Why California Is a Pivotal Elections Player Again

Why California Is a Pivotal Elections Player Again
AP Photo/Eric Risberg
Why California Is a Pivotal Elections Player Again
AP Photo/Eric Risberg
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In what already has been a strange election year in terms of changing narratives and fluctuating polls, here’s another oddity: California, historically an overrated commodity as far as national political influence is concerned, is now quite relevant.

Here are four reasons why:

The Democratic Backbone. Going into this election, we already knew about California’s over-size role in the aggregation of blue-state electoral votes. Dating back to 1992, the Golden State is one of only 15 reliably Democratic states in presidential contests (that number was 18 before President Trump appropriated Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin). Take away California’s 55 electoral votes and the Democratic nominee has a base of only 141 electoral votes – barely halfway to 270 and victory. Good luck winning with that.

What stands out in this election: The California influence on a would-be Democratic House majority. Should Democrats sweep the five toss-up Republican-held seats in Southern California and the Central Valley, that would give them 44 of the 53 seats in the state’s House delegation. Assuming a Democratic “wave” translates to a net gain north of 30 seats, that means California Democrats will account for roughly one in five seats in the new majority caucus – impressive, for a state with only one-eighth the House total.

Presidency. With the exception of fundraisers and guest appearances on “Ellen,” California is a presidential post-convention “no-fly zone.” Six straight elections in which the Republican nominee has lost here by at least 1.2 million votes serves as a campaign buzzkill. (In 2016, Trump lost in California by a staggering 4.26 million votes, the worst Republican performance since Alf Landon’s trouncing in 1936.)

The last time a Californian had a serious shot at the White House? With all due respect to Jello Biafra (he’s the San Francisco punk rocker who sought the Green Party’s nomination in 2000), we’d have to go back 34 years to Ronald Reagan’s re-election – the end of a span, from 1952-1984, during which a Californian was on a national ticket in seven of nine presidential elections.

That dry spell might end in 2020. Sen. Kamala Harris seems certain to run, as does Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti (an announcement is soon forthcoming). Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom, the prohibitive favorite to replace the term-limited Gov. Jerry Brown, delights in taking pot shots at Trump. A handful of ambitious House Democrats – Reps. Ro Khanna, Adam Schiff and Eric Swalwell, among them – seem interested.

And there are the two California non-politicians who seem determined to mold the Democratic Party in their own image. That would be a hedge-fund billionaire who resides in San Francisco and a lawyer to the (porn) stars who hangs his shingle in Newport Beach.

Of that bunch, it’s Harris who fascinates. Like Barack Obama, she offers a telegenic multiracial appeal (the daughter of Indian and Jamaican immigrants) and the tabula rasa of a first-term senator with little to show in the way of legislative accomplishments.   

The Democrats’ Showroom Display. One thing missing from Jerry Brown’s second gubernatorial tour of duty: the obligatory “as California leads, the nation should follow” speech.

That’s because Brown didn’t venture much into national politics until Trump came along. And his mission, dating back to 2011, was to put the state’s finances in order – and sometimes pull the reins on an over-enthusiastic State Legislature (check the man’s veto record and each year you’ll find Brown rejecting measures more liberal Democrats would rubber-stamp).

As governor, Newsom likely won’t pass on California virtue-signaling. Here’s a passage from his primary-night “victory” speech:

“The state of California has always been America’s coming attraction. Millions of destinies connected by one dream: to be whoever you want to be. A state where we don’t criminalize diversity, we celebrate diversity.”

He also walked up to the microphone that evening to the strains of Tupac Shakur’s “California Love” and praised the philosophical chops of the rapper Kendrick Lamar (this song in particular). In short, a Gavin Newsom-led California will be relentlessly marketed as hip, youthful and even more progressive than it has been under Brown – an identity-driven, grievance-based, rebalance-the-scales paradise on Earth that offers abundant sunshine, green energy and a government comfort quilt from cradle to grave.

In other words, the same Kool-Aid that will be on sale at the 2020 Democratic National Convention.

Progressive to the Max. Imagine a Congress in 2019 featuring a Democratic House that wants to investigate (and maybe impeach) President Trump and his minions while pushing hard on immigration and taxes – only to be met by a Republican Senate that turns a deaf ear to the Democrats’ ardor.

California, in 2019, will be the opposite: a newly elected Democratic governor and an overwhelmingly Democratic legislature pushing the state further to port (the Newsom agenda includes universal pre-kindergarten; more money for job training; a “Marshall Plan” to address California’s affordable housing shortage; plus the promise of implementing single-payer health care – a concept Brown has resisted due to a lack of feasible resources).

But the real test may come in 2020, if California voters are presented with a chance to modify the state’s fabled Proposition 13. Indeed, one such measure already has qualified for the 2020 ballot. Approved exactly 40 years ago, Prop 13 and its citizens’ revolt against rising property taxes is seen as a precursor to the Reagan Revolution that soon followed (Prop 13 set state property taxes at 1 percent of the purchase price and capped annual increases at 2 percent or the rate of inflation, whichever is lower).

The significance of revisiting Prop 13? For decades, the protection against residential homes and business properties has been considered a “third rail” of California politics. But in a larger sense, the ballot fight would test California Democrats’ appetite to spend against the public’s willingness to abide by higher fees and taxes, with the state’s business community slugging it out with Sacramento’s liberal special interests. Twice in this past decade, California voters approved higher taxes. They seem poised, next week, to defeat Proposition 6 and a proposed repeal of last year’s legislative-approved increase of the state’s gasoline tax.

And should California voters go along with a so-called “split-roll” modification of Proposition 13 that changes the rules by which businesses in the state are taxed? Let’s assume Sen. Harris will be watching. A year later, President Harris – in concert with a Democratic Congress – might feel empowered to do some tax-raising of her own.

Bill Whalen is a Hoover Institution research fellow who follows California and national politics, and host of Hoover’s “Area 45” podcast on the Trump presidency. He can be reached at whalenoped@gmail.com.


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