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What would you do with a $21.4 billion windfall?

That’s essentially the question California is confronting amid record surplus projections during Gov. Gavin Newsom’s first year in office.

On one hand, the former San Francisco mayor showcased his progressive agenda by setting ambitious goals for universal preschool, expanding health coverage for undocumented immigrants, and proposing the nation’s most-generous paid family leave program.

On the other, Newsom made the case that he’s still being fiscally conservative by projecting a modest growth rate of 3.2 percent, socking billions more into the state’s rainy day fund, and paying down debt and public-employee retirement liabilities.

“I think, arguably, it’s even more conservative in that respect than previous administrations,” Newsom said of his overall $209 billion state budget.

The governor’s finance department broke the $21.4 billion surplus into three buckets: roughly $3 billion for ongoing spending, $8.5 billion in one-time spending, and $10 billion to build what Newsom is calling “budget resiliency.”

The initial $3 billion bucket would be used to expand ongoing services for the poor, particularly the in-home supportive services program and CalWORKS for working parents. A portion of that would be used to boost higher education to stave off a tuition hike in the state's university systems, and fund a second year of free community college.

The second bucket of $8.5 billion would be targeted toward Newsom’s ambitious push for affordable housing and to confront California’s homeless epidemic; to lay the groundwork for extending full-day kindergarten to all Californians by providing money to build or retrofit classrooms; and to provide school districts much-needed relief by contributing an extra $3 billion toward the districts’ teacher pension payments.

With the remaining $10 billion surplus, Newsom wants to pay off debts, which he says would help the state weather a potential economic downturn. Specifically, he would finish paying off Brown’s so-called $28 billion Wall of Debt that had accumulated from years of internal borrowing; undo a 9-year-old accounting trick that pushed the June state payroll into July so it looked like the state was spending less; set aside $2.3 billion for operating reserves; and most significantly, make an extra $3 billion contribution to the state’s main pension fund.

So how did California wind up with an extra surplus? Essentially, the sales and income taxes passed during Gov. Jerry Brown’s tenure coincided with an economic recovery. One week after Newsom won the election, the Legislative Analyst’s Office announced that state finances were in remarkably good shape, with a $14.8 billion expected surplus for the fiscal year that begins July 1.

Newsom and his finance director, Keely Bosler, say there are two reasons the surplus grew by $6.6 billion. One comes from positive balances state accounts carried over from past years, and the other is that the Newsom administration is choosing to project less growth in Medi-Cal, the state’s Medicaid program for the poor.

“We’re projecting more modest growth in the Medi-Cal budget, which makes sense, because we’ve seen this big ramp-up on the expansion of the (Affordable Care Act), and it’s beginning to level off,” Newsom said. “That affords us the opportunity to make these historic investments, and pay down debt and unfunded liabilities.”

Bosley, who also served under the Brown administration, said she was hesitant to modify assumptions about Medi-Cal caseloads and costs, but ultimately felt it remains adequate. That’s because the state has seen the number of uninsured Californians drop as the state aggressively signed people up for private insurance plans offered through Covered California while also expanding Medi-Cal coverage for the poor.

On Monday, the legislative analyst weighed in with its assessment of Newsom’s budget and commended him for paying down debt, a move it called prudent. The analyst, however, now projects the state will have a $20.6 billion surplus, nearly $1 billion less than the governor’s figure, and included a word of caution.

“The governor’s budget proposal reflects a budget situation that is even better than our estimates,” the analyst wrote. “Largely as a result of lower-than-expected spending in health and human services programs, we estimate the administration had nearly $20.6 billion in available discretionary resources to allocate. That said, recent financial market volatility poses some downside risk for revenues.”

CALmatters.org is a nonprofit, nonpartisan media venture explaining California policies and politics.

Published in Politics

In one of his first official actions, Gov. Gavin Newsom has directed state agencies, including the one that oversees Medi-Cal, to negotiate as a block to demand prescription drug-makers lower their prices.

The move will make California the nation’s largest negotiator with pharmaceutical companies, and could become a model for other states—if it works.

“Right now, with all the gridlock in Congress, we are seeing quite a bit of state action on prescription-drug pricing—and we hope that advances as much as it can until we can see some change in Congress,” said Peter Maybarduk, who specializes in medicine access at Public Citizen, a consumer advocacy group based in Washington, D.C.

“California government has power,” he continued. “It is a large enough economy and large enough state to influence pharma behavior and dictate terms.”

It’s such an attractive idea that it seems to have united the progressive Newsom with his political nemesis, President Donald Trump. Both have espoused the wisdom of the government consolidating its massive purchasing power so it can bargain hard with drug companies and cut the best deal for taxpayers.

