CVIndependent

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Last updateTue, 18 Sep 2018 1pm

Sporting starred and striped jackets and Make America Great Again hats, the California Republicans who gathered on election night in the U.S. Grant Hotel in downtown San Diego were in a remarkably chipper mood.

They cheered when the results came in from Florida, showing the GOP candidate apparently won the narrow race for governor. They lustily booed and jeered when the face of San Francisco Democratic Rep. Nancy Pelosi, the likely next speaker of the House, appeared on the monitor.

If the assembled party activists were disappointed by the fact that, closer to home, they had lost their bid for every statewide office in the state, most seemed to take it in stride. Certainly, no one seemed particularly surprised.

Just as the polls predicted, John Cox, California’s Republican candidate for governor, lost the job to Democratic Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom. In fact, none of the five Republicans vying for statewide office this year won their races. In the contests for the two remaining statewide offices and the U.S. Senate, a Republican candidate didn’t even make it onto the general election ballot. That leaves GOP voters without a single statewide representative for the third election cycle running.

Adding insult to injury, the only right-of-center candidate to mount a realistic statewide campaign was former Insurance Commissioner Steve Poizner, who got as far as he did after ditching the Republican brand entirely and running as a political independent.

With votes still being counted, Democrats also were within striking distance of reclaiming supermajorities in both the state Assembly and the Senate.

Maybe most painful of all was the fate of Proposition 6. This was the effort to repeal a recent increase in the gas tax—or, at the very least, to tap into the California voters’ historic dislike of higher taxes and expensive commutes, and convince them to once again vote Republican. The measure failed, and Republicans were quick to blame the defeat of Prop 6 on Attorney General Xavier Becerra, a Democrat whose office was responsible for writing the text describing the measure on the ballot.

“A lot of people are going to wake up tomorrow very angry because they were tricked,” said San Diego Republican Party Chairman Tony Krvaric. He pointed to polling that showed voters approved of repealing the gas tax, but not Proposition 6. (An alternative explanation offered by Public Policy Institute of California president Mark Baldassare: Voters approve of the low gas taxes in concept, but worried about the specific consequences of repeal).

“We won on the issue,” insisted Carl DeMaio, who chaired the “Yes on 6” campaign. The lesson he took from the election wasn’t that the message itself was flawed, but that the party simply needs to fight harder.

“Every single election, every single race, we are going to make the fraudulently stolen gas-tax-repeal initiative a main issue in regular elections, and, yes, I predict, a couple recall elections very soon,” he said to the crowd. DeMaio has vowed to recall Becerra, as well as Democratic state Sens. Anthony Portantino and Richard Roth. He then led the crowd in a cheer: “We will fight!”

It was a cheer of defiance in the face of the declining fortunes for the GOP. That, of course, is not a new story. Earlier this year, Republican registration among California voters dipped below those of political independents, making the party of Ronald Reagan the state’s third-most-popular political affiliation, behind Democrat and “no thanks.”

But as national Republicans secured their grip on the U.S. Senate while surrendering control of the House, for California Republicans, the 2018 midterms feel like a new low.

It’s been more than 130 years since Californians replaced a Democratic governor with another Democratic governor. And while Gov. Jerry Brown was a fiscal conservative by Sacramento standards, Newsom can be considered the stuff of Republican nightmares: a San Francisco progressive who supports single-payer healthcare, picks Twitter fights with the president and has flirted with the idea of reforming Proposition 13, the property-tax-capping ballot measure that helped give birth to the modern conservative movement and the Reagan revolution.

“This will be the third time that higher taxes have won as an argument at the ballot in California,” said Bill Whalen, a former speechwriter for Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger and a fellow at Stanford’s Hoover Institution. In 2012, voters approved Proposition 30’s “millionaire’s tax” and then voted to extend it again four years later.

The fact that the average California voter elected not just to stick it to millionaires this time, but agreed to pay higher taxes at the pump, might suggest that “taxes are not the third rail” of California politics that they once were, he said.

“I think Republicans forgot that it’s not 1978 anymore,” added Jack Pitney, a political science professor at Claremont McKenna College, referring to the year that voters approved Prop 13 by a nearly 30-point margin. “That was a different time and a different electorate.”

For sure, California has changed a lot over the last 30 years. But even as the state has become more ethnically and racially diverse, the profile of the typical Republican voter has stayed relatively static: relatively white, old and affluent. Fortunately for the state GOP, this is the same demographic niche that most predictably turns out to vote. But in the absence of a message that might begin to convince Democrats and independents to switch parties, that may only postpone the inevitable. According to the Public Policy Institute of California, millennial voters are more likely than their elders to identify themselves as liberals, favor single-payer healthcare, and oppose the president. 

“This is a failing franchise,” said Whalen. He argued that the state party has two fundamental problems: “message and messengers.”

Cox put the blame for whatever messaging shortcomings his own campaign experienced on the press, at least in part.

“I wanted to have a dialogue and a discussion about what we needed to do to get rid of that money in politics,” he said. “At some point in time, the message has got to get out, and it’s got to be the media.”

