Taking the initiative

Will hot-button ballot measures help McCain win California in November?

If John McCain seriously thinks he can take California in the fall, perhaps it’s because he knows millions of Republicans will be enticed to the polls—despite the little matter of many hard-line conservatives hating him.

The card up McCain’s sleeve? That peculiar California ballot bugaboo known as the voter initiative. Here’s how the Grand Old Party-line thinking supposedly goes: Steer contributions early and often to groups backing budding propositions on hot-button social issues. That allows enough signature gatherers to be paid and enough petitions to be signed and verified to make the November ballot. And when all those fired-up, like-minded voters enter the booths—what the hell?—may as well help put McCain over the top.

Far-fetched? Well, get this: The right-winged ducks are already in a row to have two such measures ready by the November general-election ballot.

Swirling speculation that the Republican National Committee is already diverting funds to budding California initiatives confronting those oldies but goodies—abortion and same-sex marriage—could not be confirmed, because they won’t talk to us. Nor would the groups pushing the proposed initiatives.

But McCain, the Republicans’ presumptive presidential nominee, will surely need some kind of boost, because he fails to generate much enthusiasm among social conservatives.

“The whole problem that the base has with McCain is that he’s a fiscal and foreign-policy conservative and not a social conservative,” said Barbara O’Connor, a CSUS professor of communications and the director of the Institute for the Study of Politics and Media. “What’s more, the political triangulating that occurs during a general campaign—and that’s especially necessary if McCain hopes to entice those moderate and independent voters that put Governor Schwarzenegger in office—is bound to further alienate the social conservatives.

“As he campaigns against the Democrats,” O’Connor added, “he’s going to aim more for the moderate voters, which will further anger the base.”

Enter a nicely timed initiative, which is almost certain to qualify for November, to require parental notification before a minor has a pregnancy terminated. Friends of Sara, the group promoting it, announced last week that 600,000 of the 694,354 signatures required by an April 18 deadline had been gathered.

“Sara” is apparently the pseudonym of a 15-year-old girl who died from complications of a legal abortion about which her parents were not notified, and her “friends” are the same men behind the last parental-notification proposition that was defeated at the polls. According to finance disclosures on file at the California Secretary of State’s office, James D. Holman, publisher of the San Diego Reader [see “The parent trap” by Jeffrey Barker, SN&R News, June 9, 2005] and Don Sebastiani, owner of Sebastiani Vineyards and Winery in Sonoma, are the new initiative’s major contributors. While Holman put his presidential money behind Sam Brownback, Sebastiani has already made a nice contribution to McCain’s.

The language in the new initiative is the same as the previous Holman-Sebastiani production and another that got voted down. It differs by allowing for another adult relative to step in if the teenager files an affidavit stating that her parents are abusive. There is no mechanism for an endangered teen to circumvent the necessity of notifying a relative.

“It’s very bad law,” said Katharyn McLearan of Planned Parenthood Mar Monte. “We have the experience of many other states with laws like this in place, and we know that it makes kids delay seeking care, it leads to late-term abortion, and it leads kids to reject medical care.”

Another ballot measure that might push turnout in McCain’s direction would amend the California Constitution to prohibit recognition of same-sex marriage. Sponsored by Protect Marriage and the National Organization for Marriage, whose representatives also did not return SN&R’s several calls, this proposal is different from the other nine or so anti-same-sex marriage initiatives that have circulated this year, mainly because it does not prohibit or dissolve domestic partnerships. Backers must also gather 694,354 signatures, but by April 28.

State Senator Jeff Denham (R-Merced) has signed on to support this initiative and McCain. “Senator McCain will compete in California and the base will turn out,” Denham told SN&R. “We expect a high turnout in November.”

O’Connor agrees with that prediction—if the initiatives make the ballot. “Clearly, those initiatives will draw out people who would not be typically very supportive of Senator McCain,” said O’Connor.

In fact, she thinks it’s in the Republicans’ “best interest to get those initiatives on the ballot and turn out the base. … It’s not like the base is going to vote for the Democrat for president, and those initiatives are about their core issues.”