Judging from the results of last November’s slate of ballot initiatives in California, one might imagine that the state is poised to make a turn to the right. California voters rebuffed one ballot attempt to allow 17-year-olds to vote in primaries, for example, and another to scrap the cash bail system and replace it with an algorithm cooked up by Silicon Valley. An initiative that would have allowed the state to raise commercial property taxes also went down to defeat. Voters approved Proposition 22, reversing a recent state law that forced gig-economy companies like Uber and Lyft to classify their casual workers as employees. Perhaps most encouraging to the Right, a bid to reinstate affirmative action in state hiring—illegal since 1996—failed by almost 15 points.
But these results probably don’t justify the hopes in some quarters that bluest California is, at least in some sense, moving rightward. To understand why requires a closer look at the history of the ballot measure in California and its role in state politics today.
California voters adopted a ballot-initiative system by referendum in 1911, under Progressive governor Hiram Johnson. (A referendum is framed by the legislature and given an up-or-down vote by the people, while a ballot initiative originates with the people.) The momentum behind the system’s introduction emanated from movements further to the left. It was a Christian Socialist, John Randolph Haynes, who marshaled socialist groups, the temperance movement, and union forces to install the ballot-initiative system, against opposition by the Southern Pacific Railroad and the then-conservative Los Angeles Times.
After the 1950s, the Democratic Party definitively ended the Republican domination of state politics. Republicans might win the governor’s office, as they did under Ronald Reagan and would again in the 1980s and 1990s, but a yawning gap in voter registration, unbroken from the late 1940s to today, put the state legislature beyond the GOP’s grasp. By the late 1970s, the state Democratic Party had also learned how to hinder ballot initiatives from generating a formidable Republican voting coalition.
California’s landmark Proposition 13 on property taxes is a classic example. In response to dramatically rising property values, which were increasing taxes and squeezing middle-class homeowners, Orange County businessman Howard Jarvis led a “taxpayers’ revolt,” championing an initiative capping property taxes and sharply limiting how fast they could increase. The successful initiative, passed in 1978, inspired similar movements in other parts of the United States.
The measure presented an easy rallying point for the Republican Party and its base of middle-class homeowners. Too easy, in fact: Democratic governor Jerry Brown was quick to appreciate the extent of homeowner fury propelling Jarvis’s initiative and its possible political implications. Accordingly, Brown sought not to resist but to redirect middle-class rage to his own proposal—a more moderate cap. When that effort failed, Brown pledged to uphold Prop. 13, and did. Years later, during his run for a fourth term in office in 2014, Brown called it a “sacred doctrine.”
Having failed to turn the taxpayers’ revolt to its advantage, the California Republican Party made a concerted effort in the 1990s to organize a coalition of voters supporting ballot initiatives on hot-button political issues. The most notable of these was Proposition 187, a 1994 measure, passed by a 20-point margin, which banned illegal immigrants from access to social services.
During a period when alarm about immigration levels was widespread, including among many liberals, Republican governor Pete Wilson had trailed in the polls in his reelection campaign against Kathleen Brown, Jerry Brown’s sister. Prop. 187 presented the ambitious Wilson, who had his eye on a presidential run, with the opportunity to use immigration as a “wedge issue.” By presenting his candidacy as synonymous with the measure (TV spots ran with his name next to Prop. 187), Wilson coasted to a second term, beating challenger Brown by 15 points. Democratic senator Dianne Feinstein, up for reelection in 1994 as well, tacked hard to the right on immigration, and won. Republicans even won a slim majority in the state’s lower house, for the first time since 1970, as Democrats narrowly held the upper house. The measure seemed to have revived the fortunes of California’s Republican Party.
But just a few years later, journalists began writing obituaries for the GOP in the state. The Democratic advantage in the state legislature grew steadily to supermajority levels, while statewide office for Republicans became possible only under anomalous conditions, such as the Wild West–style recall of hapless Democratic governor Gray Davis in 2003. The strategy of using ballot initiatives like Prop. 187 to juice the GOP’s potential had failed.
What happened? One common explanation sees California Republicans’ 1990s-era flirtation with populism as a kind of hubris. Even by the standards of the 1990s, Prop. 187 was harsh, and it was unlikely to hold up to legal challenge (it was eventually ruled unconstitutional). One provision denied the children of illegal immigrants access to public schools—in direct contradiction of Supreme Court precedent. California was in the midst of a rapid demographic transition from majority to minority Anglo, and many observers assumed that Prop. 187 had alienated Hispanic voters and aligned them with the Democrats.
More recent research, however, has shown that 1994 was not a watershed moment for California’s Hispanic voters, whose gradual shift leftward had begun earlier and did not pick up marked speed at this point. Instead, a combination of the long-standing structural dominance of the Democratic Party—backed today by the largest accumulations of capital in the state—and the increasingly combative, socially conservative posture of the national Republican Party complicated the traditional California Republican strategy of running as the “nonpartisan” choice.
“Right-wing donors exhaust themselves supporting ballot initiatives instead of backing candidates.”
Pete Wilson also shares some of the blame. His backing of Prop. 187 was out of step with his moderate record, a move intended to burnish his hardline credentials for a presidential run in 1996. Wilson’s national campaign lasted barely a month; he cut an embarrassing figure, having lost his voice after throat surgery, and he had exhausted the generosity of conservative donors, having relied on them simultaneously for his gubernatorial reelection campaign and the campaign for Prop. 187. To immigration hardliners, he was an arriviste; to moderates, an opportunist. When Prop. 187 faced its inevitable court challenges, Wilson made a show of appealing the rulings, but he did not attempt to use a rare Republican majority in the lower house to introduce legislation that would temper its harshest aspects, thus giving it a chance of passing constitutional muster. All he managed was feigned shock when his Democratic successor, Gray Davis, dropped California’s appeal.