But according to Whalen, the party put itself at a disadvantage when the most-prominent state Republican on this year’s ballot, Cox, was relatively unknown to most California voters prior to the final months of the campaign. Those further down on the ballot were—and likely still are—largely anonymous to all but the most politically engaged. With the exception of Steven Bailey, the retired El Dorado County judge who ran for attorney general, none of the party’s statewide candidates had experience in elected office.

“You’re counting on rookie quarterbacks to lead you to the Super Bowl,” said Whalen.

But even where experienced Republican political leaders do exist in California—city, county and congressional representatives increasingly concentrated in the exurbs and rural stretches away from the state’s populated coasts—it’s tough to convince an all-star player to join a team with such a lousy track record. A Republican hasn’t won statewide since 2006. And one of those candidates was Arnold Schwarzenegger, the rare “international movie star willing to run for office,” said Pitney. “But that bracket seems empty right now.”

In the lead up to the June primary election, state party insiders at least thought they’d finally settled on an appealing message.

“I’m telling every candidate: When you run for office, you should come out … with, ‘Repeal the gas tax,’ and, ‘Oppose the sanctuary state,’” Krvaric told CALmatters earlier this year.

But as late as of this spring, the majority of Californians said they support state policies to protect undocumented immigrants.

Manuel Pastor, a sociology professor at the University of Southern California and the author of State of Resistance: What California’s Dizzying Descent and Remarkable Resurgence Mean for America’s Future, says that the state already tried that political line in the 1990s. In 1994, state voters passed Prop 187, a ballot measure that would have stripped undocumented immigrants of state services had it not been struck down by the courts.

“That was when we should have been paying attention to how to restructure our economy instead of turning inward and blaming other people for the problems that we had,” he said. While the nation as a whole may now be having its own “Prop 187 moment,” brought on in part by national demographic trends that mirror California’s a few decades back, voters here have “wisened up from that experience,” he said.

As for the gas-tax message, which Cox made one of the cornerstones of his campaign, the election results speak for themselves. The gap between the preferences of the state party’s base and those of the average voter seem increasingly impossible to bridge. And yet that is precisely the task before any Republican candidate who hopes to compete statewide.

Cox faced his own version of this challenge with his on-again, off-again relationship with the president over the last year. In 2016, Cox, famously, did not vote for Trump, instead casting his ballot for the libertarian Gary Johnson. But in a lead-up to the June primary, Cox noticeably warmed to the commander-in-chief, touting their biographical similarities and their mutual support for a southern border wall. It was the president’s endorsement that helped Cox secure a place on the general-election ballot.

But once Cox found himself competing for a wider electoral audience, he began doing his best to distance himself from Trump’s more-controversial policies and tweets, but without offending the president’s many supporters. “I’m not running for president,” he has said, employing a defense popular among Republicans across the state, and country.

The state party won’t have an easy time distancing itself from Washington, D.C., anytime soon, even if it wanted to, said Graeme Boushey, a political science professor at the UC Irvine.

“With a national GOP that has itself moved toward more-extreme politics, it’s hard for the state GOP to escape that shadow,” he said. Politics are increasingly nationalized, he continued. Many voters don’t know who represents them in Sacramento, or even in Congress, but they do know who the president is, and to which party he belongs.

Given the president’s political instinct to appeal to his base (a base that increasingly does not look like California) and not the electorate as a whole, that puts the state GOP in a bind, he said. “If that’s going to be the argument that the party has for the next 10 years, I don’t know that the Republican party nationally, and certainly not in California, can sustain that.”

Once again shutout from statewide office, some of the California candidates said they hope to instead to advance conservative policy in California through ballot measures.

Voters “don’t want anything with an ‘R’ next to its name,” said Konstantinos Roditis, the candidate for controller who had the “R” next to his name. “If we want to make change in California that people want, the best way, I believe, is to do it through the initiative process.”

Both he and the candidate for treasurer, Greg Conlon, discussed the possibility of putting a state proposition on the ballot aimed at reducing California’s public-sector pension liability as soon as 2020.

“Our positions are not really Republican; they’re really bipartisan, because the people want it,” said Roditis. “Democrats in Sacramento don’t want it.”

In the short term, the California Republican Party’s greatest hopes for broader political relevance may lie with the governor-elect. Many Republicans believe that Californians will tire of Democratic rule if and when Newsom begins to push through the many ambitious and expensive policies he’s promised on the campaign trail.

The lesson of the last few elections is that Californians have a modest appetite for certain taxes, said Jack Citrin, a UC Berkeley political scientist who has written about the politics of the California tax revolt. “It doesn’t mean that Californians are ready to embrace all kinds of higher taxes,” he said. “I would bet you that if you put Proposition 13 on the ballot as it applies to homeowners, it would pass again easily.”

A recession, and the budget crunch that would likely follow, could result in a similar political backlash. “You can’t sit around and wait for the revolution,” said Whalen. “But I would not get too far down the road with grim prophecies. Things can change quickly in politics.”

Think back to 1974. In the midterm elections after the Watergate hearings and the resignation of President Richard Nixon, the state Republican Party lost five seats in a once-in-a-generation electoral pummeling. But six years later, Ronald Reagan, another Californian, ran for president and won.