Trump campaigned on the notion of harnessing the federal government’s bargaining power to reduce drug prices for programs like Medicare, but the idea went nowhere, because it’s prohibited by federal law: Congress specifically barred the federal government from negotiating Medicare drug prices—a restriction defenders describe as free-market protection and critics deride as a giant pacifier to Big Pharma.

Still it remains a simple and appealing idea in a nation confronted by rapidly rising prescription drug costs. A recent Harvard/Politico poll found the No. 1 priority voters have for the new Congress is reducing the cost of prescription drugs.

There’s a reason it’s top of mind. A study released this month in the Journal of Health Affairs found that the cost of brand-name drugs rose each year between 2008 and 2016—by more than 9 percent per year for oral medicine, and more than 15 percent for injectable medicine. Specialty drug prices soared even higher each year.

In his executive order, Newsom said California has seen prescription drug prices rise 20 percent annually since 2000—and that the 25 most expensive drugs account for half of the state’s spending on pharmacy costs. So far, Newsom’s office has not released any estimates of how much it expects the new bargaining plan to save.

“We will use both our market power and our moral power to demand fairer prices for prescription drugs,” Newsom said during his inauguration speech Monday.

That same day, he told the state’s Department of Health Care Services to begin negotiating the purchasing of prescription drugs for all 13 million recipients of Medi-Cal, the state’s health-care system for low-income patients. Currently, the state only represents 2 million of them, while the rest are on managed health plans that negotiate their own drug rates.

“The governor is the only one that can do this; he is the only one that can force everybody to the table,” said Democratic Assemblyman Jim Wood of Healdsburg, who heads the state Assembly’s health committee.

He said the consolidated bargaining power is vital to address skyrocketing drug prices. With nearly one in three Californians on Medi-Cal, and its budget of $250 billion, even small savings could be significant.

“The savings we’ll be able to enjoy from less spending on prescription drugs,” Wood said, “will help offset some of the additional costs that we’re going to be incurring to expand coverage for other people in California.”

Massachusetts was the first state to enact a “bulk Rx buying plan” in 1999. States eventually started joining forces, and now there are five bulk-buying programs that include multiple states, with some reporting significant savings. Three of those are focused on buying drugs for Medicaid recipients, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.

The oldest one, focused on Medicaid pooling, was created in 2003 with four states and has now grown to 10, including Michigan, Minnesota, Montana, New York and North Carolina. It represents 3.8 million Medicaid recipients—still less than a quarter of the Medi-Cal recipients California will be bargaining on behalf of.

In its last session, the California Assembly approved a bill that would have created a prescription drug bulk-purchasing program for the state, but it was then held by its sponsor, San Francisco Democratic Assemblyman David Chiu. His office cited a lack of support from then-Gov. Jerry Brown. And nearly two decades ago—in another effort to decrease drug expenses—the state authorized the Department of General Services to buy prescription drugs for state or local agencies through a bulk purchasing program, but the program hasn’t been used much.

The governor’s plan also calls for eventually giving private employers the option to join the consolidated purchasing block, although how that would work is still vague.

As for the expected drug-industry opposition, the Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America said it’s reviewing the proposal.

“We welcome the opportunity to work with the governor and his administration on comprehensive solutions to the problems patients are facing accessing and affording their medicines,” said spokeswoman Priscilla VanderVeer.

Gerald Kominski, senior fellow at the UCLA Center for Health Policy, lauded the idea of using market power to obtain the lowest prices possible, but predicted that drug-makers would unleash a campaign against it inside and outside of California.

“They will start running ads that are going to scare people—that if you are on Medi-Cal, you are no longer going to get this drug or this drug,” he said. “There will be dark music and maybe a doctor in the scene shaking their head 'no' saying you are no longer eligible for this or for that.”

For the health plans that currently serve the majority of Medi-Cal patients, efforts to get better prices are welcome, said John Baackes, CEO of L.A. Care Health Plan. With 2.5 million Medi-Cal patients, it is the largest Medi-Cal managed plan in the state.

“We are supportive of investigating the idea, because logically it says if the state is negotiating for 13.5 million people, they can do a lot, maybe more than what we can do for 2 million people,” he said. “It’s worth it to see if it will produce better pricing.”

But the details are going to matter, Baackes said. There has been no information yet on how it will be administered or how the state would handle customer service.

Even California, with super-sized buying power, can only bargain so far. Larry Levitt, senior vice president of the Kaiser Family Foundation, called Newsom’s approach “promising.” But he noted that the state can’t walk away from a negotiation, because it has an obligation to make sure that Medi-Cal recipients can access the drugs they need.

