2014 campaign. “You can’t ignore the Republican base. . . . That’s what has changed here.”
The outcome highlighted how California has become one of the nation’s leading laboratories for finding new ways to elect members of Congress.
It is a radical change to a system that, nationwide in 2012, reelected 90 percent of candidates who were incumbents. Those incumbents typically won by catering almost exclusively to the base of their party, fostering a system that continues to funnel liberal Democrats and conservative Republicans back to Washington.
Many districts are so safe that the only threat is a primary challenge from the far right or the far left. As a result, candidates tend toward more extreme positions to avoid facing a fight from within their party.
“So much of Washington is broken because of how the system is set up,” said Jeremy Bird, a former Obama campaign adviser who is now running a campaign in a nearby congressional district using aspects of the Swalwell playbook. “Ultimately, we want more people to vote, and we want people in Washington accountable not to a small minority of primary voters but all of the people in their district.”
The primary system that California adopted — commonly called “top two” because the top two vote-getters advance to the general election — was modeled after one that the state of Washington implemented in 2008, and a similar version that has been in use in Louisiana for almost all congressional elections since 1978.
The changes, which came as a result of a 2010 ballot initiative, were opposed here by the Democrat and Republican parties, which did not want to give up their influence over who runs and wins in primaries.
Similar efforts are brewing in several states, including Florida and Colorado, to make similar moves. (Nothing similar is underway in Massachusetts, where Democrats and Republicans are limited to voting in their own party’s primaries; only unenrolled voters can select which ballot they want.)
California’s revamped primary system, in some cases, has created competitive races where there were none before. It’s forced Democrat to run against Democrat, or Republican against Republican. Critics, however, said turnout remains low in the high-stakes primary elections and that most general election contests still involve candidates of opposing parties.
Some groups, like FairVote, a nonpartisan organization that campaigns for electoral change, have proposed allowing the top four finishers in primaries to advance, arguing that allowing more candidates to move on to the general election would help independent and third-party candidates.
It is too early to say whether the changes in California will help ease gridlock in Washington, but they clearly have shaken up the system.
In California last year, seven incumbents lost reelection and seven others decided not to run. By comparison, only two incumbents had lost reelection since 2002, according to the Center for Responsive Politics.
Consultants are trying new formulas to win elections for their clients, in part by attempting to reach across party lines for votes.
“It’s clear that the political pros are still learning to run campaigns under these new rules,” said Dan Schnur, director of the University of Southern California’s Institute of Politics, who launched Fixing California, an organization de-dicated to campaign finance and political reform. “They understand the benefits of reaching out to voters from the other party but they’re still learning how to do it.”
In Swalwell’s case, he mapped out an early strategy to target Republican voters. His campaign workers knocked on 100,000 doors, and they stopped at Republican homes as well as Democratic ones.
For many Republicans in the district, it was the first time in decades they had been courted during a congressional race.
“This district is dominated by Democrats, so a conservative Republican was never going to win,” said Scott Perkins, a local city councilor and a registered Republican who actively campaigned for Swalwell. “The best we could hope for is a relatively liberal Republican or a more moderate Democrat. And Eric was, to me, the perfect kind of candidate for that.”
Swalwell estimates that half of his campaign volunteers were Republicans. He sent out campaign fliers touting Republican support. Stark responded by sending out mailers with Swalwell’s head in a cup of tea, with giant text reading, “Not Our Cup of Tea . . . ” It accused Swalwell of having support from the Tea Party movement.
Swalwell lost by 6 points in the preliminary election to Stark, but both advanced because they were the top two vote-getters. Several months later, Swalwell won in the general election by more than 4 points.
Stark still can’t quite believe it. “He didn’t have a single Democratic officeholder, or former officeholder, or Democratic club, or committee endorse him,” Stark said. “They all endorsed me. From President Obama to the City Council. And he won!”
Stark said he had wanted to reach out more to Republican portions of the district, but his political consultants urged him to focus on turning out his base instead. His loss showed him the value of seeking support outside his core constituency, an approach that he said others will have to learn.
But Stark still doesn’t like it.
“I guess I’m traditionalist,” he said. “I think the party system has something to say for it. We’ve had it in this country since the days of Jefferson, who pushed for it. It’s served us well.”
“Us old guys don’t like change, what the hell? I had a long run for 40 years. At the tender age of 82, I’m like a battleship. I don’t turn around at the turn of the wheel.”
Since being elected, Swalwell has tried to continue his bipartisan outreach. He has Republicans serving on some of his advisory committees. He’s helped form a bipartisan group of freshman lawmakers who are hoping to make more of a difference as they gain more seniority.
“I’m a Democrat; my voting record reflects that,” he said. “But you can’t not let [Republicans] sit at the table. Those days are over.”
Matt Viser can be reached at email@example.com.