CAL MATTERS-You’ve heard the term “all politics is local”? California Republicans had better hope so. The polls told us that this week’s gubernatorial matchup in Virginia would be a nailbiter. Instead, it was an electoral thrashing. Voters handed the governor’s mansion to Democrat Ralph Northam with a decisive 9-point margin while stripping the state GOP of its firm grip on the legislature’s lower chamber, reducing a supermajority to within spitting distance of a tie (and counting).
By all accounts this blue wave—which also swept up statehouse races in New Jersey and New Hampshire, municipal contests in Pennsylvania, a special election in Washington state, and a Medicaid expansion vote in Maine— was as much a referendum on what’s happening in Washington D.C. as it was a rebuke of local lawmakers.
Or as Republican political consultant Mike Murphy told the Washington Post, Virginia was a test of whether the GOP’s electoral fates are tied to the President’s approval numbers. “The canary in the coal mine didn’t just pass out,” he said. “Its head exploded.”
Though political analysts are only beginning to pore over the numbers, it sure looks that way. Virginia saw its highest increase in voter turnout in two decades, with the bulk of the bump coming from Clinton-winning districts in the suburbs. Young voters and voters with college educations flocked to the Democratic side. According to exit polls, a third of all voters said they cast their ballot in part to “express opposition to Donald Trump.”
“There may have been some local issues involved, but the main driver of what happened was the energy among base Democratic constituents who finally woke up,” said Mike Madrid, a Republican political consultant who advises the campaign of Democratic gubernatorial candidate Antonio Villaraigosa.
California Democrats are hoping for a similar awakening in the elections of 2018. On the line: their lock on power in Sacramento, where the party holds a commanding two-thirds supermajority of legislative seats, along with all statewide constitutional offices. At the same time, the GOP’s control of the House of Representatives in Washington D.C. could also be decided here. Of the 14 California districts that last sent Republicans to Congress, seven voted for Hillary Clinton over Donald Trump.
Hours before Tuesday’s election returns rolled in, GOP Rep. Darrell Issa of Vista became the first of those 14 to withdraw support for the current House GOP tax plan, saying it would strip away tax deductions disproportionately used by Californians. Democrats had identified Issa as a top target for 2018.
So how nervous should California Republican candidates be?
Very, said Jason Cabel Roe, a Republican political consultant in San Diego.
“They’ve got to assert their willingness to step up to the president when they feel he’s wrong,” he said, but without alienating the party’s base. Though only 27 percent of California likely voters approve of the president, 7-in-10 Republicans still stand by their elected man.
“A majority of Republican voters don’t seem to really care about winning as much as they care about voting for someone who they believe will be a shot to the system,” Roe said.
Indeed, some Trump loyalists argue the election results merely prove that Republican candidates fell short because they failed to embrace President Trump even more enthusiastically.
“It’s a myth that Trump is not popular in California,” said gubernatorial candidate, Travis Allen, an assemblyman from Huntington Beach. Polls indicate otherwise, but Allen points to the nearly 4.5 million Californians who turned out for the President in 2016. That was a historically small minority of general election voters, but more than enough to send a slate of Republicans to Sacramento should that block show up during an off-year gubernatorial election.
While many other Republicans are wringing their hands, Democrats are imagining 2010 in reverse. Recall the historic shellacking the party took that year when conservatives—driven by Tea Party fervor, equal parts anti-Obamacare and anti-Obama—turned statehouses red across the country and flipped the House.
“Trump is clearly the giant orange blob blotting out the sun for Republicans,” said Dan Newman, a political consultant and spokesperson for Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom, the early Democratic frontrunner to be governor. “He’s depressing moderate Republicans, alienating swing voters, and motivating Democrats—who are fired up like they haven’t been in years.”
That’s the inversion California Democrats hope for heading into the 2018 midterms: depressed Republican numbers (as the base fails to turn out and moderates cross over to vote blue) and jacked-up Democratic turnout among so-called “low propensity” voters—non-white and younger voters who typically lean Democratic but who are usually less likely to turnout during off-year elections.
In the small number of elections we’ve seen in California this year—a special Congressional election, an assembly primary matchup, a handful of municipal races—we haven’t seen that kind of turnout.
This week, in Virginia and elsewhere across the country, those stars finally seem to have aligned.
But then again, 2018 is still a year away. And California is not Virginia.
According to Paul Mitchell, vice president of Political Data, Inc., the Golden State has been shielded in the recent past from the political waves that buffet the rest of the country. As statehouses went red en masse in 2010, for example, Democrats in California actually picked up a legislative seat. “There is some evidence to suggest that the waves stop at Reno,” he said.
Plus, the Democratic party’s current political dominance could serve to buffer the effect of an anti-Trump wave.
Typically, the voters most animated during midterm elections are those hoping to rebuke the party in power. This week, voters in Virginia, New Jersey, and Maine found ready targets for their frustration with the status quo among the Republicans occupying their statehouses and governor’s mansions. But in California, powerful Republicans are hard to come by.
And then there’s the simple fact of geographical distance. While national politics may weigh heavily on the mind of a D.C. suburbanite, said Mitchell, national politics might seem more abstract to a California voter, whereas the quality of local education, the housing crunch, or the price of gas might feel more pressing.
California Republicans are certainly banking on that anyway.
“2018 will be a referendum not on the president of the United States, but on the failed policies of Jerry Brown and four decades of Democrat control of the California legislature,” said Travis Allen. As he mounts his campaign for governor, Allen is also sponsoring one of two ballot measures that would repeal a recent increase in the state gas tax.
“In a low-turnout midterm election, at least some California Republican incumbents will find other issues to help them achieve re-election. Those who do survive, however, will do so in spite of their party’s leaders,” wrote Dan Schnur, a former GOP consultant who was a key aide to the state’s last Republican governor, and now is a professor at the University of Southern California. As far as he’s is concerned, national Republicans have sized up California’s changing ideology and demographics and concluded “it’s not even worth fighting to retain a foothold in the nation’s largest state.”
After Tuesday’s election, Schnur’s assessment was “there’s no reason to believe that Trump will be any less of a motivating force in next year’s election than he was this week in Virginia.”
So, on the 2018 campaign trail, state Democrats will do everything in their power to remind voters that every last Republican dog catcher shares a party label with a wildly unpopular president.
“Here in California the reason they want to talk about Donald Trump is because they don’t want to talk about the record they’ve created here,” Jim Brulte, the state GOP chairman told a gathering of Republicans at the party’s convention last month. After rattling off a list of economic and social ills facing the state (presumably all the fault of the party in power), he then tried out a phrase that is sure to resurface in campaign ads and talking points in the months to come: “They broke it, they own it.”
With that, the California Republicans have crafted themselves a midterm strategy. Keep it local. Talk about the gas tax. Talk about the state’s first-in-the-nation poverty rate. Donald Trump’s latest Twitter spat with Kim Jong Un? No, I’m afraid I haven’t seen that.
Or as Brulte put it while speaking at the Sacramento Press Club last week, “I don’t get the vapors over what’s going on in Washington D.C.”
Nor, presumably, in Virginia, New Jersey, or Maine.
(Ben Christopher is a contributing writer for CALmatters, where this piece originally appeared. He covers California’s economy and the budget.) Prepped for CityWatch by Linda Abrams.