“Leveraging the purchasing power of the state is certainly a smart move,” said Sacramento Democratic Senator Richard Pan, chair of the Senate Health Committee. But he added a caveat: “We want to make sure it’s done in a way that ensures that people have access to the medication they need.”

CALmatters.org is a nonprofit, nonpartisan media venture explaining California policies and politics.

Published in Politics

You’d never know Eleni Kounalakis was taking an oath of office for an afterthought of a job that has been occupied by men who generally become answers to political trivia questions.

As U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, four other members of Congress and numerous legislators looked on, Gov. Gavin Newsom swore Kounalakis in as California’s 50th lieutenant governor—the first woman to be elected as governor in waiting.

Former Michigan Gov. Jennifer Granholm served as master of ceremonies for the event at a packed Sacramento Public Library auditorium that bears the name of Kounalakis’ father, developer Angelo Tsakopoulos.

No governor in recent memory had sworn in a lieutenant governor. In fact, most governors look upon lieutenant governors as upstarts to be kept at arm’s length. Governors and California’s independently elected lieutenant governors “don’t always see eye to eye,” Newsom noted.

“That’s about to change,” Newsom said.

Exactly what duties Newsom might cede to Kounalakis remain to determined. There was no promise.

As “lite guv,” Kounalakis’ duties—at least when Newsom is around—are limited to serving as a University of California regent; a California State University trustee; a member of the State Lands Commission, which has oversight over beaches and offshore oil drilling; and presiding over the hazily defined and sporadically funded California Commission for Economic Development.

She also will be acting governor when the governor leaves the state. Newsom quipped that she should not “start appointing judges,” a reference to Mike Curb, who was lieutenant governor when Jerry Brown was governor the first time and attempted to fill judicial openings.

Two of California’s four most recent governors—Gray Davis, who also attended her swearing-in, and Newsom—served as lieutenant governor. During his tenure and itchy with ambition, Newsom would joke about the job, repurposing the old witticism by another ex-lieutenant governor, John Kerry, that his post mainly required its occupant to “wake up every morning, pick up the paper, read the obituaries, and if the governor’s name doesn’t appear in there, go back to sleep.”

Once in 2013, when a mother and her son asked Newsom to pose with them for a photo, the boy asked him what a lieutenant governor does. “I ask myself that every day,” the guv lite replied though a Hollywood smile for the camera. 

But clearly Newsom made the most of the post, and over the years came to see it more generously. And Kounalakis, a longtime Democratic activist and fundraiser, campaigned hard for it, pumping $9 million of her own money into her campaign, besides an independent expenditure of more than $5 million by her father and other major donors.

“It ain’t such a bad job,” Newsom said on Monday.

Kounalakis, 52, was U.S. ambassador to Hungary under President Barack Obama. She defeated Democratic state Sen. Ed Hernandez with 56.6 percent of the vote in November.

Kounalakis paid homage to her father, who arrived in Lodi from Greece at age 14 not speaking English, worked his way through Sacramento State College and became a major developer, a Democratic donor and a philanthropist. He sat in the front row as she took the oath.

Kounalakis vowed to block any attempts to expand offshore oil drilling, and work to expand access to public universities, calling it the “the best way to address our rapidly changing digital economy.” UC President Janet Napolitano was in the audience. 

In 1999, then. Gov. Davis took umbrage at one of the early actions of then-Lt. Gov. Cruz Bustamante. Bustamante’s staff suddenly lost preferred parking privileges, though Davis’ staff at the time called it mere coincidence.

“Pay no attention to the critics who say the job has no influence,” Davis said when asked what advice he would offer to Kounalakis.

Davis suggested that she use her position as a UC regent and CSU trustee to work at each campus to “help solve their problems.” Davis noted that the colleges are the most important economic engines in most cities where they’re located.

Importantly, students, faculty, administrators, university donors and alumni vote. That can be useful for, say, a future political campaign.

CALmatters.org is a nonprofit, nonpartisan media venture explaining California policies and politics.

Published in Politics

Don’t hold regular press conferences. Reward loyalty. If you’re a Californian with presidential aspirations, move to New York.

Are you taking notes, Gov-elect Gavin Newsom?

In the final days of his fourth and final term as California’s chief executive, Gov. Jerry Brown spoke at the Sacramento Press Club, offering parting, and remarkably candid, tips on how to best govern the Golden State.

The hour-long conversation, in the ballroom of the Sacramento Masonic Temple, was moderated by Los Angeles Times columnist George Skelton, and Miriam Pawel, author of the family biography The Browns of California.

Brown, now 80, drew upon experience gleaned over 16 years as governor, plus job experience as attorney general, secretary of state and mayor of Oakland—and three presidential runs.

Tip No. 1: “Avoid overexposure”

Pawel asked Brown if he had learned anything from his father, Pat, who served as the state’s governor between 1959 and 1967.