“This Republican Party will be back in this state,” Cox said, “and our path to success is going to be based upon delivering the quality of life that people need so desperately.”

CALmatters.org is a nonprofit, nonpartisan media venture explaining California policies and politics.

Published in Politics

California is politically lopsided: Most of the people live in the south, but most of the political power is based in the north.

In recent years, the majority of politicians elected to statewide offices have been northern Californians—including the governor, lieutenant governor, schools superintendent and both U.S. senators.

That could change after November’s election, because a striking number of statewide races this year pit a NorCal candidate against SoCal candidate, testing the political power and competing priorities of the Golden State’s two most populous regions.

But don’t count on it.

Northern California is likely to continue to dominate for reasons that largely boil down to this: People in the Bay Area just vote a lot more than those in Los Angeles. Economic and demographic changes overlap with voting trends, together situating California’s political nucleus in the heavily Democratic region in and around San Francisco.

“There is some built-in disadvantage for statewide candidates coming from the Los Angeles area,” said Mark Baldassare, president of the Public Policy Institute of California. “The voter turnout and participation is disappointing in L.A., compared to the rest of the state.”

Even though Los Angeles is the state’s most-populous county, it has the lowest turnout rate for registered voters. Of the 58 counties, L.A.’s turnout was dead-last in the 2014 election and second-to-last in the June primary. Participation is so abysmal in Los Angeles County that voters there actually cast fewer ballots than voters in the nine-county San Francisco Bay Area—even though Los Angeles County has 1.2 million more people registered to vote.

Turnout is better in other populous SoCal counties such as Orange, San Diego and here in Riverside, but still not as strong as in the Bay Area.

“It’s a tale of two economies. Where you have a declining middle class, you have fewer voters and less civic participation,” said Mike Madrid, a GOP political consultant with expertise in Latino voting trends.

Southern California is home to a greater share of Latinos than the Bay Area, and has many more people living in poverty—both characteristics correlated with low voting. Per-capita income is much higher in the Bay Area, and jobs there are being created faster. That not only means people are more likely to vote; it also gives candidates from the region a stronger network for fundraising.

“As the economy has separated, so has our democracy,” Madrid said. “The nine-county Bay Area is becoming whiter, wealthier and older. And that’s creating a power base that is driving the political leadership and discourse for the rest of the state.”

Of course, voters don’t always choose the candidate from their own region, and a home address in the Bay Area is no guarantee of a candidate’s success. Other factors—such as politics, fundraising and the power of incumbency—also come into play.

But with seven of the nine statewide races on November’s ballot featuring a north-south matchup, the question now is whether voters will defy the recent trend.

In the race for governor, the dominance of Northern California was clear when the primary was over in June. Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom, the former mayor of San Francisco, beat out two fellow Democrats from Los Angeles to face Republican John Cox of San Diego on the November ballot. Newsom is far ahead in the polls and fundraising in a state where just one-quarter of voters are registered GOP.

Given their advantage in voter registration and fundraising, Democrats—no matter which end of the state they live in—are favored to win in statewide contests against Republicans. One test will be in the race for insurance commissioner, which features a Democratic legislator from Los Angeles against a Silicon Valley entrepreneur who is running with no party preference. Steve Poizner, who was insurance commissioner from 2006-2010, used to be a Republican but changed his registration to run this year. He splits his time between Silicon Valley and San Diego, and is facing state Sen. Ricardo Lara, a Los Angeles Democrat, in this down-ticket race.

Because of California’s nonpartisan election system, some races feature two Democrats, making the outcomes harder to predict. Voters could choose a lieutenant governor who lives in San Francisco—real estate developer Eleni Kounalakis—or one who lives in Los Angeles, state Sen. Ed Hernandez. They could pick a statewide schools superintendent who hails from the Bay Area—Assemblyman Tony Thurmond—or one who helped run schools in Los Angeles, Marshall Tuck. U.S. Sen. Dianne Feinstein—a former mayor of San Francisco—is fighting a challenge from the left from state Sen. Kevin de León, a Democrat from Los Angeles.

“All else equal in terms of platform, and political leanings, if you have connections to the Bay Area, that is considered to be an advantage,” said Mindy Romero, director of the California Civic Engagement Project at the University of Southern California. “It’s both the voter strength in the Bay Area and the (fundraising) money that’s present in the Bay Area.”

The dynamic is different for legislative races—where the state is broken into districts with equal populations. Southern California’s large population means the region has many representatives in the Legislature, including the leaders of both the Senate and the Assembly.

But because of the voting trends, many SoCal lawmakers are elected with fewer votes than their NorCal colleagues. Even though Assembly Speaker Anthony Rendon, who lives in Los Angeles County, is one of the state’s most powerful politicians, he was elected by about 89,000 voters in 2016, while several Bay Area legislators got at least 130,000 votes.  

Mike Trujillo, a Democratic political consultant in Los Angeles, said he’s hoping the energy this year over control of Congress will prompt more Southern Californians to vote. With several contested House races, the region is being blitzed by ads and volunteers reminding people an election is coming up.

“We do have a lot of those swing seats,” he said. “We’re hoping that is influential.”

