The wave that swept Republicans back into power in blue states such as Colorado, Maryland, Maine, and Massachusetts didn’t quite reach California, the state that once produced Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan. In fact, every Republican candidate for statewide constitutional office lost. Governor Jerry Brown creamed his Republican opponent—and Brown didn’t even run a campaign. Democrats maintained strong majorities in both legislative houses. So why are California GOP officials so giddy about how the election played out?
Two reasons come to mind. First, Republicans won three critical state senate races and stopped the Democrats from holding a supermajority in that body. Election night results looked good for Republican prospects in the state assembly, too, though the final counts in two races will determine whether the GOP prevents a Democratic supermajority in the lower house. Democrats need at least two-thirds of those seats to meet the state constitution’s threshold for passing tax increases. Republicans, as a rule, oppose every new tax increase in a state that already has the nation’s highest individual income-tax rate.
Second, while it still has no idea how to win a statewide election, the California GOP has figured out how to win in targeted districts—even in some that lean Democratic. In the last legislative session, Democrats lost their supermajority in the state senate after scandal drove three legislators from office. One was convicted of voter fraud and perjury, and two others face federal corruption charges. But Republicans chose not to focus on Democratic foibles. Instead, under the leadership of former state senator Jim Brulte, the party put its resources into a handful of winnable races.
Sacramento-based GOP political consultant Jeff Randle said that the Republicans “had to show incremental progress [Tuesday] night and we did that by winning with really good candidates.” Randle, who helps recruit viable candidates through the Trailblazers program, credited the party’s successes to its newfound emphasis on “finding candidates that match their districts.” The best example may be Senator Andy Vidak, a Spanish-speaking cherry farmer from the San Joaquin Valley. Though Democrats enjoy a 20-point voter-registration edge in Vidak’s heavily Latino district, voters in the politically moderate farm region tend to favor independence. Vidak, a cowboy hat-wearing conservative populist, beat his Democratic rival, Fresno school board trustee Luis Chavez, by 10 points.
Republicans also held a senate seat that many pollsters and professional political operatives predicted they would lose. Anthony Cannella, the former mayor of the San Joaquin Valley city of Ceres and son of former Democratic state assemblyman Sal Cannella, prevailed in part by drawing union support away from his Democratic challenger, Shawn Bagley. And Republicans scored a key win in ethnically diverse and politically competitive central Orange County, where county supervisor Janet Nguyen won a state senate seat in a race in which Republicans effectively tapped Asian support. Asians now represent 12 percent of California voters, and they turn out in higher percentages than many other ethnic groups. So Nguyen was another GOP candidate who matched well with her district.
In the assembly, the Republicans did well in all but one of their targeted races. In the eastern Bay Area, the socially moderate Catherine Baker took a hard line on public-employee unions, strongly opposing the 2013 Bay Area Rapid Transit strike in a district that spans Orinda and Walnut Creek east of the Berkeley Hills to the Tri-Valley—in other words, a district full of voting commuters hard hit by two four-day work stoppages in July and October of last year. Pending a final count of absentee and provisional ballots, Baker leads Democrat and union activist Tim Sbranti in the contest for an open assembly seat. Retired police officer Tom Lackey unseated the Democratic incumbent in the Palmdale area, and Korean-American Young Kim, a former staffer for veteran Republican congressman Ed Royce, ousted incumbent assemblywoman Sharon Quirk-Silva, 56 percent to 44 percent, in northern Orange County.
One could argue, however, that the Democrats should never have held some of these seats in the first place. “It’s true Republicans did well, but that’s only because Democrats overreached so far,” said Grant Gillham, a political consultant and former Republican staffer. “You’re living in an alley, eating out of garbage cans and you find half of a Big Mac and you think you’ve hit the jackpot. That’s the situation with Republicans now,” he said, jokingly. He’s got a point, but half a Big Mac is looking pretty good to a desperately hungry party.