Recent Democratic Party losses in New Jersey, Virginia and Massachusetts have lead pundits to begin comparing 2010 to 1994. In 1994, Democrats controlled the White House and both houses of Congress. The nation was mired in the worst recession since the Great Depression, while a first-term Democratic president was tangled in inter-party fights over health care and the economy.
In California that year, Democrats pinned their hopes on a scion of the state’s best-known Democratic political family, the Brown clan, to try to take back the governor’s office. Going into those elections, Democrats held 48 Assembly seats. When it was over, Republicans had taken back nine seats, and eventually took the speakership back for the first time since Bob Monagan held the gavel in 1970.
This year, Democrats have a comfortable 50-29 majority in the Assembly. Could a national Republican tidal wave sweep Republicans back into power, or at least take a large chunk out of the padded Democratic Assembly majority?
Democrats don’t think so. And even Republicans say the odds are highly unlikely. Democrats say voter registration numbers continue to trend toward their party, and that the battlegrounds for 2010 will be in open seats currently held by Republicans.
Republican consultants note their task has been made more difficult by gerrymandered political districts that have made Assembly races non-competitive. In fact, not one single Assembly incumbent has lost a bid for reelection since the district lines were redrawn in 2001.
That could change this year, says Allen Hoffenblum, a former Republican campaign consultant and editor of the Target Book. “If ever there was a year where there could be some surprises – where someone we’ve never heard of comes out of nowhere to win one of these races – 2010 could be that year.”
In 1994, Four Democratic incumbents – Margaret Snyder, Betty Karnette, Bob Epple and Julie Bornstein – lost bids for reelection. The other five Republican pick-ups that year were in open seats held by Democrats.
Democrats held registration advantages in all of the nine seats Republicans picked up in 1994. Four of those seats had Democratic registration advantages for 9 points or less. Today, only two Democratic seats – the 10th Assembly District in El Dorado and San Joaquin counties and the 15th Assembly District in Contra Costa County – are within 10 points.
The two Democratic incumbents in those seats – Assemblywomen Alyson Huber, D-El Dorado Hills, and Joan Buchanan, D-San Ramon, are at the top of the target list for Republicans.
In 1994, Republicans picked up three seats where Democrats held registration advantages for 16 points or more. This year, the most marginal open seat, statistically, is the 53rd Assembly District, which included Torrance and Redondo Beach, where Democrats still have a 12-point edge and Republicans have not yet found a strong candidate. The next-closest open seat is Lori Saldaña’s 76th Assembly District where Democrats have a 15-point advantage.
“You’re looking at gerrymandered districts which is a key difference from 1994,” said Kevin Spillane, consultant to the Assembly Republican Caucus. “That’s the most important fundamental reality.”
Republicans will have seats to defend. Danny Gilmore’s decision not to seek reelection in his Hanford-area seat makes that race one of the state’s top battlegrounds in 2010. Democrats may also be looking at seats such as the Orange County seat being vacated by Republican Van Tran, where Democrats think a strong social conservative Republican candidate, Costa Mesa Mayor Allan Mansoor, may be vulnerable.
The district has a strong Vietnamese community, and Democrats are rallying behind businessman Phu Nguyen in hopes of splitting part of the coalition that has elected Tran to the Assembly three times.
“There are so many places for us to go, and there are a lot of places where they will have to defend their seats,” said Steve Barkan, political consultant for the Assembly Democrats. While Barkan acknowledged 2010 might be a tough year for Democrats nationally, “I just don’t think there are enough spots for Republicans to win back a critical mass of seats” in the Assembly.
Still Republicans are holding out hope that a national tidal wave may cut into Democratic majorities in the Legislature, along with bringing victories in the races for governor and U.S. Senate. But they’ll need some help, Spillane said.
“It’s a lot easier to ride a wave when you’ve got a surfboard. That surfboard is money,” he said.
Many of the Democrats’ top targets have lagged in fundraising totals, but those numbers are largely insignificant, cautioned Barkan. With the increased role of independent expenditure committees and political parties in legislative elections, the big money in local races often emerges in the final weeks of the campaign.
But Hoffenblum says Republicans have some hurdles to overcome. One is what he calls the “demographic problem.”
“Decline to State voters are going to determine the winners in competitive races,” said Hoffenblum. In this state, more than 40 percent of DTS voters are people of color. And with the exception of voting for Arnold Schwarzenegger, these voters don’t vote for Republicans.”
Hoffenblum said “the Republican brand is not anywhere near the same level that it was in 1994.”
“We’re perceived as the white man’s party,” he said. “Even if some voters may agree with the Republicans on many issues, they don’t identify with the party as a whole.”