Analysis

CA120: Republicans picked a bad time to stop winning elections

An attendee at a Democratic political demonstration in California prior to the 2018 mid-term elections. (Photo: Karl_Sonnenberg, via Shutterstock)

The 2018 election should have been a breeze for California Republicans. But three simultaneous forces, all moving toward Democrats, blew those prospects away.

While one might think things can only get better for the GOP, there are some serious short- and mid-term obstacles to their recovery.

The first force in 2018 was the outcome in 2016.

Had Hillary Clinton won in 2016 as expected, we would be talking about the big losses for Democrats, with Ami Bera, Salud Carbajal, Scott Peters and Raul Ruiz fighting for their seats. Few would have expected Democrats to be viable in the swing contests for the state Senate, and Republicans holding on to their Assembly seats would have been a solid bet.

If a traditional Republican won the presidential race, such as a Jeb Bush or a Marco Rubio, we might have seen some Democratic gains similar to those in 2006, when Democrats had a big wave election nationally and picked up one congressional seat in California.

Traditionally, the Golden State has been less affected by waves than the rest of the country, both in the lack of Republican gains while Obama was President, and in the Democratic pickups during the Bush presidencies.

But the 2016 election and the Trump presidency has impacted Republican’s electoral prospects differently. And while the extraordinary spending in congressional campaigns – over $100 million, with a roughly 2:1 advantage for Democrats – clearly had an impact, that money would have landed with a thud in past election cycles.

The second driving force was in California’s population changes, particularly the growth in the Latino population.

We always hear a “demographics is destiny” theme in our elections, but one thing about destiny – it’s usually in the future, not in the here-and-now. No experienced campaign professionals would have predicted a gubernatorial election cycle, with its lower turnout, to accelerate the demographic changes enough to flip a bunch of congressional and legislative seats from Republican to Democrat. At this writing, half of the incumbents in California’s 14 Republican-held congressional districts lost their seats to Democrats.

Even with changing demographics and sometimes motivated electorate, the fact is that California has never been a state where large numbers of incumbents lose

Pushing these demographic changes along was a renewed emphasis on voter registration and making voting easier – advanced successfully by Democratic lawmakers and the secretary of state.  These included a new DMV registration process that doubled the kind of registration levels we traditionally see in a gubernatorial primary. There also were changes in California’s vote-by-mail system, converting several counties to all-mail elections, extending the period registrars can receive ballots mailed by election day, and allowing for same-day registration.

The final data isn’t in, but it is likely that outsized performance from young voters or Latinos, or both, assisted by these improvements in the voting and registration systems, contributed to this incredible election cycle.

The final force was in the maps.

Even with changing demographics and a sometimes motivated electorate, the fact is that California has never been a state where large numbers of incumbents lose. The political and demographic forces needed a little help from the maps.

The California Citizens Redistricting Commission’s creation of legislative and congressional maps that weren’t focused on incumbent protection resulted in Republicans dropping from 19 to 14 seats in Congress after 2012 and allowed Democrats to create super-majorities in the two state legislative houses.  There was a flash of competitive districts, but it largely subsided after 2012, and we were back to the regular incumbent protection that seemed to be baked into all district maps.

Republicans have been whittled down to 7 of the 53 members of Congress, now holding fewer seats in the California delegation than they have had since 1947, when the state had a total of 23 seats.

This incumbent protection, and the idea that the commission maps provide for more competitiveness, hadn’t had a real stress test until now.  It is possible that the maps themselves put more seats in a position where they could be flipped in a wave election.

Maybe this wave was too big for even partisan line drawers to have crafted protections, evidenced by the fact that we are likely to see the Democrat at the top of the ticket win Orange County for the second election in a row.  But the advocates of the commission did claim that these seats allowed for greater competition — and they sure have evidence now to support that viewpoint.

As a result of these three forces, Republicans have been whittled down to 7 of the 53 members of Congress, now holding fewer seats in the California delegation than they have had since 1947, when the state only had a total of 23 seats.  In the Assembly, the Democrats outnumber Republicans by 3-to-1. In the Senate, the Democratic super-majority was bolstered, likely for years to come, with a big, three-seat gain.

If the mood of the electorate in 2020 is anything like it was in 2018, then adding more voters isn’t something that should bolster Republicans.

And Republicans really couldn’t pick a worse time to lose an election.

The 2018 election is barely finished, with counties still going through unprocessed ballots, and yet we are just one year and 10 days away from the filing deadline for the 2020 Primary which was moved up to March to make California more of a factor in the presidential race.

This means that any losing Republicans would need to pick themselves back up, brush themselves off and start fundraising and campaigning almost immediately.

A candidate who starts a campaign a year out in today’s political environment is already behind the eight ball – each of the Democrats who won last month began their campaigns two years earlier, announcing at least 18 months out. Republicans running to try and take back these seats won’t have that luxury.

Additionally, when we finally see the actual 2018 turnout figures we might be at a turnout of 63% to 65%, which is a lot lower than a typical presidential election turnout of 75%-to-78%.  The difference – that sliver of the electorate that exists between 63% and 78% — is likely to be much younger, more diverse and more progressive than the voters we’ve seen earlier.  If the mood of the electorate in 2020 is anything like it was in 2018, then adding more voters isn’t something that should bolster Republicans.

Looking all the way out to 2022 also means many more demographic changes, a growing voter registration that is expected to reach at least 22 million.

Then, in 2021 we enter another round of redistricting.  As discussed in a prior Capitol Weekly CA120 article, the state’s redistricting probably won’t be a “tweaking around the edges” kind of redraw, but, with a change in the Voting Rights Act rules, the new plan should be a complete rewrite.

The timeline for that election will be even more compressed, with new boundaries not known until the late fall of 2021, just months before a February filing deadline for the 2022 June primary elections.

Still, this means that the Republican’s best chances will be in that sprint to 2022 after the state’s redistricting commission shakes the ant farm and displaces a big chunk of the congressional delegation.  As we saw in 2012, a post-redistricting game of musical chairs in 2022 could open several seats, and provide Republicans an opportunity to regain some footing.

Looking all the way out to 2022 also means many more demographic changes, a growing voter registration that is expected to reach at least 22 million. And we don’t know what the national political environment will be by then.

All in all, this was an extraordinary election, with an impact that might be deeper and longer than any previous election cycle in California.

Editor’s NotePaul Mitchell, a regular contributor to Capitol Weekly, is the creator of the CA120 column, vice president of Political Data and owner of Redistricting Partners, a political strategy firm. 

 


  • Brian FitzGerald

    More like 2010, Paul.

Support for Capitol Weekly is Provided by: