Legislative results include warning signs for Assembly Republicans

The race in the 78th Assembly District has been on Democrats’ radar for six years. With Republican incumbent Shirley Horton leaving office, the race between Democrat Marty Block and Republican John McCann was on everyone’s radar. Millions of dollars were spent. Consultants were hired. Television commercials were made. And in the end, Democrat Marty Block won by 10 percentage points.

Block’s victory was more decisive than the final result in some other districts – many of which were not on the political radar of most Capitol watchers. But a review of the election results in all 80 districts shows a handful of races that were closer than you may think.

Democrats performed well in a pair of districts where the party and its surrogates made a strong push before Election Day. Republican Bill Berryhill eked out a hard-fought 51-48 percent victory over Democrat John Eisenhut in the 26th Assembly District. And Democrat Ferial Masry came within TK points of knocking off Republican incumbent Audra Strickland, R-Ventura, in AD 37.

But there was also a close race in the high desert, outside of Los Angeles, in what has traditionally been safe Republican territory. Democrat Linda Jones was within 4,000 votes, or 3.8 percent, of the eventual winner, Republican Steve Knight, in AD 36.

Republican Assemblyman Paul Cook, R-Yucca Valley, was only reelected by 7,000 votes – 53-47 over Democrat Carl Wood, and Orange County Assemblyman Van Tran won 53-47 over Democrat Ken Arnold.

Out in the Santa Clarita area, the race between Democrat Carole Lutness and Republican incumbent  Cameron Smyth was closer than the Block vs. McCann race.

So what gives? Is this just a big Democratic year, with the party riding the Barack Obama wave, or are these districts changing?

Elections analyst Allan Hoffenblum, publisher of the California Target Book, says gerrymandered districts may have saved the Republican Party last week.

“The gerrymander bent, but it didn’t break,” he said. But the election results underscore a deeper problem for the Republican Party looking into 2010 and beyond.

“What’s happening is a significant decline in Republican registration in every district in California, regardless of location,” said Hoffenblum. “It’s across the board.”

The state’s rapidly changing demographics, coupled with the Republican Party’s troubles making inroads among newly powerful ethnic groups, portends deep trouble for the party in the state, says Hoffenblum.

“It’s got to the point where I think the only votes Republicans can depend on is white males and their spouses who are against abortion,” he said. “What you’re seeing is a political party that’s actually become regional party rather than state-wide party.”

California Republican Party spokesman Hector Barajas says there is an important lesson for Republican elected officials in last week’s results. “Look at who represented those seats that we lost. Bonnie Garcia worked her district like no other. So did Shirley Horton. Those are the things Republicans need to start doing in all districts around the state,” said Barajas.

“It’s a good wake-up call to these elected officials. Communicating with constituents is a year-round enterprise, not an exercise to be carried out six months before an election.”

Part of that outreach must be to decline-to-state voters, who remain the fastest-growing voter group in the state. Increasingly, the state’s overarching political narratives are being written by these voters. In 2006, many independents voted for Republican Arnold Schwarzenegger at the top of the ticket in his reelection bid against Democrat Phil Angelides. Hoffenblum said that helped Republican down-ticket candidates like Garcia, and Horton, who withstood tough Democratic challenges.

But the Republican Party continues to hemorrhage voters. Overall, Republican registration in the state is at 31.4 percent. That’s down from 34.3 percent just two years ago.  In that same period, Democratic registration went from 42.5 percent to 44.4 percent.

Changing registration is part of the story of these newly competitive districts. In AD 36, Republicans had a 44-36 registration advantage in 2006, with 16 percent decline-to-state. Now, registration is even, with both Democratic and Republican registration at 39 percent, with DTS climbing slightly to 17 percent.

In Cook’s district, AD 65, Republicans held a 46-34 registration advantage two years go. That gap has narrowed now to 41-37.
California Democratic Party spokesman Brian Brokaw says this year in particular, new voter registration was key to Democratic success.

“We saw an incredible level of activism from local party officials bringing in new voters into the fold,” said Brokaw. “We’ve really had a 58-county strategy. This year, we saw, San Bernardino, Ventura, Stanislaus and San Diego counties flip from red to blue. We’re hoping it’s a sustaining trend.”

Brokaw also says the Republican Party’s decision not to allow decline-to-state voters to participate in GOP primaries has hurt the party. “They did not help themselves by having a closed primary. They do a  pretty good job at narrowing their ranks, while we’ve done a good job at attracting new voters to ours.”

But some of the Democratic success was a damaged Republican brand nationally. Even in races that were not close, there were some ominous signs for Republicans. In many races, libertarian candidates siphoned votes away from Republicans. In San Diego’s AD 75, Nathan Fletcher was elected by a comfortable margin, but with only 52 percent of the vote. Libertarian John Murphy received 6 percent of the vote.

In AD 74, Assemblyman Martin Garrick, R-Carlsbad, also won by 10 points over his Democratic opponent, but received just 50.5 percent of the vote. Libertarian Paul King drew 9 percent.

“I do think it’s fair to say that the electorate as a whole was saying something about Republican rule in Washington D.C.,” Hoffenblum said. “They were frustrated with Republiacns and expressed it at the ballot.”

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