Capitol Journal: Post-election, California Democrats still dominate and GOP has nowhere to go but up

Hundreds of thousands of dollars in gifts were accepted by California state lawmakers last year.
Hundreds of thousands of dollars in gifts were accepted by California state lawmakers last year.
(Rich Pedroncelli / Associated Press)

The California Democratic and Republican parties both can be thankful this holiday. Democrats rule the roost in Sacramento. And Republicans can’t fall much lower.

Democrats are in a prime position to soon start slipping off their perch. And the state GOP, with some uncommonly astute moves, could begin inching back up the ladder to relevancy.

Yes, maybe that is fantasy.

But if Republican Donald Trump’s unorthodox upset victory across America taught Democrats anything, it’s that most of them should toss out everything they think they know — and do more thinking and listening. Change is the bedrock of our political system.


“If we didn’t get a wake-up call from what happened in the rest of the country, then shame on us,” says Sacramento-based Democratic strategist David Townsend, who advises business-friendly moderates.

“It’s about the economy. Trump won on economics. He didn’t win on being a racist.”

Hillary Clinton, however, did carry California by almost 2 to 1 — nearly 62% to about 33% in the latest count. Still, Trump attracted more than 4 million votes in this deep blue state that contains solid patches of red in the interior.

Clinton drew more than 7.5 million votes. Democrats have a ton to be thankful for.

For starters, they hold every statewide office and the two U.S. Senate seats. And on Nov. 8, Democrats also increased their legislative dominance.

They picked up three state Assembly seats and regained a two-thirds majority. They’re also on the verge — depending on the final vote count — of gaining one seat in the state Senate and reclaiming a two-thirds majority there.

With a two-thirds majority in both houses, the Legislature can pass a tax increase without Republican help. It also can place a state constitutional amendment or a bond proposal on the ballot.


That doesn’t mean Democrats will do any of that. The last time they held a two-thirds majority, after the 2012 presidential election, three senators got into legal trouble and were suspended. There went the two-thirds.

Even without that, however, Democrats don’t all think alike. The “mods” often vote with business and against taxes — like Republicans.

Townsend estimates there will be 22 or more business-friendly Democrats in the 80-member Assembly during the next legislative session. There’ll probably be five in the 40-member Senate.

Updates from Sacramento »

They’re outnumbered by Democratic progressives, who don’t like to be called liberal anymore because they consider that a pejorative.

The long-term danger for Democratic office holders in California is if they continue to ignore the middle class — especially what’s left of the blue-collar workers who stiffed Clinton and sided with Trump in battleground states.

In many respects, they’re the descendants of the “Reagan Democrats” who began leaving California when President Ronald Reagan ended the Cold War and aircraft plants started shutting down.

Auto makers and other manufacturers also departed because of high taxes, environmental regulations and jobs being shipped to Mexico and overseas — stuff that Trump hammered on to attract working class voters in the Rust Belt.

“Trump pointed out that the system is rigged,” Townsend says. “And it’s rigged primarily against the middle class. We haven’t done a thing for the middle class in 20 years.”

The Democratic strategist uses a football analogy to describe the 2016 presidential campaign: “It’s like [New England Patriots quarterback] Tom Brady walking up to the line and seeing there’s no defender in the center of the field. Trump ran right through it.”

The last legislative session was a good example of Democrats paying little attention to the middle class.

It raised the minimum wage, expanded overtime for farm workers, added welfare money for diapers and allowed immigrants here illegally to buy health insurance through Obamacare. It also, under Gov. Jerry Brown’s prodding, increased California’s fight against global warming.

OK, fine. But it didn’t do much to streamline much-abused environmental regulations that delay and discourage job-creating economic development.

And it completely failed to come up with a plan to fix California’s deteriorating highways and bridges.

“Every damn pothole I hit belongs to Democrats,” GOP consultant Rob Stutzman told me Tuesday, driving back to Sacramento from the San Francisco Bay Area.

Republicans wouldn’t raise the gas tax to finance repairs. But if the governor and Democrats really had focused on it, they should have been able to work out some deal.

GOP consultant Mike Madrid, whose grandparents migrated to Southern California from Mexico to work in airplane and auto plants, says “The huge message to Democrats nationally in the election was they can’t win without the middle class.”

With the white middle class declining in California, Madrid sees Latinos ultimately taking their place. But because of the years of Republican jabber about illegal immigration, he doubts Latinos will turn to the GOP anytime soon.

“There are significant racial overtones,” Madrid says. “Now people at the bottom are increasingly Latino and black, and people with wealth are white and Asian. Never in history has that turned out well.

“Both parties are in deep trouble for different reasons. Republicans for racial reasons. Democrats for economic.”

Republican consultant Ray McNally, however, is a party optimist.

“One of the most important lessons I’ve learned after all these years,” he says, “is that the party out of power can always count on the party in power to put them back in power. The Democrats will overreach. Power really does corrupt.”

For today, Democrats can rejoice in their good fortune. And Republicans can be thankful for their turkey president-elect.

Follow @LATimesSkelton on Twitter


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