CALmatters.org is a nonprofit, nonpartisan media venture explaining California’s policies and politics.

Published in Politics

The two men competing to be the next governor of California met earlier this week for their first (and, alas, probably only) one-on-one debate.

If you didn’t see it, that’s because the showdown—which was structured more as a spirited conversation than your standard dueling-podiums-style debate—was on the radio, hosted by political reporter Scott Shafer, out of the San Francisco-based station KQED.

And if you didn’t hear it, that’s because it was on a Monday. At 10 a.m. On a federal holiday.

It’s a low-profile treatment for what may be the sole in-person exchange of ideas between the two candidates vying to become the next leader of the fifth-largest economy on Earth. But then again, few voters will have a difficult time distinguishing Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom, a liberal Democrat and former mayor of San Francisco, from John Cox, a conservative Republican with the backing of President Trump.

On housing, both candidates agreed that a shortage of production was to blame, but they offered very different solutions. Newsom argued that local governments often exert too much influence blocking production: “There’s a certain point where the state of California needs to intervene.” Cox disagreed, arguing that the focus needs to be on reducing the cost of adding new units by cutting state environmental regulations.

The debate over housing quickly turned feisty as Newsom pointed to his proposed solutions, including boosting the state’s low-income housing tax credit and allowing local governments to skim property-tax revenue for affordable housing. He then said that Cox offers only ”an illusory strategy where he criticizes and identifies problems” but offers no substantive fixes.

Cox countered that all of Newsom’s solutions rely on “more government.”

Despite Cox’s best efforts to keep the conversation focused on bread-and-butter economic issues and his history of “fighting against the establishment,” Shafer asked about his views on gay marriage. In 2007, Cox said that allowing same-sex couples to marry would “open the floodgates to polygamy and bestiality.”

“I’ve evolved on those issues … just like Barack Obama,” said Cox.

When asked about gun control, the candidate criticized the shift in the conversation toward “guns and all of these social issues,” arguing that he is not running for governor to change state law on those topics, but is instead focused on affordability.

Cox was happy to talk about Proposition 6, the ballot measure that would repeal the recent increase in the state gas tax and other driver fees, which he has made a crux of his campaign. Cox argued that the state’s Democratic leadership “didn’t want to do the tough job” of eliminating wasteful spending and cutting environmental regulations, so it instead raised taxes and fees. He insisted that under his leadership, the state would be able to fund necessary road repairs without the new revenue.

“We’re going to use the money efficiently and cut good deals with contractors,” he said.

Newsom once again called that plan “illusory.”

“His plan is to make things worse,” said Newsom. “You can eliminate every single position at Caltrans (the state transportation agency) … and still struggle to find the money.”

Likewise, Newsom seized the opportunity to turn the discussion of the state’s sanctuary policy, which limits local and state law-enforcement agencies’ cooperation with federal immigration authorities, into an opportunity to paint Cox as President Trump’s acolyte.

“He believes very passionately in building the wal. He believes in the elimination of sanctuary policy,” said Newsom. “Trump would have an advocate in Sacramento if he becomes the next governor.”

Cox ignored the reference to the president but said he would indeed push for a repeal of California’s sanctuary state law. “If somebody is here illegally, and they’re engaged in criminal activities, I think it’s up to public officials to kick them out,” he said.

Similarly, the two candidates also offered different views on the state’s recent criminal-justice reforms, including the recent elimination of cash bail.

“You’re replacing a private business with a lot more state workers,” said Cox, whereas Newsom called the new law “an extraordinary step forward and a civil-rights reform.”

While Newsom celebrated the state’s climate change policy, saying the state should play a “role not just nationally but internationally to lead,” Cox was more circumspect. He agreed that the planet was warming and that human activity “may very well” be partially to blame, but he questioned whether the benefit of dramatically cutting emissions across the state was worth the cost to electricity ratepayers and drivers.

The fact this year’s governor’s race will likely feature just one debate during the general election (there were a few before the June primary) is unusual by historical standards, but it likely represents the new normal. As the Los Angeles Times reported, no race for governor or U.S. Senate has featured more than one post-primary debate since 2012. That may be a consequence of the growing political polarization of the state.

“I think there’s a growing cynicism about the utility of debates, Cal State Sacramento political scientist Kimberly Nalder told the Times.

Cox’s strategy during the debate mirrored the one he has employed for months on the campaign trail. He has tried to saddle Newsom with responsibility for California’s high gas taxes, high poverty rate, housing costs and every other economic woe facing the state. As a social conservative who opposes abortion, Cox has largely steered clear of those issues.

“This campaign is about change versus status quo,” he said. “Gavin has been part of the political class that has led this state downward.”

There’s a poetic irony in the claim that Newsom should be held responsible for so many of the state’s problems, given he has occasionally griped that the post of lieutenant governor offers little in the way of actual responsibility. But as a Bay Area Democrat, Newsom certainly represents more of a continuation of current policy than Cox.

For his part, Newsom also took a familiar tact in the debate, arguing that Cox was “in lockstep with Trump and Trumpism.” To hear Newsom tell it, Cox is the president’s Midwestern alter ego: a millionaire outsider with no political experience and ideas that are both unrealistic and unacceptable to most Californians.

