State Issues

Republican losses? Just call it a blowout

Anna Caballero of Salinas makes a campaign speech in November. The Democrat was one of many who displaced a Republican – termed-out Anthony Cannella – in the Nov. 6 election.
Anna Caballero of Salinas makes a campaign speech in November. The Democrat was one of many who displaced a Republican – termed-out Anthony Cannella – in the Nov. 6 election. Merced Sun-Star

Blowout. The full dimensions of this month’s Democratic sweep emerged last weekend when the last of the major races were settled, all in favor of the party that already dominated California politics.

Not only did Democrats retain 100 percent occupancy of all statewide offices, but captured six of the Republicans’ already paltry 14 congressional seats and bigger-than-ever legislative supermajorities. The “blue tsunami” even flipped all of the GOP-held congressional seats in Orange County, once considered to be party’s most impregnable GOP stronghold.

What happened?

Democrats sensed that the election had become, in the parlance of politico pros, “nationalized.” That is, local and state issues were irrelevant; this election was a referendum on President Donald Trump.

With California the epicenter of anti-Trump sentiment, Democrats poured big money into get-out-the-vote efforts, especially into boosting Latino involvement, and a record-high voter turnout swamped relatively weak Republican efforts.

UC-Berkeley pollster Mark DiCamillo calls it “the Trump effect,” telling a post-election panel in Sacramento this week that the outcomes in targeted congressional districts meshed precisely with Trump’s approval ratings. Nationalized elections have happened here before, most recently in 1994, midway through Bill Clinton’s presidential term. California’s Republican leaders, sensing an opportunity in Clinton’s declining popularity, borrowed heavily to finance GOP campaigns.

Republicans won half of California’s statewide offices that year, including GOP Gov. Pete Wilson’s re-election, and nominal control of the state Assembly.

The Republican surge didn’t last. The GOP soon began its long slide into irrelevancy and will wind up this year with just half of the Assembly seats it won in 1994.

The issues that had brought success to Republicans in the 1980s and into the 1990s – national defense, crime and opposition to new taxes – faded in significance after 1994, particularly in suburban communities, such as Orange County, that had been GOP bulwarks.

At the same time, California was undergoing sweeping demographic change, the growth of Latino and Asian populations and post-baby boom millennials, whose more liberal attitudes on hot-button issues like abortion, gay rights, feminism, immigration, climate change and gun control clashed with Republican Party positions.

Trump, the bombastic billionaire who won the presidency in 2016 despite California’s heavy vote for rival Hillary Clinton, symbolized everything new voters – who mostly registered as “no party preference” – despised about Republicans.

They were motivated to vote against Trump by voting against any and all GOP candidates, even moderates.

There’s a tendency, especially in the political media, to see every election outcome as engraved in stone. Actually, elections are snapshots in time. And those snapshots fade quickly. California is especially prone to rapid political turnarounds; so no one should assume this Democratic domination is permanent.

That said, demography may be destiny. California’s white population continues to age and shrink and Republicans have been unable, or unwilling, to cultivate fast-growing non-white communities and younger voters of any ethnicity. As its relevance in the Capitol and other arenas shrinks to virtually nothing, sources of GOP campaign financing are drying up.

The Democratic Party’s hegemony in California may grow even stronger in 2020, especially if Trump’s running for re-election and remains a pariah.

Dan Walters writes on matters of statewide significance for CALmatters, a public interest journalism organization. Email: dan@calmatters.org.

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