SACRAMENTO – The Republican tsunami that swept the country on Tuesday stopped somewhere just east of the Sierra Nevada Mountains in California. But Golden State Republicans fared unexpectedly well if one looks closely at the legislative and statewide races. Let’s just say some of the wave splashed into the state, dampening Democratic hopes in a few key races.
In California, Democrats had hoped to grab supermajorities in both houses of the Legislature, which would enable them to pass tax increases without needing to win any Republican votes. Democratic leaders wanted to take the supermajority out for a “spin” – but they weren’t able to do so after three of their colleagues were removed from office following corruption allegations.
That black eye helped the GOP . A sophisticated Republican effort in two targeted seats – one in a strongly Democratic and Latino district in the agricultural San Joaquin Valley and another in a more urban, ethnically diverse part of suburban Orange County – was an amazing success.
In the former, GOP farmer and incumbent Andy Vidak won 55 percent of the vote against Latino Democrat Luis Chavez – even after the state’s unions poured their resources into that race. In an OC seat that was supposed to be close, GOP Supervisor Janet Nguyen received nearly 60 percent of the vote, clobbering former Assemblyman Jose Solorio.
The GOP did well in the Assembly, also. Although final votes are being counted in a couple of close races, it looks like the Republicans also stopped the supermajority there. They seemed to have picked up all but one of their priority races. They took out a sitting Assemblywoman in north Orange County even after Gov. Jerry Brown went to the district to campaign for her and a sitting Assemblyman in the high desert area around Lancaster.
In the “Left and Lefter” Bay Area, Brown campaigned for a union activist in a heavily union East Bay district – but moderate Republican Catharine Baker, who challenged the unions (over education reform and the BART strike), was leading in the final counts. Republicans even had reasonable shots at some seats that weren’t supposed to be competitive.
The GOP made clear inroads into the Asian community and has been doing a far better job nominating candidates that fit the particular districts. None of this suggests a GOP resurgence. It does suggest that – in a GOP-leaning year with a low voter turnout – the party can still be competitive in targeted legislative races. As a Los Angeles Times headline puts it, “California GOP survives, barely, to fight another day.” But at least they survived, despite voter registration numbers at 28 percent.
The statewide constitutional races went as expected – Democrats grabbed every one of them. Jerry Brown is almost bigger than life here, politically speaking, yet his unknown, barely funded Republican challenger Neel Kashkari – and only 30 percent of likely voters had even heard of him in election week – got about 42 percent of the vote. He exceeded the vote total of the last GOP ne’er do well, CEO Meg Whitman, who spent around $170 million more than Kashkari.
An unknown attorney general candidate got nearly 44 percent of the vote against Kamala Harris, a sitting attorney general who is touted as a potential gubernatorial and even presidential candidate. There were times in the night that Ron Gold was ahead, which was one of the more entertaining points of the election. And Republicans appear to have snatched a couple of Democratic congressional seats (and maybe a third, although the final counts will drag on for a while).
One expected bright spot – a superintendent of public instruction race where a well-funded Democratic reformer went up against a union lackey – turned dark after union ground forces fought back the challenge. But that was a Democrat v. Democrat race, and didn’t involve the GOP.
If one looks at those red v. blue maps of California, it doesn’t look that different than those maps of the entire nation. The inland areas are solid red. But the narrow strips along the coast mostly are blue. The problem in California, from a GOP standpoint, is that so many people live in the big coastal metropolises. Los Angeles County alone has 10 million people and votes 70 percent for Democrats. The rest of the state cannot overcome that margin.
With a professional new party chairman, former Sen. Jim Brulte, the GOP has learned how to play a good chess game in targeted areas. But its support for statewide candidates is stuck in the mid-40s at best. That’s the next challenge: To find new leaders who can appeal across party boundaries. I’m not saying the election of more “moderates.” Statewide, no Republican wins in California – whether liberal, moderate or conservative. The party does need an inspiring big-idea person.
Republicans need to unlock that puzzle to win again. In the meantime, they at least have a little check on the worst impulses of the Democrats. That’s hardly the kind of election victory Republicans saw in the rest of the country, but it was enough to break out the champagne out here.
Steven Greenhut is California columnist for U-T San Diego. Write to him at firstname.lastname@example.org.