California Election 2018: Updates and Analysis
State Democratic registration has flatlined, Republicans are sinking, and the share of California voters registering no party affiliation is at an all time high. Pundits and politicians speak of the “swamp,” use “politics” as a term of abuse and inveigh against the hacks and the insiders who make up the political establishment.
And yet the odds are slim to nil that California voters will have an electorally viable third party to get behind anytime soon.
At least according to the political insiders we asked.
This election season, CALmatters is partnering with the California Target Book, an online repository of statewide campaign data compiled for Sacramento’s political class. Until the November election, we’ll be surveying Target Book’s paid subscribers—a who’s-who of state operatives from both major parties, plus lobbyists, labor and business groups, and other political cognoscenti—about what they see happening in California politics.
“Politics is not a game. But like football and stocks, the most loyal followers want to know the view of inside, highly-connected experts,” said Dave Lesher, editor and CEO of CALmatters. “Nobody knows California campaigns better than Target Book insiders.”
Our first question in this Insiders Track Survey: “What is the likelihood that by 2025 there will be one or more truly competitive new parties in the state?”
If the Sacramento political wisdom is to be believed, third party hopefuls need not quit their day jobs.
Of the 45 insiders who responded to the survey, more than three-quarters said the chance of a real electoral alternative emerging is unlikely, with 28 saying very unlikely. Zero described the scenario as “very likely.”
“The Democratic and Republican parties agree on exactly one thing, and that is that nobody else should be in the game,” said Target Book publisher Darry Sragow. He noted, for example, that California requires twice as many valid voter signatures to qualify a new political party as it does to qualify an initiative statute.
In the lead-up to the 2012 election, Sragow was a senior advisor to the nonprofit Americans Elect, which retained him to scout out dozens of current and former politicians for a possible third-party ticket in all 50 states.
“Just about everybody said to us very directly and very clearly that the political system is broken—it’s not working, it needs to be reformed, we have to find another way,” he said. But no qualified candidates were willing to “step up to the plate,” he said—either because they feared backlash from the political establishment or because they thought the barriers were too high.
Despite all that, Sragow says he thinks this fall’s survey respondents are overly bearish on the question. He points to shifting trends in voter registration, public disapproval of both major parties, and the election of a President Donald Trump as evidence of voters’ widespread dissatisfaction with their menu of political options.
“I don’t for a second underestimate the obstacles, having worked on this very directly, but at some point this pent up dissatisfaction with the choices that voters have is going to be manifested in something other than picking a president who is demonstrably outrageous,” he said.
Among those clamoring for a third party to emerge here: the editorial board of The New York Times, which wrote this spring that, given the state’s top-two primary system allowing two candidates to advance to the general regardless of party affiliation, “if a third party has a chance anywhere in the United States, it’s in California.”
In posts to come, we’ll hear from California’s political class about this year’s ballot measures, factors most likely to influence the upcoming election, and prospects for a November Democratic blue wave.
California state politics only comes in two flavors: Democrat or Republican. And according to the conventional wisdom that isn’t changing anytime soon. We know because we asked.
Two weeks ago we teamed up with California Target Book to find out whether political insiders around the capitol think a viable third party might emerge onto the California political scene by 2025. Not a single respondent in our Target Book Insider Track Survey said that it was “very likely.” Roughly two-thirds said the opposite.
But Tom Campbell—Chapman University law professor, former congressman, former state senator and former Republican—says they’re wrong. He’s setting out to bust up the Republican-Democratic lock on political power in Sacramento by launching a third party. And he predicts candidates will be running for the Legislature under the new banner as soon as 2020.
He insists it might not even be that hard.
Under California law, a new political party can get on the ballot in one of two ways. One option is to gather roughly 700,000 signatures.
But there’s an alternative, which Campbell characterizes as the easier way: convince a little over 60,000 already registered voters to either go online or contact their county registrar and switch their registration to the new, still unnamed, party. With the right targeted email pitch, it could be pulled off under $100,000, he said. Revolutionize the state political system for less than a legislator’s annual salary.
Who might want to join the new party? Prospects abound.
Take the 4.9 million voters who identify with no political group at all, but simply register with “no party preference.” There are now more of those non-committed voters than registered Republicans; Campbell would only need to convince 1 percent to join him.
