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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

California state politics only comes in two flavors: Democrat or Republican. And according to the conventional wisdom, that isn’t changing anytime soon. We know, because we asked.

Two weeks ago, we teamed up with California Target Book to find out whether political insiders around the capitol think a viable third party might emerge onto the California political scene by 2025. Not a single respondent in our Target Book Insider Track Survey said that it was “very likely.” Roughly two-thirds, in fact, said the opposite.

But Tom Campbell—a Chapman University law professor, former congressman, former state senator and former Republican—says they’re wrong. He’s setting out to bust up the Republican-Democratic lock on political power in Sacramento by launching a third party—and he predicts candidates will be running for the Legislature under the new banner as soon as 2020.

He insists that it might not even be that hard.

Under California law, a new political party can get on the ballot in one of two ways. One option is to gather roughly 700,000 signatures.

But there’s an alternative, which Campbell characterizes as the easier way: convince a little more than 60,000 already-registered voters to either go online or contact their county registrar and switch their registration to the new, still unnamed, party. With the right targeted email pitch, it could be pulled off for less than $100,000, he said. He thinks he could revolutionize the state political system for less than a legislator’s annual salary.

Who might want to join the new party? Prospects abound.

Take the 4.9 million voters who identify with no political group at all, but simply register with “no party preference.” There are now more of those non-committed voters than registered Republicans; Campbell would only need to convince a little more than 1 percent to join him.

And a half-million Californians are registered with the American Independent party—despite the fact that an Los Angeles Times survey from two years ago found that a majority of them believe that makes them politically unaffiliated, not members of a party founded by segregationist George Wallace. Which they are.

“If we reached 83,000 of them, three quarters would realize they had mis-registered, and might join the Center Party,” said Campbell.

Or if not the “Center Party,” then maybe the “Bear Flag Party.” He and his group of likeminded political independents—former independent state Sen. Quentin Kopp of San Francisco among them—have yet to settle on a name.

They haven’t settled on a platform, either. One possible approach would be to provide an ideological home for disaffected Republicans and other wayward centrists—people like Campbell, who publicly ditched the GOP when it embraced Donald Trump.

But Campbell said he can also imagine creating a platform-free organization that would simply let candidates run untethered from any major party.

Such candidates are currently barred from labeling themselves “independents,” since voters might confuse the term with Wallace’s old party. Instead, they have to use the cumbersome “no party preference.” Steve Poizner, a former Republican himself, has adopted that identifier in his run for state insurance commissioner. But the “NPP” brand, to Campbell, implies apathy or indecisiveness.

“No Party Preference is a pejorative,” he said.

A new party—even one with no ideological platform whatsoever—would allow a candidate to run outside of the current party structure, “but without the scarlet letter of NPP,” he said.

According to a recent poll by the bipartisan Democracy Fund Voter Study Group, two-thirds of Americans would welcome a third electoral choice. There was much less agreement over what this new party ought to actually stand for, with respondents split between the far left, far right and the center.

“I think there are a whole number of logistical challenges to create a third party,” said Democratic Assemblyman Adam Gray from Merced. As former leader of the Assembly’s “mod caucus,” he regularly departs from his party on environmental issues, gun control and business regulation. He champions more moderation in state politics, but said it’s easier to do that through the existing parties.

“Maybe the silent majority of moderate Republicans and Democrats ought to take back our own parties from the fringe,” he said.

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