In short, Cox hopes the election will be a referendum on the current political direction of the state, while Newsom wants every voter to have President Trump at front of mind as they fill in their ballot.

According to a recent poll from the Public Policy Institute of California, Newsom’s strategy appears more likely to succeed—and not just because he’s a Democrat in a blue state. Among likely voters, 61 percent disapprove of the way the Trump is handling the job. Meanwhile, by a slim 50-47 margin, more voters than not believe that California is headed in the right direction.

As the front-runner in a blue state, Newsom could be seen to have little to gain from more frequent, visible debates. In the newest Target Book Insider Track Survey, which asks consultants, lobbyists and other political players in California politics from both sides of the aisle, 37 percent of respondents said Newsom shouldn’t bother with debates because there’s no upside for him—only the risk of a downside. But 63 percent said he should debate, either because it would be a needed endorsement of the American political process (30 percent), or politically smart (8 percent), or both (25 percent).

For more on John Cox and Gavin Newsom—including video interviews and an ability to create a side-by-side comparison of the issues—explore the CALmatters voter guide. CALmatters.org is a nonprofit, nonpartisan media venture explaining California policies and politics.

Published in Politics

California Republicans say that drivers can have smoother roads, more reliable public transit—and lower taxes.

In November, voters will get the chance to repeal a recent increase in the state gas tax and assorted vehicle fees. That tax hike—an extra 12 cents per gallon of gasoline, 20 cents per gallon of diesel, and two new vehicle registration fees—was signed into state law last year, part of a Democratic-led transportation package that directs an extra $5 billion per year toward the state’s dilapidated roads and highways.

Making voters pay more at the pump is a tough political sell, but Democrats and other defenders of the law argue that our infrastructure is long overdue for an upgrade. The gas tax hadn’t been increased in more than 20 years, while the cost of highway construction has tripled. You can’t get something for nothing, they say.

Not so, say supporters of the repeal, Proposition 6. Chief among them is John Cox, the Republican running to be California’s next governor.

“The Democrats decided to do the easy thing in their view, and that is just keep sticking their hands in the pockets of Californians,” he said, “instead of doing the hard work, which would have been standing up to the donors, standing up to the special interests, and using our money effectively and wisely.”

California, he added, “spends multiples of what other states spend on a mile of road.” In trying to sell voters on Prop. 6, which would also require voter approval for all future driving-related tax hikes, supporters like Cox make the following arguments:

• California transportation spending is out of whack compared to most other states.

• Bloated transportation agencies, public sector unions and red tape are to blame for those higher costs.

• Political leaders could cut that wasteful spending—saving taxpayers billions and rendering higher taxes unnecessary—if only they had the will and the courage.

These add up to a potentially enticing argument. The question is: Should voters believe it?

Prop. 6 skeptics are right to say that repealing the new taxes and fees will necessarily mean cutting back on something. Supporters have so far been a little vague on what that something is. Wasteful spending or vital public services? It’s entirely in the eye of the taxpayer.


The Cost of a California Highway

When asked for evidence that California can’t manage its transportation budget, the Cox campaign points to a recent report published by the libertarian Reason Foundation. According to its findings, the state government spends more than $471,000 per mile of road that it maintains. That’s nearly triple the national average of about $178,000. By this measure, California has the eighth-most-expensive state road system in the country.

Given that our roads are in such rough shape, and California also has among the highest gas taxes in the country, one might reasonably wonder whether drivers and taxpayers here are getting a raw deal.

The California Department of Transportation (Caltrans) argues that the report inflates the state’s true costs by measuring each state’s highway system simply by totaling its length. According to Caltrans, California highways have an average width of more than 3.4 lanes, compared to a national average of 2.4, which makes the same length of highway more expensive to maintain. In effect, the report treats a two-lane highway in Oklahoma the same as an equally long stretch of California’s Interstate 405—all 14 lanes of it.

The Reason report is a rare effort to compare across state agencies—because it’s difficult to do. Different state agencies are responsible for different aspects of the highway system, subject to different rules, and operate in vastly different climates, terrains and economies.

“More than 40 percent of the nation’s freight is moved through California, which has three of the nation’s top five busiest ports in Los Angeles, Long Beach and Oakland,” a spokesperson for Caltrans said in an email. That extra wear and tear adds to the state’s overall maintenance tab.

Asked if the federal government compares transportation spending across states, Doug Hecox, spokesman for the Federal Highway Administration, said different methodologies will produce wildly different estimates.

“There are many ways to bake a cookie, and everyone has a different recipe,” he said. “Welcome to my personal hell.”


What Drives the Cost?

Baruch Feigenbaum, author of the Reason report, agrees there are many reasons California roads might cost more—some within the state’s control, and some not.

Falling into the latter category: It’s more expensive to build and maintain roads in high-density urban areas, and California has some of the biggest in the country. The Sierra Nevada and a constantly eroding coastline require challenging and expensive engineering. And, yes, this is California, where wages and land values make everything cost more, transportation related or not.

“Obviously, it’s going to be more expensive to build a mile of roadway in California with labor than it is in Mississippi, regardless of some of the union issues,” said Feigenbaum.

