If any candidate, or a contest for any one state office, is going to offer a true test of the theory behind the top-two primary this year, it will be Dan Schnur's candidacy for secretary of state.
Schnur was communications director for Gov. Pete Wilson in the 1990s, and moved on to become the spokesman for Arizona Sen. John McCain's "Straight Talk Express" campaign for the Republican presidential nomination in 2000. Since then, he's dropped out of partisan politics, taught political science at Cal and USC and took a year's leave from academia to serve as chairman of the state Fair Political Practices Commission. He left the Republican Party and is now registered as a no-party preference voter.
He is extremely well connected among the state's political establishment, and he's assembled an impressive bipartisan team for his long-shot campaign for secretary of state. He has retained two top campaign strategists, Republican Rob Stutzman and Democrat Darry Sragow, to manage his campaign.
In a sit-down with political reporters in Sacramento last week, Schnur discussed his plans and his platform. He seeks to run as a political reformer -- Stutzman told me the campaign may even take a shot at trying to use "political reformer" as his ballot title -- and his signature issue will be his proposal to bar campaign fundraising by legislators while the Legislature is in session. Although he acknowledged the proposal would be impractical unless the state also changed the date of its primaries to allow lawmakers at least some time before an election to raise campaign money, Schnur is aware that the issue taps into two very strong feelings held by California voters -- disdain for the Legislature, and at least equal disdain for the corruptive influence of money in politics.
But more than any one issue, Schnur hopes to use his candidacy to test whether the top-two primary makes it possible for a candidate not affiliated with either major party to seriously contest for a statewide office.
"Politics is too important to be left to politicians," he said. "An entire generation of young Californians has lost faith in their government and in their elected officials."
Schnur said he tells his students at the Unruh Institute of Politics at USC that the problem with politics today is that "both parties line up in the opposite end zones" when the only opportunity to accomplish anything is "between the 40-yard lines." He says he will advocate the idea of converting the office of Secretary of State, since it is charged with overseeing elections, to a nonpartisan office. Using another sports analogy, he says, "The referee shouldn't be wearing a Cal or USC jersey."
One potential obstacle for Schnur is that there is another nonpolitician candidate running -- former Common Cause vice president Derek Cressman, a Democrat who also has a solid resume as a political reformer.
A potentially viable Republican, Pete Peterson, and two Democratic state senators, Alex Padilla of Los Angeles and Leland Yee of San Francisco, are also in the mix. Padilla, the son of Mexican immigrants, an MIT-educated engineer and the former president of the Los Angeles City Council, seems particularly formidable.
Can a no-party-preference candidate compete for a fairly low-profile, down-ticket office, so far down on the ballot and voters' radar screens that party preference is often a voter's best guide?
It seems unlikely, even if Schnur can raise enough money to wage a respectable campaign that could include perhaps a week of television advertising in selected markets, that a no-party preference candidate could crack the top two. But if nothing else Schnur's candidacy this spring will provide political scholars a good test case to analyze the possibilities created by the top-two primary.