The full dimensions of this month’s Democratic sweep emerged last weekend when the last of the major races were settled, all in favor of the party that already dominated California politics.
Not only did Democrats retain 100 percent occupancy of all statewide offices, but captured six of the Republicans’ already paltry 14 congressional seats and bigger-than-ever legislative supermajorities.
The “blue tsunami,” as it’s been dubbed, even flipped all of the GOP-held congressional seats in Orange County, once considered to be party’s most impregnable GOP stronghold.
Democrats sensed that the election had become, in the parlance of politico pros, “nationalized.” That is, local and state issues and individual differences were irrelevant as the election became the referendum on President Donald Trump he publicly relished.
With California the epicenter of anti-Trump sentiment, Democrats poured big money into get-out-the-vote efforts, especially into boosting Latino involvement, and a record-high voter turnout swamped relatively weak Republican efforts.
UC-Berkeley pollster Mark DiCamillo calls it “the Trump effect,” telling a post-election panel in Sacramento Monday that the outcomes in the targeted congressional districts meshed precisely with Trump’s approval ratings in those districts.
Nationalized elections have happened here before, most recently in 1994, midway through Bill Clinton’s presidential term. California’s Republican leaders, sensing an opportunity in Clinton’s declining popularity, borrowed heavily to finance GOP campaigns.
Republicans won half of California’s statewide offices that year, including GOP Gov. Pete Wilson’s re-election, and nominal control of the state Assembly.
The Republican surge didn’t last, however. Shortly thereafter, the GOP began its long slide into irrelevancy and will wind up this year with just half of the Assembly seats it won in 1994.
The issues that had brought success to Republicans in the 1980s and into the 1990s – national defense, crime and opposition to new taxes – faded in significance after 1994, particularly in suburban communities, such as those in Orange County, that had been GOP bulwarks for decades.
At the same time, California was undergoing sweeping demographic change, such as the growth of Latino and Asian populations and post-baby boom millennials, whose more liberal attitudes on such hot-button issues as abortion, gay rights, feminism, immigration, climate change and gun control clashed with Republican Party positions.
Trump, the bombastic billionaire who had won the presidency in 2016 despite California’s heavy vote for rival Hillary Clinton, symbolized everything the new voters – who were largely registered as “no party preference” – despised about Republicans.
They were ripe for being motivated to vote against Trump by voting against GOP candidates, even moderates such as Contra Costa County Assemblywoman Catharine Baker.
There’s a tendency, especially in the political media, to see every election outcome as engraved in stone. In fact, however, elections are snapshots in time and, as seen in what happened to Republicans in California after 1994, may have very short half-lives.
California is particularly prone to rapid political turnarounds, so one should be wary about assuming that Democratic domination is permanent.
That said, demography may be political destiny. California’s white population continues to age and shrink and Republicans have been unable, or unwilling, to cultivate fast-growing non-white communities and younger voters of all ethnicities.
Meanwhile, as its relevance in the Capitol and other policy arenas shrinks to virtually nothing, sources of GOP campaign financing continue to dry up.
Finally, the next round of redrawing legislative and congressional districts after the 2020 census will most likely create even more Democrat-friendly seats. So the party’s hegemony in California may grow even stronger, especially if Trump’s running for re-election and still is a pariah.