The Republican Party was left in disarray. Moderates scrambled to restore the party’s pragmatic California image, as immigration fears began to subside. Hardliners were more convinced than ever that the party had gone soft on the issues that mattered.
Meanwhile, on the left, Davis’s gesture in dropping the state’s appeal of the Prop. 187 ruling prompted an important discovery by California Democrats. Their advantage in statewide elections was now so considerable that they felt emboldened to mount legal challenges to reverse popular initiatives that contradicted their program, including on contentious social issues. For example, during his second stint as governor, in 2013, Jerry Brown felt confident enough in his electoral power to direct officials to issue marriage licenses to gay couples after courts struck down the successful Proposition 8, which had banned the practice. Other methods were available, too: officials could satisfy the letter of a law while disregarding its spirit, or the legislature could keep proposing referendums to oppose an unwanted ballot initiative until one produced the desired result.
Governor Gavin Newsom has recently shown that even these niceties aren’t always necessary. In 2016, asked to rule on capital punishment, the people of California voted to maintain and expedite the death penalty with Prop. 66. The inevitable court challenge managed only a slight watering-down of the measure. No matter: entering office in 2019, Newsom simply issued an executive order placing a moratorium on executions, reversing the popular decision with a stroke of a pen.
Far from being an impediment to the Democratic Party’s dominance in California, the ballot initiative has actually become an advantage. Right-wing donors exhaust themselves supporting ballot initiatives instead of backing candidates, contributing to the poor performance of statewide Republicans—which, in turn, feeds back into the donor preference for ballot initiatives as a political Hail Mary. And even when majorities support a conservative-backed initiative, liberal courts or executive action can defang the measure.
For California voters, the ballot initiative has thus become a largely symbolic vehicle for expressing discontent with Democratic Party policies—a constitutional release valve for the off-gassing of accumulated pressure. This conclusion comes with a certain irony for the heirs of Haynes and progressive champions of the ballot-initiative system: the institution they conceived as a check on the power of entrenched parties has now become another weapon in their arsenal.
What about another element of the progressive package of political reforms: the recall election? It’s a hot topic in California politics. Revelations of massive fraud in California’s welfare system have tarnished Newsom’s image, as did his opulent dinner in early November with health-care lobbyists in contravention of his own Covid-19 lockdown mandates, lending momentum to a recall effort. The memory of Gray Davis’s ouster in 2003 and his replacement by moderate Republican politician and actor Arnold Schwarzenegger have generated a sense of opportunity in Republican circles.
With an anti-Newsom recall campaign having gathered the necessary signatures, the state will hold an election on September 14, giving voters an up-or-down choice on retaining Newsom and, at the same time—in a quizzical protocol—a vote for his successor in case he is recalled. If a “no” verdict carries the day and Newsom is toppled, whichever of the likely dozens of names of would-be successors grabs the most votes—perhaps with a small plurality of 30 percent or less—will be installed in the governor’s chair, even with a small plurality of perhaps 30 percent or less. Newsom will be hoping to cling to office on a combination of portraying the recall (amusingly enough) as a right-wing attempt to suborn democracy, and goodwill from a recent barrage of social spending: rounds of checks for poor Californians, rent relief, and universal pre-K initiatives.
In 2003, the low barriers to entry for candidates in recall elections made the campaign against Davis into a political circus, featuring dozens of outlandish candidates, including a pornography actress and a sumo wrestler. In that environment, Schwarzenegger’s name recognition all but guaranteed him the governor’s mansion.
None of the 46 contenders (at last count) to replace Newsom commands Schwarzeneggerian stature, and no mainstream Democrats have risked Newsom’s wrath to toss in their names. Still, the latest poll has Newsom on a knife’s edge, his 50–47 percent lead among likely voters nearly within the margin of error. Newsom missed an administrative deadline to have his party affiliation placed on the ballot, which—for voters who are Democrats but are not politically attentive—might prove consequential.
Leading current polling is a trio of Southern California Republicans: Larry Elder, longtime libertarian talk-radio host, at 18 percent, followed by former San Diego mayor Kevin Faulconer and businessman John Cox, whom Newsom beat out for the governorship in 2019, both at 10 percent. All three are more or less moderate and none seems obviously unfit, though Elder has no political background and Cox has experience only in losing elections. Transgender celebrity Caitlyn Jenner, another candidate, is currently enjoying a trip to Australia and polling at just 3 percent. By far the largest subgroup of voters, 40 percent, want Newsom out but have no opinion on who should replace him.
Though for the moment the incumbent still seems likely to survive, a real chance now exists that Elder—or someone else—might be catapulted into office. But with only a year left until fresh elections in 2022, whoever might replace the current governor would have little time to prove his competence, and might well be vulnerable to turn a borrowed office back in a year’s time to a vengeful Newsom, or to his successor, as Sacramento’s anointed.
Like the ballot initiative, the recall process does not seem to be the shortcut to overcoming the structural dominance of California Democrats that it may at first seem. The internal politics of the state Democratic Party should remain far more central in deciding the fate of the Golden State than will any improvised challenges from across the aisle.
Photo: Facing a recall election in November, Governor Gavin Newsom is using the state’s budget surplus to send stimulus checks to residents. (WILLY SANJUAN/INVISION/AP PHOTO)