Bluer than blue: Are California Democrats ready to exploit a possible lopsided primary turnout?

In Summary

The March 3 primary could be a golden opportunity for progressive causes and candidates. But so far, Democratic lawmakers seem to be holding back.

Half a year out from California’s presidential primary, you can already envision the enthusiasm gap creating a turnout gap.

Democrats of every ideology have plenty of incentive to vote in the March 3 election: It’s their chance to pick the winner in one of the most crowded, competitive presidential primary contests in a generation.

But there’s little to lure the state’s shrinking Republican base to the polls. President Donald Trump seems assured of garnering his party’s nomination for re-election, even if a recent law signed by Gov. Gavin Newsom were to keep him off the California ballot entirely.

So although Republicans historically get a higher share of their voters to the polls than Democrats, the 2020 primary could well scramble that.

In theory, it could give Democrats an opportunity to edge more Republican congressional and legislative candidates out of qualifying for the November general election, given that only the top two March voter-getters in each district advance to November, even if they’re in the same party.

And also in theory, it offers the Democrats who hold a giga-majority of seats in the Legislature a chance to load up the primary with measures on the progressive wishlist, like, say, repealing capital punishment. While citizens can qualify initiatives and referendums for the November ballot, only the Legislature can place measures on the March ballot.

But thus far, Democratic lawmakers are holding back.

With two weeks to go until the end of the legislative session, not a single measure has made the cut. 

Two school infrastructure bonds — the largely uncontroversial fiscal fare that often make the spring ballot — appear the most likely to qualify, though key votes remain. Another possibility, a labor-backed constitutional amendment that would severely restrict the state’s public universities from hiring independent contractors, could engender more debate.

But those hardly constitute a left-of-center ballot bonanza.

Instead, lawmakers authoring the most progressive measures are shooting for the November ballot instead.

They include legislatively-referred constitutional amendments that would repeal the death penalty, lower the legal voting age to 17, and make it harder for voters to recall sitting legislators and more difficult for local officials to block new affordable housing. Another possible ballot measure would ask voters to approve a $600 million bond for affordable and supportive housing for veterans who are at risk of homelessness.

If nothing else, that ought to make for an interesting — and tremendously expensive — general election. The November ballot is certain to include a measure that will determine the fate of California’s system of cash bail. Voters might also be asked whether they want to nix statewide restrictions on rent control, hike property taxes on large businesses, and now, allow gig-economy companies to continue to classify their workers as independent contractors.

Why hold out for November? In some cases, those extra months of negotiations may be necessary to iron out disagreements between lawmakers or powerful interest groups. And while March may indeed “be the sweetest election cycle for progressive causes”, said Paul Mitchell of Political Data Inc, that’s a gamble—one that California Democrats may not feel is worth the risks.

Imagine a clear Democratic presidential nominee emerges sooner than expected, rendering California irrelevant. Or maybe a strong Republican challenger emerges against President Trump, ginning up GOP interest. Or maybe Trump opts to retire to Mar-a-Lago.

“Any of these unlikely events could happen, which means there is some non-negative possibility that the Republican primary could get exciting,” said Mitchell, who provides voter data and analysis to California campaigns. Compare that to the general election, when there is sure to be one Democratic presidential candidate versus one Republican — in a state where Democrats outnumber Republicans nearly two-to-one.

“Generally the primaries can be so volatile that no one wants to push anything onto the primary ballot, especially when November is certain to be so Democratic,” he said.

Another source of uncertainty: whether President Trump will be on the California ballot at all. 

Earlier this summer, Gov. Newsom signed a bill into law requiring all presidential candidates hoping to be on the California primary ballot to disclose the last five years their tax returns. During the 2016 election, Trump broke with the post-Watergate tradition of presidential candidates airing their fiscal laundry for the sake of transparency. (So far, all the top Democratic candidates have met this requirement).

Many legal experts say the law rests on shaky constitutional ground and Republicans have sued in both state and federal court. Last week, the California Supreme Court ordered the Secretary of State’s office to provide a legal justification for the law and could weigh in as soon as mid-September.

Regarding down-ballot races for congressional and legislative seats, “we know that turnout is largely driven by the top of the ticket,” said Jessica Patterson, chair of the state GOP party.

“For Democrats who have, I think, 20 candidates still in there…they’re going to have enthusiasm, they’re going to have excitement, they’re going to have energy on their side,” she said. “We need to make sure that Republicans are offered the same opportunity to go out and vote for their likely nominee.”

Before the 2018 primary, California Democratic insiders agonized over the possibility that an influx of anti-Trump candidates might divide up the Democratic vote, leaving the top two positions to Republicans. Instead, it was the GOP who were taken by surprise when two Democrats snagged the top positions in California’s Republican-held 76th Assembly seat north of San Diego.

Opinion, even among Democratic strategists, is mixed about whether history will repeat itself in 2020. 

“There just aren’t enough races where we have, like, seven Republicans and two Democrats—the math isn’t there,” said Bill Wong, political advisor for Assembly Democrats. “Republicans got really caught off guard (in the 76th Assembly district) and they’re not going to make that mistake again.”

But Democratic political consultant Garry South said Republican registration numbers are now so low “there just aren’t enough raw Republican votes to consistently push Republicans forward.”

And though the stars have to align just so for Republicans to be shut out, with multiple GOP candidates crowding into the same race with at least two Democrats, “Republicans have very little power to control their candidate field,” said South.

The California Republican Party is trying its best. Patterson said that local party chapters and legislative and congressional leaders have been endorsing already.

“I have never seen county parties endorse in races this early,” she said. “We don’t even have the opening of (the candidate registration deadline) yet and they’re getting involved.” 

In two Orange County seats — among the most closely watched congressional contests in the country — the state GOP has already endorsed former Assemblywoman Young Kim and county supervisor Michelle Steel.

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