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California Politics: There are so many Democrats

A big screen shows vote numbers while people eat in a restaurant..
(Associated Press)

There weren’t many things Larry Elder avoided talking about on the campaign trail during his brief but consequential run for governor in the California recall election. His tell-it-like-it-is style was a bedrock of his effort to knock Gov. Gavin Newsom out of office.

But in the aftermath of the historic election, the Republican firebrand admitted something he wouldn’t have said before election day: There were just too many Democrats.

“You know, I was talking to a friend of mine and he was reminding me of a scene from ‘Star Wars,’” Elder said during an interview last weekend with Los Angeles’ KTTV anchor Elex Michaelson. “And one soldier was looking over the battlefield looking at the opposition. And he said, ‘There’s just so many of them.’”

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That Elder would see himself as one of the good guys — the line was spoken by the pilot of a rebel ship in “Return of the Jedi” who faced a swarm of Imperial TIE fighters — is understandable. But regardless of how you might feel about him, the point is one worth considering.

California’s biggest political battles are not between Republicans and Democrats, but rather, between factions inside the Democratic Party. Luckily for Newsom, they closed ranks during the recall.

California’s deep blue politics

The seeds of Democratic hegemony in California were planted between 1995 and 2002, a seven-year period that reshaped the state’s politics for a generation or more. At the outset, it seemed as though everything was going the way of Republicans — retaining the offices of governor and attorney general, picking up the posts of secretary of state, treasurer and insurance commissioner and, after a two-year tussle, wresting control of the Assembly away from Democrats.

What happened next was succinctly described by editors A.G. Block and Gerald Lubenow in the 2007 edition of the now-defunct California Political Almanac.

“Republicans thought their 1994 win would usher in a new era for their party and light the path to political dominance. Instead, they traded short-term wins for long-term losses by exploiting for political gain the ethnic diversity that has long been one of California’s great strengths. The resulting backlash stove in the Republican house.”

But even at the peak of their power, there were fewer Republicans than Democrats in California. In February 1995, Democrats held an almost 12-percentage-point lead in voter registration and maintained a similar-sized advantage for most of the following decade. Only after the reelection of then-Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger in 2006 did Republicans get within striking distance — about 8 percentage points — in voter registration. The numbers have slipped ever since. Meanwhile, a growing number of California voters decided to be independent of any political party, picking and choosing issues and candidates while often siding with Democrats in statewide races.

By the time former President Trump was elected, Democrats held close to a 19-percentage-point lead in voter registration and inched closer to a 2-1 advantage over the GOP. Making things even tougher: Polls have found most unaffiliated California voters often align with Democrats when forced to choose.

What now for Republicans?

The recall effort against Newsom was, in some ways, a replica of the 2018 statewide election. In each of the statewide races that November pitting a Democrat against a Republican, the Democrat won with a percentage of the vote almost exactly the same as the current tally of votes opposing the recall.

It’s hard to see any issue that’s more pressing for state GOP leaders to discuss at this weekend’s fall convention in San Diego than the one Elder pointed out in his postelection interviews.

“Is there anything that any Republican, real Republican — by that, I’m talking about somebody who believes in tax cuts, somebody who believes in school choice, somebody believes in lowering regulations, somebody who believes in things I believe — could any real Republican win in California, given the electoral map? I’m not sure,” he said in the KTTV interview.

Finding the path back to statewide victories, or at least relevance, has been debated ad nauseam in recent years by prominent Republicans. And the poor showing in last week’s recall election is likely to add new fuel to the fire. It’s not that GOP candidates can’t win. But when they do, it’s on a regional level and usually in places where their numbers are large or where they can capitalize on Democratic divisions or distractions.

One thing’s for sure: The party no longer has much, if any, of a moderate wing.

“The registered Republicans that are left in California philosophically are right in there with Republicans in Texas or Republicans in Tennessee,” Jon Fleischman, a longtime GOP activist and former executive director of the party, told my colleagues Melanie Mason and Seema Mehta.

The latest recall tally

This week saw the final two deadlines related to ballots cast in the recall election — one for ballots postmarked by election day to arrive, the other for ballots turned in to the wrong county to be forwarded to the correct location.

