West Coast Blues
Progressives in California, Oregon, and Washington confront the political consequences of bad governance.
Few regions have been more consistently Democratic than the West Coast. Even compared with the Northeast, where Republicans occasionally win governors’ offices, the appropriately named “left coast” has been adamantine in its progressivism. Republicans haven’t won statewide office in California in years; in Oregon, it’s decades. Washington has elected a Republican secretary of state, but she now serves in the Biden administration. And the region’s major cities are overwhelmingly blue.
That could be changing, at least a bit. As cities from Seattle and Portland to San Francisco and Los Angeles fight crime and disorder, something of a political rebellion has broken out. One progressive fashion entrepreneur has called San Francisco “a city of chaos,” where his employees are not safe. The city, by some estimates, has deteriorated further and faster than virtually any urban area in the country. Within the last year, though, San Francisco recalled its progressive district attorney, Chesa Boudin, as well as left-wing members of the city school board. Meantime, remarkably, Seattle elected a Republican as city attorney, and Los Angeles district attorney George Gascón has faced backlash, and a possible recall. Voters have a chance to continue the rebellion this week.
Progressive candidates will likely eke out some wins. L.A. mayoral candidate and former Republican Rick Caruso has recovered some momentum after a weak summer and could conceivably beat progressive opponent Karen Bass, though Bass leads in betting markets. In Washington, long-time Democratic senator Patty Murray faces a surprisingly tough challenge from Republican Tiffany Smiley, though Murray, too, is favored.
But some heterodox candidates seem poised for upsets. In Oregon, Christine Drazan could become the first Republican governor since the 1980s, replacing the ultra-progressive and highly unpopular Kate Brown. In California, Republican Lanhee Chen, endorsed by the state’s usually lockstep progressive press, could be elected state controller, in what would be the first statewide win for a Republican since 2006.
Crime and chaos drive the GOP revival, but looming economic and fiscal crises are also factors. The once-flourishing tech industry may face at least a short-run implosion that has rattled investors. In California, where the post-pandemic recovery has lagged, the one industry left booming in Silicon Valley may be psychotherapy. Don’t expect a more business-friendly climate to emerge after the election. New proposals for wealth taxes, a 32-hour work week, and controls on franchise employment are likely—despite regional struggles with pensions, jobs, and business flight.
The physical economy, too, has declined across the West Coast. Manufacturing is lagging, particularly in California. Due to regulations and a lack of storage for water supplies, the Golden State’s once-dominant agriculture sector is declining. The state’s highly regulated housing sector has lagged on construction, leaving the state vulnerable to a real-estate downturn that is already hurting housing markets.
In addition, state policies drive electricity and fuel prices that rank among the nation’s highest, discouraging price-sensitive industries from staying in state and putting millions on the edge of energy poverty. California, in fact, suffers the nation’s highest rates of cost-of-living adjusted poverty, with residents of the less temperate and poorer interior far less able to pay for the state’s green zealotry than residents on the coast. And California, despite massive education spending, suffers the highest percentage of illiteracy of any state.
Yet one West Coast candidate who won’t face political accountability is California governor Gavin Newsom. Hoping to ease the pain of high energy prices, he’s been handing out checks to working-class voters, like an old Tammany boss. His presidential ambitions, touted by the New York Times as a “culture war” alternative to Ron DeSantis, remain intact. But having presided over California’s decline, Newsom is far from beloved. The share of residents approving of his job performance rarely exceeds a bare majority, while finance and tech elites, a key base of support, seem to be moving modestly rightward, having doubled their percentage of giving to GOP candidates.
Ordinary people have voted with their feet. California now has higher net out-migration rates than most Rust Belt states. As demographer Wendell Cox notes, the collapse of order in city streets could propel more people to leave Oregon and Washington, too. These states no longer are gaining domestic migrants; Seattle and Portland have recorded net losses in the last two years. Both cities are seeing employers from Starbucks to Amazon depart, with many citing safety issues. Nike founder Phil Knight, long a supporter of progressive causes, spent $1 million boosting the GOP’s Drazan and nearly $4 million on a third-party alternative.
The rightward or perhaps centrist shift is subtle but real. In the New California Coalition, a business group for whom Chapman University does analysis, many key players come largely from the ranks of Democrats who have finally begun to consider the virtues of centrism. Their shift reflects a growing unease at the grassroots level. Even as they prepare to reelect Newsom, more Californians, according to the most recent University of California–Berkeley poll, thought the state was headed in the wrong direction than in the right direction. Recent polls in Oregon logged similar findings. And another recent survey found two-thirds of all Seattle residents considering an exit from the city.
Critical are shifts among West Coast Asians and Latinos. Asian-American parents played an especially significant role in the recall of members of San Francisco’s extreme progressive school board. In Los Angeles, politicians have feuded along ethnic lines, and the growing Latino and Asian electorate, though still mostly Democratic, shows signs of dissatisfaction with the progressive status quo.
Will voters eventually demand bigger changes? None of the left-coast states is going to turn anything close to red anytime soon. In California, due to redistricting, Democrats could even pick up a congressional seat or two. But residents seem increasingly open to reasonable policies on such issues as crime, education, and the environment. These tensions will grow as progressives keep moving leftward.
In the long run, the big challenge facing West Coast Democrats will be funding their elaborate big-government schemes without massive bailouts from the businesses and elites who are leaving in disturbing numbers. This might force politicians to raise taxes on the upper-middle class, who form a crucial part of their base. Even if Democrats outperform their lowered expectations in the midterms, the days of one-party control in California seem numbered. Genuine political competition may not be coming to the West Coast in 2022, but for the first time in decades, it appears possible again.
Photos: Mathieu Lewis-Rolland/Getty Images (left) / Genaro Molina / Los Angeles Times via Getty Images (right)
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