And a half-million Californians are registered with the American Independent party—despite the fact that an LA Times survey from two years ago found that a majority of them believe that makes them politically unaffiliated—not members of a party founded by segregationist George Wallace. Which they are.
“If we reached 83,000 of them, three quarters would realize they had mis-registered, and might join the Center Party,” said Campbell.
Or if not the “Center Party,” then maybe the “Bear Flag Party.” He and his group of likeminded political independents—former independent state Sen. Quentin Kopp of San Francisco among them—have yet to settle on a name.
They haven’t settled on a platform either. One possible approach would be to provide an ideological home for disaffected Republicans and other wayward centrists—people like Campbell, who publicly ditched the GOP when it embraced Donald Trump.
But Campbell said he can also imagine creating a platform-free organization that would simply let candidates run untethered from any major party.
Such candidates are currently barred from labeling themselves “independents,” since voters might confuse the term with Wallace’s old party. Instead, they have to use to the cumbersome “no party preference.” Steve Poizner, a former Republican himself, has adopted that identifier in his run for state insurance commissioner.
But the “NPP” brand, to Campbell, implies apathy or indecisiveness.
“No Party Preference is a pejorative,” he said. A new party—even one with no ideological platform whatsoever—would allow a candidate to run outside the current party structure, “but without the scarlet letter of NPP,” he said.
According to a recent poll by the bipartisan Democracy Fund Voter Study Group, two-thirds of Americans would welcome a third electoral choice. There was much less agreement over what this new party ought to actually stand for, with respondents split between the far-left, far-right, and the center.
“I think there are a whole number of logistical challenges to create a third party,” said Democratic Assemblyman Adam Gray from Merced. As former leader of the Assembly’s “mod caucus,” he regularly departs from his party on environmental issues, gun control, and business regulation. He champions more moderation in state politics, but said it’s easier to do that through the existing parties:
“Maybe the silent majority of moderate Republicans and Democrats ought to take back our own parties from the fringe.”
State Sen. Kevin de León, a Democrat who is challenging U.S. Sen. Dianne Feinstein’s re-election this fall, continues to assail her response to a constituent’s accusation of sexual assault by Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh, saying the explanation that emerged over the weekend didn’t mollify his objection.
“I don’t believe it was handled correctly,” de León said today in an interview with CALmatters.
Feinstein learned of the woman’s allegation in July but did not reveal it until last week, when the Intercept reported that Feinstein had a letter describing the alleged assault that she did not share with her Senate colleagues. Feinstein said she was honoring the anonymity her constituent requested, and had referred the issue to federal investigators.
De León—who last week called Feinstein’s approach a “failure of leadership”—said that if he were in Feinstein’s situation, he would have shared a redacted version of the letter with fellow Judiciary Committee members.
“I believe that Christine Ford’s confidentiality could have been kept and at the same time this issue could have been dealt with,” he said. “But it was neither. And it wasn’t until the pressure mounted, because of the press, because of the leaks, that (Feinstein) started acting.”
Ford, a psychology professor from Palo Alto, went public with her account on Sunday, telling the Washington Post that a drunken Kavanaugh attacked her during a party when they were high school students in Maryland in the 1980s. She said he pinned her down on a bed, attempted to take off her clothes and covered her mouth when she tried to scream—allegations Kavanaugh denies.
Ford also said that although she reported the incident to her congressional representatives in July, she wanted to remain anonymous because she feared that going public would wreak too much havoc in her life. She eventually decided to tell her story to the Post, she said, because she was concerned her identity would be exposed in an inaccurate story.
Ford’s attorney told the New York Times that Feinstein’s staff remained in touch with Ford throughout August to see if she wanted to go public; she didn’t. Ford was happy with how Feinstein handled the situation, the lawyer said in numerous media interviews Monday.
De León’s contention that Feinstein should have handled the letter differently amounts to pure campaign politics, said her longtime consultant Bill Carrick.
“He is a classic losing candidate trying to create an issue out of nothing,” Carrick said. “Victims themselves should have the ultimate say-so on whether they go public or not. The idea that ‘redacted’… is not a violation of confidentiality is kind of silly.”
De León won the California Democratic Party endorsement this summer but trails Feinstein in fundraising and polls. He is challenging the Democratic stalwart from the left under California’s nonpartisan election system.