But the high cost of labor is exacerbated by the higher levels of unionization in California, he said. Likewise, the state has tighter environmental regulations than most, which can saddle projects with delays and extra costs.

But where some see inefficiency, others see the preservation of the state’s most cherished values. And for every propeller of higher costs, there is a powerful constituency ready to defend it.

“One of the things that Californians love, that is part of our birthright, is our beautiful state with our beautiful environment,” said Russell Snyder, executive director of the California Asphalt Pavement Association, a trade group that represents road pavers and asphalt producers, and which opposes Prop. 6. “Environmental rules are easy to demonize, but they’re there for a reason.”

Other factors pushing up costs are less obvious, though no less fiercely guarded. In California, much of the major road work is done during off hours to limit the impact on commuters, said Margot Yapp, vice president at Nichols Consulting Engineers, a firm that works on transportation projects across the American West.

“Go travel in the summer in any other state, and construction—even on the interstate—happens in the daytime,” she said. But given the amount of congestion in California, shutting down highways at rush hour would spell certain gridlock and political backlash.

“As soon as you do pavings at night, every (cost) goes up—I would say, easily, by 30 percent,” said Yapp.

Feigenbaum, the Reason Foundation author, still insists Caltrans can cut costs. His suggestions: Caltrans should enter into more partnerships with private companies or take on some of the responsibilities now delegated to local and county organizations, reducing duplicative bureaucracies. In theory, he concluded, passing Proposition 6 would force the state to find those efficiencies.

But maybe only in theory.

“From a mathematical perspective, the state can do it, but from a political perspective, the state probably won’t,” he said.


Can We Cut the Fat?

Carl DeMaio begs to differ. This fall, the conservative talk-radio host—who chairs the political action committee pushing for the repeal—plans to file papers for a 2020 ballot measure, which he says would recoup the state’s budgetary losses from passing Prop 6 … without raising taxes.

The details have yet to be hashed out, but DeMaio proposes three savings: Dedicate all gas-tax revenue solely to road maintenance and improvement (right now, some goes to public-transportation projects and debt repayments); divert all car-sales-tax revenue to state transportation (now that money is treated like other sales tax and goes to general government expenses); and enact “efficiency reforms,” such as mandating that Caltrans employ more independent contractors.

But many state finance experts say finding savings is not that easy.

“It’s nonsense to the suggest that’s just money that’s laying there not being used,” said Michael Coleman, fiscal policy advisor to the League of California Cities, which opposes Prop 6. “If you’re going to be honest with the proposal, then you have to look at what the consequences of this are.”

A little more than half of sales-tax revenue from auto purchases goes to the state’s general fund, for example. If voters decide to divert that money to highway repairs, what could lawmakers cut to make up the difference?

Past ballot measures have placed spending requirements on K-12 education and budget reserves. Court orders and federal funding requirements put more restrictions on many health and social programs and corrections spending. Left on the chopping block are higher education, parks and recreation, public resources, and certain unprotected social welfare programs.

“You’re talking about a fairly small part of the budget,” said Coleman. “It’s remarkable how little discretion the Legislature actually has.”

The remaining sales-tax money that goes to cities and counties—a little less than half of the total haul—mostly goes toward local law enforcement and emergency services, jails, welfare payments and local transportation.

Those fighting against the new gas tax argue that because sales taxes on automobiles are levied on drivers, they should be spent solely on transportation.

As for the savings that DeMaio proposes to unearth by forcing state agencies to rely more on contractors, the state’s nonpartisan fiscal analyst is skeptical.

“When we’ve looked at the cost of contract versus state staff, we haven’t really been able to identify significant differences between the two,” said Paul Golaszewski, a transportation expert with the Legislative Analyst’s Office.

But DeMaio dismisses the idea that there isn’t at least $5 billion to be found somewhere in the state’s $139 billion general fund.

“I don’t think any voter out there is going to accept the notion that government is in prime efficient condition and can’t figure out how to do more with less,” he said.

He, John Cox, and the entire national Republican Party are counting on it. With many political pundits and data points projecting an electoral “blue wave” this November, opposition to the gas tax may be one of the GOP’s last breakwaters. In June, Democratic state Sen. Josh Newman was recalled from his north Orange County seat by a 16-point margin—a recall fueled by anger over his vote for the gas-tax bill. If voters turn out against Newman’s fellow Democrats in equal measure this fall, that could keep Democrats from flipping some of the most vulnerable GOP-held congressional seats in California, allowing Republicans to keep control of the House of Representatives.

“From a turnout and motivation perspective, this is a huge winner for Republicans,” said Jack Pandol, spokesperson for the National Republican Congressional Committee. “We’re going to make every Democrat in November own this tax.”

CALmatters.org is a nonprofit, nonpartisan media venture explaining California policies and politics.

Published in Politics

With primary-election ballots still being tallied across the state, things are looking good for the California Republican Party … that is, not catastrophically bad.

It may be as close to good as the state’s second-biggest political party can hope for in California in 2018.

Assuming preliminary results hold, Democrats and Republicans fought to a virtual standstill on Election Day, avoiding the nightmare scenarios that political insiders had been fretting about for months.

