There aren’t many phrases that commonly show up in messaging from Democrats and Republicans alike in these highly partisan times. But recent statements from both GOP Rep. Darrell Issa and former Democratic Rep. Harley Rouda, from both President Joe Biden and former President Donald Trump all included this one: “common sense.”
It makes sense, then, that an aspiring new political party – launched by independent former lawmakers, with an aim to appeal to voters and candidates across the political spectrum who are interested in finding middle ground to get things done – would call itself the Common Sense Party.
A coalition of moderate politicians and like-minded activists have been discussing this idea for more than five years. Now, within the next two weeks, they expect to hear from the Secretary of State whether enough Californians have come on board with their mission to qualify them as an official political party, so they can get Common Sense Party candidates on the ballot in the June 7 primary election.
The party’s tagline is “fiscally responsible and socially inclusive.” A set of principles CSP leaders have developed touts support for lower taxes and local governance, for example, while also backing environmental stewardship and acceptance for all sexual orientations.
Unlike most political parties, CSP founders insist they won’t have any litmus tests for candidates in terms of policies they must promote or oppose in order to get party support. The CSP even will back candidates from other parties if they align with their principles.
“We are about character,” said Tom Campbell, a five-term congressman who now teaches law at Chapman University and helped found the CSP. “We really want to promote individuals to be elected to public office who have courage to make decisions on their own.”
The consensus among CSP leaders is that Republicans have become increasingly extreme and irrelevant in California, while Democrats haven’t been making great policy decisions since they no longer need to listen to diverse viewpoints now that they have a supermajority in the legislature.
Breaking up that partisan divide with a competitive third party is a concept most Californians and Americans of all stripes, in survey after survey, say they support.
“There is clear recognition that our political system is deeply, deeply broken and we are getting very poor governance as a result,” said Mike Madrid, a former political director for the California GOP who split with the party over Trump. “I can’t think of a better time for this to be moving forward.”
But “when the rubber meets the road” at the ballot box, Matt Lesenyie, a political science professor at Cal State Long Beach, said he believes there are just too many factors – from the mechanics of campaign financing to the psychology of voters – working against the success of such movements to see them trigger real disruption in California politics anytime soon.
“It’s unfortunate,” Lesenyie said, since he “couldn’t agree more with their ideas” and the notion that robust debate leads to better policies.
But Lesenyie said one word came to mind as he looked over the Common Sense Party plan: “naive.”
Idealism over ideology
If bridging the partisan divide is the goal, the Common Sense Party already can tout some early successes.
Some key party backers, such as Campbell, are former Republicans who left the party in the Trump years. Others are longtime independents, such as former state Sen. Quentin Kopp and former California Secretary of Trade & Commerce Julie Meier Wright. And they report that early CSP registrations have been twice as likely to come from Democrats as Republicans. (That tracks with statewide data, since there are roughly twice as many Democrats as Republicans registered in California.)
In that bipartisan vein, the party endorsed three candidates before the 2020 election: Assemblyman Chad Mayes of Rancho Mirage, who was GOP leader of the Assembly before his 2018 switch to No Party Preference; Republican John Moorlach, who lost his state Senate reelection campaign; and Democrat Ann Ravel, who lost a 2020 state Senate bid in San Jose.
If the Common Sense Party gets on the ballot this year, Campbell said it has several candidates ready to run under the party banner in June. He declined to name names, but said party members have talked to city council members, several mayors, one incumbent member of the legislature and several people who intend to run for statewide office.
When it comes to NPP candidates, there’s one major advantage for them to run under a party label: money. While state candidates can only collect up to $4,900 from each donor in California, political parties can collect up to $40,500 from a donor in support of a particular candidate.
They’re also looking to back like-minded candidates from other parties in key races, such as Democrat vs. Democrat fights when the more left-leaning candidate gets support from that party. The CSP can support the other candidate, Campbell said.
If they gain seven Assembly and five Senate seats, Campbell said they could break up the Democratic supermajority. That would force members of that party to listen to CSP-backed or GOP lawmakers to advance key legislation, the way he said Democrats had to consult with him when he was a state senator in the 1990s.
Campbell was viewed as one of the most moderate members of the state legislature at the time, given his fiscal conservatism coupled with support for, say, abortion rights. But when asked whether candidates would need to support such policies to get support from CSP, Campbell said no.
Instead, he said his party’s criteria will be to support candidates who are thoughtful, pragmatic problem solvers who make decisions based on data and who don’t see compromise as a “bad word.” On the issue of education, for example, Campbell said they can support charter schools without denigrating public schools.
