One doesn’t expect the unexpected in California elections. A progressive Democrat will become governor; Dianne Feinstein will return to the Senate yet again; and so on. Nuances still matter, particularly at the congressional level, in part due to the “jungle primary” system, but nothing much has changed. Statewide, the ideological die, at least for now, is cast.
Perhaps the best news for Republicans, with the surprisingly strong showing of businessman John Cox, is that they will actually have a candidate on the November ballot for governor. Businessman Cox easily beat out the Democratic challengers to the front-running Democrat, former San Francisco mayor Gavin Newsom. Some conservatives, like Newt Gingrich, think that Cox has a serious shot at victory in November, but all GOP candidates combined pulled in barely 35 percent of the vote.
Here’s the reality: California Republicans, constituting barely a quarter of the electorate, now make up a smaller cohort than Independents. Combined with Independents who lean to the GOP, they perhaps could win 40 to 45 percent of the vote in November—still not good enough. The big money that once filled the coffers of Ronald Reagan and Richard Nixon now goes overwhelmingly to the other side: the top three Democratic gubernatorial candidates raised over $70 million, more than ten times what the GOP’s top candidate, the largely self-funded Cox, had drummed up by the end of last month.
Even more than money, the problem for Republicans is demographics, which suggest a continued decline of the state party. In the last decade, the state gained 2 million Hispanics and 1 million Asians—both groups now trending overwhelmingly Democratic—while losing almost 800,000 whites, the GOP’s vanishing base. Migration patterns show middle-aged, middle- and working-class families exiting a state increasingly dominated by the unmarried childless and older, affluent white voters, including many who have profited from the rise in housing prices and are the most bullish on the state’s future.
The Republican brand’s weakness was dramatized in the success of former state insurance commissioner Steve Poizner, a onetime Republican now running as an Independent for his old job. Poizner, who sold his GPS company to Qualcomm for $1 billion in 2000, came in first, with 43 percent of the vote. Another promising result was the first-place finish in the state superintendent’s race of school-reform advocate Marshall Tuck, also an Independent, against teachers’ union-backed Tony Thurmond. Poizner and Tuck will face the progressive money machine’s full fury in November, but each has resources with which to fight back. Such non-party candidates, suggests former GOP congressman Tom Campbell, could draw some moderate Democrats and help reestablish a modicum of policy debate.
At the top of the ballot, Newsom’s large plurality suggests that he will become the next governor. Given his strong financial support from the state’s public employees, the tech oligarchy, inner-city real estate developers, and Bay Area progressives, he represents the apotheosis of California gentry progressivism. Newsom’s showing displays how dominant the Bay Area machine, with its media, union, and tech support, has become. He swamped former Los Angeles mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, a charter school advocate, even beating him easily in L.A. (Villaraigosa’s handlers may have erred in promoting him primarily as an anti-Donald Trump candidate rather than as an independent reformer. All Democrats compete to show their hatred for the president.)
In the manner of the old Miller Lite commercial, Newsom is much like departing Governor Jerry Brown, but less filling. Brown may sometimes sound hysterical about climate change, recently suggesting that it would kill “billions,” but he has also been willing, sometimes, to speak hard truths, notably on fiscal issues. His stature allowed him to go off the progressive reservation—for example, shooting down egregious Title IX abuse—and get away with it. Newsom, a good-looking, callow opportunist, lacks this kind of uncalculated independence. When California’s economy was on the rocks, he seemed concerned about the state’s business climate, even visiting arch-rival Texas in search of inspiration. He expressed doubts about Brown’s out-of-control bullet train project. But as the economy improved, particularly for state workers and oligarchs, Newsom learned how to stop worrying and love the bullet train, though it is increasingly unpopular with voters. He has reinvented himself as a “futuristic” prospective governor, a kind of digital moonbeam who sees tech as the solution to all problems.
California’s economy is slowing some amid the national surge, but as long as it seems healthy, Newsom will feel little urgency to address the state’s serious long-term issues: pension-driven fiscal realities, a dearth of high-wage growth outside the Bay Area, poorly performing schools, a huge homeless problem, and decaying infrastructure.
From a national perspective, the big California story is in Congress. Senator Feinstein’s reelection, based on her four-to-one margin over progressive Latino climatista Kevin de Leon, seems assured. Any Republicans who show up in November will likely back her. She will remain the most moderate, reasoned voice in the party, until she fades from the scene.
The real competition is at the House level. GOP seats are in play in seven districts that went for Hillary Clinton, mostly in suburban Southern California or the Central Valley. In many of these, an increasingly minority population spells trouble for Republicans. And with President Trump’s approval rating at roughly one-third among California voters, House Democrats have no reasonable fear of losing seats. In places like Orange County, Trump gets somewhat more support (37 percent), according to a recent Chapman University poll. Voters in this former GOP stronghold are evenly divided on whether the country would be better off under Democratic or Republican governance. Expect at least two to three California seats to flip, given the big Democratic edge in money and organization. GOP stalwarts like Devin Nunes and Kevin McCarthy won their primaries by sizable margins, though, and will be back to battle the Democrats in D.C.
With Republicans an afterthought, California’s Democrats seem poised to exert greater influence on the national stage. However wrongheaded the Golden State may seem to outsiders, it remains easily our most economically and culturally dominant state—and its massive influence likely will continue to push Democrats further left. The anti-Trump Resistance, consisting of media, oligarch-funded activists, academia, and government unions, regards the state as a role model. In the past, California Democrats have failed to win the presidential nomination, with the party choosing more pragmatic figures such as Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton, candidates who could campaign effectively in what is now considered Trump country. But with many national Democrats increasingly contemptuous of red states, the door might open for a California presidential candidate. In 2020, that could mean three contenders—Senator Kamala Harris, presumptive-Governor Newsom, and L.A. mayor Eric Garcetti—crowding the stage. Of the three, Harris is clearly the front-runner. Part Asian, part black, and all San Francisco, she is an intersectional dream.
Yet as they consolidate control, California Democrats must face some profound contradictions, as the Marxists would say. The gentry—tech oligarchs, real estate speculators, and venture capitalists—stand comfortably with the left on symbolic race, gender, and environmental issues. But these party bankrollers could be hard-pressed if they face the prospect of higher taxes to pay for a state single-payer health-care system, massive housing subsidies, and Governor Brown’s choo-choo, not to mention the state’s ever-soaring pension costs. As Amazon is learning in Seattle, progressive politicos have figured out where to find the biggest piles of cash. Aggressive taxation of tech companies is already becoming a trend in Silicon Valley.
A stronger, motivated grass-roots Left could constitute the greatest immediate challenge to Governor Newsom. Many Californians, particularly millennials and minorities, face a lack of high-wage jobs, soaring rents, and essentially insurmountable barriers to homeownership. A majority of Californians, according to some surveys, express dissatisfaction with the state’s bifurcated economy. The disappearance of upward mobility makes these voters susceptible to embracing such things as rent control, higher minimum wages, free college, and free health care. They will support ever higher taxes on businesses and on generally white, affluent Californians. The call for new spending will become more problematic once the state comes back to earth from its Silicon Valley and real-estate inflation highs, which for now keep the operating budget in the black.
At some point, Newsom and the Democratic nomenklatura will have to deal with pervasive conditions of diminished opportunity, racial polarization, and fiscal weakness. When these realities eventually impinge, the state’s progressive rulers may find themselves on the defensive, and—if confronted with a plausible opposition—vulnerable, at long last.
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