Republicans made it into the top two spots in some of the most important contests for statewide office. That includes a decisive second-place finish by San Diego businessman John Cox, who will go on to face Democratic Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom in the race for governor. That could prop up conservative turnout in November even as Newsom tries to rally his base against the candidate he calls a “foot soldier” of President Trump.

But Republicans failed to make it into the November race for U.S. Senate (which was largely expected), lieutenant governor (not quite as expected) and insurance commissioner (though a former Republican with no current party affiliation came in first).

Republicans did not manage to shut Democrats out of any competitive congressional races—despite the Democrats’ own worries about that—boosting the latter’s hopes of regaining control of the House in November.

Republican turnout was not suppressed by Trump, his low statewide approval ratings notwithstanding. So now what for the California GOP?

“They’re looking to charge up the base in seven key congressional districts,” said Mike Madrid, referring to seven Republican-held districts in which a majority of voters supported Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton in 2016. “In California Republican politics, that’s about all you can consider a victory at this point.”

Madrid is a Republican political consultant who worked for Antonio Villaraigosa’s gubernatorial campaign and is sharply critical of the party under Trump.

A California Republican hasn’t been elected to any of the statewide constitutional offices or the U.S. Senate since 2006. Party registration has been sliding ever since, dipping below the share of voters without a party affiliation.

Republicans may have placed second in a number of statewide races this time, but if recent trends continue, that merely forestalls defeat in November. At last count, the various Democratic candidates for governor cobbled together more than 60 percent of the vote, compared to less than 40 percent for the Republicans.

In the attorney general’s race, where Republicans also managed to avoid a shutout, incumbent Xavier Becerra leads retired judge Steven Bailey, who placed second, by 20 percentage points.

One right-of-center candidate may have scored a first-place victory, though he isn’t listed as a Republican. Steve Poizner, who served as the state’s Republican insurance commissioner from 2007 through 2011, ran for his old job without a stated political party preference. The lack of an “R” next to his name may have helped.

“We understand that we’re the underdogs,” said state party chairman Jim Brulte. For months, he has argued that the party’s way forward is to consistently remind voters that Democrats have controlled every lever of power in Sacramento for eight years—and are therefore responsible for any problems facing the state.

“They own it; they broke it, and we’re the fix,” he said. “Their strategic reason for wanting to mention Donald Trump inevery other sentence is because even though they’re in charge, they don’t want to take credit for California.”

Democrats get it.

“It’s going to be Trump, Trumpism and the Resistance,” said Newsom spokesman Nathan Click while describing the campaign ahead. In his speech on election night, Newsom described Cox as “a foot soldier in Trump’s war on California.”

Cox responded in his own speech the same night: “It wasn’t Donald Trump who made us the highest tax state in the country. It was Gavin Newsom and the Democrats.”

Hammering Democrats on taxes, particularly on the recent increase in the state’s gas tax, will be a central talking point for Republicans in the coming months.

In one unequivocally good piece of news for the state’s GOP in this election, voters overwhelmingly opted to fire Josh Newman from his state Senate seat in Orange County. The successful recall campaign strips Democrats of their supermajority control of the state Senate, although they hope to win it back in the fall. It also provides Republicans with a political game plan for the months ahead.

“People who supported the gas tax (increase) are going to have a lot of explaining to do,” said Brulte.

Pete Peterson, a Republican who ran for California secretary of state in 2014 and who is now the dean of Pepperdine University's School of Public Policy, said he hopes the party thinks a bit bigger than the gas tax. By overwhelming backing a left-leaning candidate like Newsom over a relative moderate like Villaraigosa, the Democrats have left the Republican Party an opening in California, he said.

The premise of the Villaraigosa campaign was to tack toward the center of California’s political spectrum, embracing targeted government assistance and a liberal immigration policy, while pumping the brakes on expensive programs like a proposed single-payer health-care system, enthusiastically supporting charter schools and occasionally wading into conservative rhetorical territory about red tape and bureaucratic excess.

With Villaraigosa’s loss, “there’s a significant part of the Democratic Party that is not going to be represented in this governor’s race,” said Peterson, who supports Cox. “So the question I have for Republicans is: Do you see that as an opportunity?”

Madrid says it’s too late. Cox embraced the support of President Donald Trump and spoke in favor of his immigration policies.

“To think that somehow moderates, centrist Democrats are going to move over and vote for a Trump supporter because they’re paying some extra money at the pump completely fails to grasp what is happening in this country and this state,” Madrid said.

CALmatters.org is a nonprofit, nonpartisan media venture explaining California policies and politics.

Published in Politics

In his year-and-a-half as California’s attorney general, Democrat Xavier Becerra has made a full-time job of fighting the Trump administration—filing more than 30 lawsuits to defend the environment, immigrants, birth-control access and more.

Which makes it odd that when Becerra’s supporters bought TV time to air a campaign commercial for him, they chose the most Trump-boosting network around: Fox News.

The ad spends 15 seconds describing Becerra in ways that likely repel the typical Fox viewer, saying he is “leading the resistance, defending Dreamers, stopping the wall, taking on the NRA.” But the other 15 seconds hails one of Becerra’s Republican opponents, Steven Bailey, as the “pro-gun, pro-life” candidate who “stands with President Trump (and) opposes sanctuary cities.”