Voters can still find out how a candidate feels about such issues before casting their ballots, said Michael Maxsenti, who’s on the leadership team of the CSP. But he said part of the goal is to encourage people to move away from being single-issue voters, where they might overlook major problems with a candidate just because they’re on the same side of a particular debate.
Without a party platform that includes clear positions on issues such as gay marriage or abortion rights, Wright acknowledged they may never sway single-issue voters. “I would say we don’t focus on those kinds of people,” she said, insisting there are “many more people between the 40-yard lines.”
Getting on the ballot
While 46% of California voters are Democrats and 24% are Republicans, there are six qualified political parties in the state today. Others include the far-right American Independent Party, the left-wing Peace and Freedom Party, the socially liberal but fiscally conservative Libertarian Party, and the left-leaning Green Party. The Green Party was the last to get officially recognized in California 20 years ago.
While the four minor parties have seen occasional success in getting candidates elected to local races in California, their numbers remain so small that some have been close to losing their qualified status. The largest minor party is the American Independents at 3%. But reporting regularly shows a number of voters registered with that party actually wanted to be independents with a lowercase “i” – which, in California, is confusingly a No Party Preference registration.
That group – those who don’t identify with any political party in California – makes up 23% of the state’s voters, and even briefly surpassed GOP registration a few years ago. And that’s the group largely cited by Common Sense Party leaders as evidence that there’s a desire for another alternative.
While that may be true, Lesenyie pushed back on the idea that it means most independents are necessarily looking for an alternative that’s ideologically in between the two.
“Some aren’t registered Republican perhaps because they’re more extreme,” he said. Some Republicans, for example, said they left the party after the Jan. 6 Capitol attack because they didn’t feel the GOP stood firmly enough behind Trump.
But Common Sense Party leaders said they’ve already convinced at least 66,000 Californians to join their team.
To get on the ballot, aspiring parties either need to get signatures from 10% of voters, which would be 2.4 million names. Or they need to get a much smaller percentage of California voters to change their affiliation to the new party. So the CSP started sending workers out in September 2019 to camp in front of grocery stores and register people as Common Sense voters.
Those efforts, of course, were thwarted in early 2020 by the coronavirus pandemic. Some other states temporarily reduced the number of voter registrations parties needed to collect to get on the ballot. The California’s Secretary of State refused to follow suit. The CSP sued over that decision and lost in January 2021. But the party did get some legislative help last year.
Previously, organizers needed to get at least 1% of registered voters, or some 250,000 people, to switch their affiliation to the new party to get on the ballot. However, Mayes introduced legislation that took effect Jan. 1 that dropped the requirement to 0.33% of registered voters, not including those labeled NPP. That drops the requirement to only about 56,000 voters.
CSP leaders say they’re aware of 66,000 voters who switched their party affiliation before the Jan. 4 deadline. And they don’t have figures for people who switched directly online. So they’re optimistic they’ll more than qualify.
Timing is a key challenge, though. The Secretary of State’s office originally indicated they’d give them a decision by Jan. 24. Now, they’re told the deadline is Feb. 22. A spokesman from the Secretary of State’s office said Thursday that they’re still working to finalize an updated voter registration report, which they must use to calculate whether the party got the right percentage of registrations to qualify.
Candidates only have until March 11 to turn in paperwork to run for office this year. If a candidate files to run under the Common Sense Party and the party doesn’t make the ballot, Campbell said the state will change that person’s party affiliation to NPP. He said candidates have told him they fear that designation makes voters not take them as seriously, so they’re hesitant to commit before knowing the party’s status. And every day they wait means less time for them to build support for their campaigns.
Potential impact unclear
Even if they make the ballot this year, Lesenyie said the hard work will just be starting.
It typically takes a lot of leg work and a good deal of money to make candidates competitive in state races, he noted. That’s even more true if you’re trying to elect someone based on good ideas and virtue rather than on an ideological checklist.
Many voters see elections more like sports, Lesenyie said. And there is a lot of political science research to show that partisan appeals based on emotion are much more effective at swaying voters than appeals to logic.
“If voters were just receptive to the best argument or information-based appeal, wouldn’t we have already gotten there?” he said.
The CSP got seed money of $500,000 from 250 donors, including Silicon Valley folks Campbell knew from his work over the years. But Campbell said that money has all been spent getting voters registered and on their lawsuit against the state.
In the face of such an uphill battle, Lesenyie argues such efforts would be better focused on “infiltrating the Democratic party” and developing different kinds of GOP candidates who are more in line with a California brand of Republicanism.
“That’s a much shorter hill to climb.”