As President Barack Obama and his advisers prepare for the 2012 campaign, they assume he already has won California.
Given the Democrats' domination here, Obama is all but assured of winning the popular vote as he did in 2008 and, by extension, the richest-in-the-nation trove of electoral votes. But that would be under the current winner-take-all rules.
Ted Costa has a different idea. Costa is the Sacramento political provocateur who controls the People's Advocate operation and mailing list built by his mentor, Paul Gann, the other half of the Howard Jarvis-Gann initiative team that brought us Proposition 13.
With no fanfare, Costa last week submitted to the attorney general's office an initiative he calls the "Electoral College Reform Act." On its face, the populist proposal would play to voters' sense of fairness and desire for competition among candidates.
In reality, this initiative would be a Republican power grab with national implications.
The change contemplated by Costa and other consultants could push a Republican to victory in a close presidential race.
"It is the kind of thing that puts the metal to the grindstone and sparks fly," Costa told me.
Under the proposal, California's 55 electoral votes no longer would go to whoever wins the popular vote. Rather, they'd be apportioned based on the candidate who wins in particular congressional districts.
There's the rub.
The GOP may be endangered in California. But Republicans hold 20 of the state's 53 congressional seats. If Costa's measure were to become law, any Republican presidential nominee who could breathe and speak at the same time would win 20 electoral votes, the equivalent of winning Ohio.
To be sure, anyone with the $200 filing fee and an idea, no matter how bad, can ask the attorney general for an initial review. Most measures die at this first stage, mercifully sparing voters from having to decipher the trickery imbedded in their legalese.
Costa, who operates from a musty office in an aging strip mall on Arden Way, has plenty of experience in the big business of direct democracy, and an uneven record of success. Slicker operators have snatched ideas from him in the past. In this instance, Costa has seized on someone else's idea.
In 2007, Sacramento attorney Thomas Hiltachk, whose firm represents the California Republican Party, wrote a virtually identical initiative and joined GOP strategist Marty Wilson, who managed Carly Fiorina's U.S. Senate run this year, in an effort to place it on the June 2008 ballot.
It didn't work out well. Unable to raise much money and facing fierce opposition from Democrats – and some Republicans who disliked the gimmicky nature of it all – Wilson dropped it.
In stepped a Republican consultant Dave Gilliard. Gilliard's clients include Rep. Darrell Issa, the Vista Republican said to be the wealthiest member of Congress.
Issa has dug deep in the past, spending $10 million on a failed run for the U.S. Senate in 1998, and $1.6 million on the 2003 recall and his aborted run to replace Gov. Gray Davis.
Gilliard said he has not broached the Electoral College initiative idea with Issa, who is busy figuring out who and what to investigate as incoming chairman of the House Oversight Committee. But in 2007, Issa kicked in $91,000 to help qualify the measure. Even though Gilliard raised $1.3 million, the petition drive fell short.
Like Wilson, Gilliard laments what might have been. Both men are considering rekindling the measure. There's nothing to stop them from big-footing Costa and moving ahead with Electoral College "reform" for the June 2012 ballot.
"I'm involved in some discussions about reviving it," Gilliard told me. "The key is getting donors excited that California can be relevant."
Democrats have noticed the chatter that Costa's measure is generating. San Francisco strategist Chris Lehane, a former Clinton White House aide, led the effort to derail the 2007 version. Calling it the "Freddy Krueger" of initiatives, Lehane is preparing a new battle against this Democratic nightmare.
An Electoral College system based on congressional districts would not create true competition. Republicans are all but guaranteed 20 seats in California, just as Democrats are virtually assured of the remaining 33, given the current gerrymandered boundaries.
The new Citizens' Redistricting Commission, approved by initiative last month, may draw more competitive districts. But there is no way to create districts in much of the Central Valley where Democrats can win, or along the coast where Republicans can win.
The idea would dilute California's influence nationally. If other large states were to select electors based on congressional districts – and that is not likely – they would not yield anywhere near the number of electoral votes that California would provide to the minority party.
In Texas, Democrats hold nine of that state's 32 congressional seats, meaning Democrats would win a mere nine of Texas' current 34 electoral votes. In Florida, Democrats would gain six of Florida's 27 electoral votes.
Costa, Gilliard and Wilson wax populist about the concept. But at the root, this is a gimmick pushed by Republicans for Republicans, intended to place Democrats on the defensive.