Votes are being cast in California’s first major election of 2014, and its outcome may set the tone for what happens in the state the rest of the year.
As everyone knows, California Republicans have fallen on hard times – frozen out of statewide office, and holding fewer than a third of legislative seats and scarcely a quarter of the state’s congressional seats.
The GOP, however, has an opportunity for a mini-comeback this year, particularly because voter turnout may be much lower than it was in 2012, a disastrous year for the party.
There’s at least a 50-50 chance that Republicans could gain enough seats to end Democratic supermajorities in one or both legislative houses, and they could pick up a couple of marginal congressional districts.
There’s even an outside chance that Republicans could win a statewide office.
What happens in a hotly contested mayoral race now underway in San Diego, the state’s second-largest city, could be a harbinger.
In 2012, Democratic Congressman Bob Filner captured the mayor’s office, but almost immediately was hammered with allegations that he had sexually harassed numerous women.
After a period of denial and defiance, Filner resigned and pleaded guilty to charges of false imprisonment and battery.
There was a three-way special election to replace Filner, with Democratic groups, particularly unions, split between two hopefuls, City Councilman David Alvarez and Republican-turned-independent-turned-Democrat Nathan Fletcher.
Fletcher had been actively recruited by some Democrats in hopes that he could retain the mayoralty of a city that has often elected middle-of-the-road mayors.
However, Fletcher suffered from a carpetbagger image, and Alvarez and Republican City Councilman Kevin Faulconer emerged as runoff rivals.
It’s been a hard-fought race, with most polls giving Faulconer at least a slight edge, and this week, a study by the National University System Institute for Policy Research, a San Diego think tank, found that Faulconer appears to be the beneficiary of early mail voting.
But voter turnout probably will be the deciding factor, and in the campaign’s final days, unions are pouring big money into get-out-the-vote efforts.
With President Barack Obama’s popularity in decline due to the bollixed-up rollout of national health care, Democrats retreating from House battles to concentrate on saving their U.S. Senate majority and no top-of-the-ticket races in California, low turnout could bolster GOP hopes.
Should Alvarez win, it would advance Latino political standing, but he would join a crowded bench of second-tier Democratic politicians waiting for elderly officeholders to retire.
But should Faulconer win, he would immediately become – for a party badly in need of a fresh image – a potential candidate for governor, senator or other statewide office.