It’s the latest in a series of twisted tactics now emblematic of campaign 2018: Why would a group trying to elect a Democrat promote his Republican opponent to a conservative audience? The answer: Because California’s election rules have turned normal campaign tactics on their head.

Under the state’s nonpartisan primary system, candidates from all parties appear on the same ballot, and voters can choose any of them. The two with the most votes on June 5—regardless of their party—advance to the November general election.

This “top two” system has scrambled traditional campaigning. Instead of candidates simply promoting themselves and attacking their opponents, campaigns are going to bizarre extremes to give certain opponents a boost, whether via old media (mailers and TV ads) or new (social platforms and texts). In some cases, they’re raising the profile of candidates they believe would be easier to beat in the general. In other cases, they’re propping up obscure opponents to shave votes from a more-formidable foe.

Think of these Machiavellian maneuvers as the political equivalent of a triple-bank pool shot. They’ve already spurred ethics complaints from two candidates for governor, alleging that campaign groups aren’t properly identifying whom their messages support.

“The ‘top two’ primary has really changed the decision-making calculations for campaigns,” said political consultant Garry South, a veteran of Democratic campaigns who is not working on any statewide races this election. “Things are happening that might look a little strange, but are probably pretty rational calculations.”

Some messages aim for niche audiences. Others, blasting more broadly, do double-duty, simultaneously promoting two opposing candidates in an attempt to boost a candidate’s preferred opponent.

The ad showing the leading Democratic and Republican candidates for attorney general is not paid for by either one. An independent committee largely funded by Realtors and labor unions paid for it, and disclosed in campaign finance reports that it supports Becerra and opposes Bailey. The race includes two other candidates: Democratic Insurance Commissioner Dave Jones and Republican attorney Eric Early. The ad appears to try to consolidate GOP support for Bailey, making it harder for Jones to get in the top two—and easier for Becerra to win in November.

“I can’t speak to the motivations of an outside group, but they do see Judge Bailey as the strongest alternative,” said Bailey spokesman Corey Uhden.

In deep-blue California, where just a quarter of voters are registered Republican, and the GOP hasn’t won a statewide office since 2006, many Democrats would rather face a Republican in November, because it virtually assures their victory. Democratic Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom, the front-runner in the race for governor, almost said as much at a recent debate when he said a Republican would be an “ideal” opponent in the fall.

Polls show the a tight race for second place between Republican John Cox and Democrat Antonio Villaraigosa, with many voters undecided and 24 other candidates on the ballot.

So Newsom is running ads that could help Cox consolidate the Republican vote. One does double-duty by contrasting Newsom’s work to pass stricter gun controls (an appeal to Democrats) with Cox’s support for the NRA (an appeal to Republicans). Newsom deployed a similar tactic after President Trump endorsed Cox, flooding cell phones with a text message announcing the news.

The response from Republicans? Some indicated on social media they thought the Newsom campaign had contacted them by mistake. Others identified it as a Democrat’s move to influence the GOP vote.

“Be careful what you wish for sneaky Gavin,” tweeted Tony Krvaric, chairman of the San Diego Republican Party.

Newsom spokesman Nathan Click said the campaign sent the text to Californians across the political spectrum: “That’s a good message for Republicans and Democrats.”

Villaraigosa’s campaign filed a complaint with the state’s political ethics watchdog about similar ads by a Newsom-backing group. The complaint says “the clear and cynical short-term goal” for Newsom and his supporters “is to manipulate the primary election and to make sure a Republican advances to the general election.”

The indignation is rich, since an independent group backing Villaraigosa is also trying to pull the puppet strings on the California electorate: Hoping to dilute Cox’s support among Republicans in order to launch Villaraigosa into the top two, the group is running ads that deride Cox and others that promote his GOP opponents. It sent GOP voters a mailer promoting Republican Robert Newman, an almost unknown candidate, and Assemblyman Travis Allen, Cox’s main competitor.

Another mailer it sent Republicans features a striking photo of the attractive Allen family in front of a military plane. Ben Avey, a member of the Sacramento County Republican Central Committee, assumed it was from Allen when he first pulled it from his mailbox. Then he flipped it over and read the fineprint: the ad was actually from the pro-Villaraigosa group.

“Even as a kind of sophisticated voter, I was kind of shocked it came from an independent expenditure supporting Antonio Villaraigosa, just because it was so bold in what it was doing,” Avey said. “There was some double jujitsu there.”

Cox filed an ethics complaint against the pro-Villaraigosa committee, alleging it broke the law by not reporting its support for the other Republican candidates on campaign-finance disclosures.

“It is a blatant attempt to split the Republican vote and get two Democrat candidates into the November election,” said Cox spokesman Matt Shupe.

Meanwhile, state Treasurer John Chiang, a Democrat struggling to gain traction in his campaign for governor, dispatched a press release blasting both Newsom and Villaraigosa for “turning to Republicans to advance their own personal gain.”

CALmatters.org is a nonprofit, nonpartisan media venture explaining California’s policies and politics.

Published in Politics