California GOP victory: Democrats denied supermajority

Despite Democrats' dominance in statewide races, they're denied supermajority in Legislature

California Republicans scored a rare victory in Tuesday's election by denying Democrats a two-thirds legislative supermajority that would consign GOP lawmakers to virtual irrelevance in the state Capitol.

For a party sharply diminished by two decades of relentless setbacks in California, it passed as a major achievement for Republicans to capture more than a third of the seats in the state Senate and possibly the Assembly as well.

Preliminary returns also showed four California Democrats in danger of losing their U.S. House seats.

Live coverage continues: The election aftermath, and what it means for California

Reps. Scott Peters of San Diego, Jim Costa of Fresno and Ami Bera of Elk Grove near Sacramento were each running a whisker behind their Republican challengers Wednesday, while Rep. Julia Brownley of Westlake Village was fewer than 700 votes ahead of her GOP rival, Jeff Gorell of Camarillo.

Once all the ballots are counted, which could take weeks, all four Democrats could well survive. But the strength of their GOP rivals and the erosion of Democrats' power in the Legislature showed that California was not entirely immune from the Republican tide that swept the nation Tuesday as the party won control of the U.S. Senate.

For Republicans in California, it also offered a spark of hope that the party can rebuild itself into a viable opposition force.

"What you're seeing is the Republican Party crawling its way back to relevance," said Republican strategist Kevin Spillane.

All in all, Democrats nonetheless had much to celebrate. They swept all eight statewide offices, just as they did four years ago. Gov. Jerry Brown, a Democrat, trounced his Republican challenger, Neel Kashkari, 59% to 41%, according to the preliminary results.

Even the strongest candidate on the Republican ticket, secretary of state candidate Pete Peterson, fell well behind Democrat Alex Padilla, a state senator from Pacoima. The initial count showed Padilla leading Peterson, 53% to 48%. That gap is likely to widen as uncounted ballots are tallied in the weeks ahead.

The older white voters who lean Republican in California tend to turn in their ballots early, so the hundreds of thousands of votes counted after election day typically favor Democrats, election experts say.

Fresno Mayor Ashley Swearengin was another Republican whom party leaders had seen as a potential winner, but she lost her race for state controller to Democrat Betty Yee, a state Board of Equalization member. Yee was ahead Wednesday, 53% to 47%.

Both Peterson and Swearengin had trouble raising money. "The donor class had just given up on them," said Tony Quinn, a veteran Republican election analyst. "Now I think they're going to say, 'Hey, we missed a shot here.'"

Two Democrats weighing runs for governor in 2018 easily dispatched their Republican challengers: Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom beat rival Ron Nehring, 56% to 44%, and Atty. Gen. Kamala Harris defeated her opponent, Ronald Gold, also by 56% to 44%.

State Insurance Commissioner Dave Jones coasted to reelection, beating Republican Ted Gaines, 56% to 44%. And state Controller John Chiang romped to a new post as state treasurer, defeating Republican Greg Conlon, 58% to 42%.

A key reason for Republicans' relative strength in legislative and congressional contests was low turnout, which often harms Democrats as Latinos, young voters and other groups that lean toward the party sit out the election. The Field Poll projected that just 46% of California voters would turn out — a record low. Early results indicated the final number would be even lower.

"It's really hard for either party to start pounding their chests about very much other than no one seemed to know there was an election last night or participated," Democratic strategist Gale Kaufman said. "That's the real lesson in what happened last night."

Indeed, without the unusually favorable national climate for Republicans, the party's long-term decline in California would have weighed more heavily on its candidates. Only 28% of the state's voters are now registered Republicans — a share that has been steadily shrinking. And just 17% of the voters who newly registered this year signed up as Republicans.

Spillane, who has urged state Republican leaders for years to recruit more female, Latino and Asian candidates to better reflect the state's diverse demographics, saw signs in Tuesday's election that the efforts are starting to work.

In Orange County, Republican Janet Nguyen, a Vietnamese American, defeated Democrat Jose Solorio in a fiercely contested state Senate race, and Republican Young Kim, a Korean American, ousted Democratic Assemblywoman Sharon Quirk-Silva.

In a costly San Diego congressional race that was too close to call Wednesday, Republican Carl DeMaio, who is openly gay, was running just ahead of Peters, the Democratic incumbent.

"The Republican Party in California," Spillane said, "has gotten the message."

In 2012, Democrats captured a legislative supermajority, giving them the power to raise taxes or place constitutional amendments on the ballot without a single Republican vote. That power soon vanished after two Democratic state senators were charged with political corruption, and a third was convicted of voter fraud.

John Burton, the state Democratic chairman, scoffed at Republicans' satisfaction at keeping Democrats from regaining their supermajority.

"If they're happy with that, then they can be happy," he said. "I don't think they're on their way back."

Finnegan and Mehta reported from Los Angeles, Mason from Sacramento. Times staff writers Phil Willon and Patrick McGreevy in Sacramento and Jean Merl in Los Angeles contributed to this report.

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