De León’s criticism of Feinstein has raised some hackles in Sacramento, where he was the leader of the state Senate during a sexual harassment scandal that rocked the statehouse. De León said in the fall that he had no knowledge that then-Sen. Tony Mendoza, his Democratic colleague and housemate, was being investigated for harassment—even though de León headed the committee overseeing the investigation. He repeated that assertion Monday, saying “there was an internal failure within our system.” Still, he contrasted his situation with Feinstein’s.
“I wish that information would have been brought to my attention, but that’s different than having information and documents within your reach… and not acting on the issue,” he said.
De León pointed out that he moved to overhaul the Senate’s procedure for handling harassment claims as soon as he learned of the allegations against Mendoza.
Political relevance is an unfamiliar feeling for Californians. But now the fate of the U.S. House—and whether it’s Democrats or Republicans who’ll garner the power to make budgets, launch investigations, and fend off or draw up articles of impeachment—might just come down voters in Orange County, San Diego and the Central Valley.
The problem for the average voter: California is a big state, and by our count at least 10 congressional districts are very much in play this year.
So today we kick off a weekly roundup of the most significant (or most funny or interesting or just plain weird) developments across California’s 53 congressional districts:
1. Newsom campaigns for Congress: Lt. Gov. and Democratic gubernatorial candidate Gavin Newsom hit the campaign trail this week, but his focus seemed less on Sacramento then on Washington D.C. From Orange County up through the Central Valley, Newsom hit three of the most competitive congressional districts (CA-25, CA-21, and CA-10) and 8 state legislative races too. He’ll hit more districts on his way back down south. The goal is to bring about “presidential-level Democratic turnout” in these elections, the Sacramento Bee reported. Or, according to the article’s headline, “Gavin Newsom doing his best to pretend he has no opponent.”
Newsom may not be particularly popular in some of the state’s purpler districts, (in Fresno, where he campaigned with Democrat TJ Cox on Wednesday, Newsom lost the June primary vote to his opponent John Cox—no relation—by 17 percentage points). But as the San Francisco Chronicle reports, candidates still appreciate the media attention—and the gobs of money—that follow in Newsom’s wake.
2. Knife fight: A man allegedly pulled a knife on Republican congressional candidate Rudy Peters (CA-15) at an outdoor festival in Castro Valley on Tuesday. The attacker reportedly shouted profanities about President Trump at both Peters and GOP Assembly candidate Joseph Grcar (AD-20) before brandishing a switchblade. Authorities arrested 35-year-old Farzad Fazeli; no one was hurt.
3. The world’s most unadvisable aside: In Orange County, Splinter News unearthed footage from a February Voice of America interview with Rep. Dana Rohrabacher (CA-48) in which the Republican incumbent unnecessarily, cringingly redirects a conversation about the Chinese celebration of the Year of the Dog to note that he does not “blame (the Chinese people) for eating dog.” “I mean, if that’s what tastes good, that’s what tastes good,” he added.
Incidentally, the House of Representatives passed the Dog and Cat Meat Trade Prohibition Act of 2018 yesterday, banning the slaughter of household pets for food. The bill passed unanimously.
4. Carpetbagger Watch: Democratic candidate Jessica Morse (CA-04) dropped $200,000 on a new broadside against incumbent GOP Rep. Tom McClintock accusing him of being an out-of-touch out-of-towner. McClintock represents the 4th, but lives in the 7th congressional district. It’s not a new attack against McClintock, who is now going for his sixth term and whose district (er, the one he represents in Congress) is among the most Republican in the state.
And as the Sacramento Bee reports, questioning your opponent’s hometown bonafides is a common attack in districts around the state.
5. Snub from the Birther-in-Chief: On Wednesday, the CNN’s KFile investigative news team dug up old radio episodes from far-right congressional candidate Tim Donnelly (CA-08), in which the candidate speculated that former President Barack Obama was a secret member of the Muslim Brotherhood. This comes a week after President Trump endorsed Donnelley’s opponent, Republican Rep. Paul Cook, to the dismay of right-wing activists, who are now saying the president was “tricked.”
6. Gender gap: On Thursday, the American Association of University Women used newly released Census economic data to calculate the size of the wage gap between men and women in each state—and each congressional district. Incidentally, the three congressional districts with the biggest disparities (#1: CA-17, #2: CA-33, #3: CA-18), also happen to have among the highest average incomes (#2, #5, and #3).