Not counting the estimated 1.1 million ballots that remain to be processed, the current tally shows almost 12 million voters participated in the election. Add the two numbers together and it looks like the recall election drew participation by almost 60% of registered voters. That’s roughly the same level of voter participation in the 2003 recall of then-Gov. Gray Davis and lower than any statewide general election since 2010.

While it’s been mentioned before, it probably can’t be emphasized enough that there were two very different contests in this recall election. There were more than 5 million fewer ballots cast in the race among replacement candidates — a “none of the above” that is getting close to eclipsing Elder’s tally by 2 million votes. And those missing votes must be taken into account when assessing the relative strength of the GOP newcomer’s showing.

Here’s the bottom line: More than 62% of all voters in the recall election wanted to keep Newsom in the governor’s office, and only 27% supported Elder’s bid to take over the job.

Democrats vs. Democrats

California Democrats may be generally happy with their political dominance, but it presents some challenges. Next year will mark the 10th anniversary of the election in which they first won a supermajority of seats in both houses of the Legislature.

In the decade that followed, they’ve largely held on to that power. But the ability to muster a two-thirds vote in the Senate and Assembly has never quite lived up to its promise or the warning from Republicans — tax increase votes have been rare, gubernatorial vetoes have not been overridden, and sweeping constitutional amendments have not been placed on the ballot.

Instead, the state Capitol’s never-ending battles between business and labor groups have mostly moved from a two-party fight to one inside Democratic ranks. Much of that has been in the 80-member Assembly, where 18 Democrats voted on the side of positions taken by the California Chamber of Commerce most of the time in 2020 and an additional seven were almost split on backing the business group’s views.

The biggest change has been in elections, and we’ll see more of this next year. In 2018, two statewide offices featured Democrat versus Democrat races in the general election. In the coming cycle, that could happen again for the post of state insurance commissioner. On Monday, five-term Assemblyman Marc Levine (D-Greenbrae) announced he would challenge Commissioner Ricardo Lara, saying that “too many distractions” were keeping his fellow Democrat from doing the job and subtly hinting at criticisms of Lara two years ago for accepting campaign contributions from insurance industry executives.

Lara quickly responded with a dizzying list of Democratic endorsements featuring Newsom and every other statewide elected official as well as more than five dozen members of the Legislature.

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Redistricting’s new deadline

Look for the abundance of Democratic politicians as an important subplot in next year’s election being conducted with newly drawn congressional and legislative districts.

The process of redistricting, carried out by an independent citizens panel, has been pushed back significantly by the delay in census data from federal officials. The maps that were expected to be completed this summer will now not be finalized until the winter.

But the citizen line-drawers won’t get as much time as they had requested. On Wednesday, the California Supreme Court denied a request by the Citizens Redistricting Commission to extend the deadline for the final maps to Jan. 14 — instead, ordering the process be completed by Dec. 27. Commissioners and a handful of voting rights groups had warned that completing the process during the holidays would mean less public input. But Secretary of State Shirley Weber and local elections officials warned that even two weeks is crucial to preparing for the June statewide primary.

Initial line-drawing sessions of the commission — comprising five Democrats, five Republicans and four unaffiliated voters — should begin next week.

California politics lightning round

— Despite her celebrity as a former Olympic decathlete and member of a family that has become an American pop culture touchstone, Caitlyn Jenner’s fame failed to help her win over recall voters.

— After 12 years in the Legislature and a 2018 run for the U.S. Senate, Los Angeles City Councilman Kevin de León announced Tuesday he is joining the race to replace Mayor Eric Garcetti.

— Not the typical photo op: L.A. mayoral candidates’ visits to areas with large homeless populations can quickly become chaotic, reflecting the on-the-ground reality.

— Amazon and other warehouse operators across California will face new regulation of their labor practices under a law signed by Newsom on Wednesday.

— Here’s what the future may hold in store for single-family zoning in California, after Newsom’s signature on a closely watched housing bill.

— Friends and followers offered praise this week to one of California’s most prolific chroniclers of politics and government, Scott Lay, who died this month at 48.

A programming note...

I’ll be away next week on a brief vacation. Look for the California Politics newsletter to return to your inbox on Oct. 8.

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