“One thing I learned was not to have an open-ended press conference every week,” the governor said. The reason: Reporters have the nasty habit of calling you out when you contradict yourself.

“It’s hard to be consistent in the face of an ever-complex, ever-unfolding story,” he said.

Appropriately, this was Brown’s first visit to the state Capitol’s reporters’ club since returning to Sacramento as governor in 2011. When Skelton asked whether the governor planned on commuting the sentences of any of the 739 people on death row in California, Brown made it clear that he was not there to provide fresh fodder to the reporters in the room.

“If I said something, that would give you a story,” he said. “I’m not here to make news; I’m here to enlighten.”

Tip No. 2: Don’t try to make everyone happy.

Ever since running for governor in 1974 on the promise to introduce an “era of limits,” Brown has cultivated a reputation as being willing to buck his party’s big-spending tendencies.

Apparently, there is political logic to being a budgetary tightwad.

“The idea that you’re going to make people happy and build a lot of support by doing a lot of stuff—frankly, it turns out that there’s a downside,” he said. “The more that you do, the more that people are empowered to demand that you do even more.”

Tip No. 3: Do try to make some people happy

As a politician known for sprinkling Latin into his speeches, Brown paid tribute to the wisdom of the phrase quid pro quo.

“In politics, you should take care of your friends,” said Brown, noting that both Michael Picker, president of the California Public Utilities Commission, and Rose Bird, former chief justice of the California court system, started out working for his various campaigns.

“Loyalty is important. Keep the meritocracy within limits.”

But there are limits on repaying loyalty, too.

“Politics is a difficult business,” he said. “You need to raise massive sums of money from people who all want something, and if you give it to them directly, you’ll go to jail. But if you don’t give it to them in some form, you won’t be elected to the next office.”

“So you square that circle.”

Tip No. 4: Don’t get distracted by ideological labels

Brown was Oakland’s mayor between 1999 and 2007. That stint taught him that just because someone claims to represent a particular viewpoint that you happen to share, that doesn’t mean they have the best idea.

“People show up to City Hall and argue for the stupidest things in the name of all good things,” he said. “Environment, labor, historic preservation, ethics, police accountability—everybody’s got a good story.”

Tip Number 5: If you’re running for president, don’t do it out of California

“Nixon paved the way” for Californians running for the White House, he said. “He moved to New York.”

With so many early primary states located on the East Coast, and the daily news starting three hours earlier, “proximity is a key issue that works against Californians.” Part of that could change in 2020: Last year, California legislators voted to bump up the 2020 state primary to March 3.

Brown tackled other topics, all the while honoring his pledge not to say anything too newsworthy.

On the state’s high-speed rail, he assured Skelton that it will be built. “I think at our age we shouldn’t be driving,” he said.

On the recent court ruling out of Texas that declared the entirety of the Affordable Care Act known as Obamacare to be unconstitutional, Brown said that he was “not really worried about it,” confident that the ruling will be overturned. And if it isn’t, there will be electoral hell to pay for the Republicans, he said, allowing Democrats to replace Obamacare with “something even better.”

On his imminent departure from elected office, he said he will miss the constant activity that comes with the job.

“I like sparring with the press; I like raising money; I like attacking my opponents; I like being attacked by my opponents,” he said.

But come Jan. 7, he will be giving that all up and heading up to his ranch in Colusa County, where he said he’ll have to deal with “real rattlesnakes.”

CALmatters.org is a nonprofit, nonpartisan media venture explaining California policies and politics.

Published in Politics

Sporting starred and striped jackets and Make America Great Again hats, the California Republicans who gathered on election night in the U.S. Grant Hotel in downtown San Diego were in a remarkably chipper mood.

They cheered when the results came in from Florida, showing the GOP candidate apparently won the narrow race for governor. They lustily booed and jeered when the face of San Francisco Democratic Rep. Nancy Pelosi, the likely next speaker of the House, appeared on the monitor.

If the assembled party activists were disappointed by the fact that, closer to home, they had lost their bid for every statewide office in the state, most seemed to take it in stride. Certainly, no one seemed particularly surprised.

Just as the polls predicted, John Cox, California’s Republican candidate for governor, lost the job to Democratic Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom. In fact, none of the five Republicans vying for statewide office this year won their races. In the contests for the two remaining statewide offices and the U.S. Senate, a Republican candidate didn’t even make it onto the general election ballot. That leaves GOP voters without a single statewide representative for the third election cycle running.

Adding insult to injury, the only right-of-center candidate to mount a realistic statewide campaign was former Insurance Commissioner Steve Poizner, who got as far as he did after ditching the Republican brand entirely and running as a political independent.

With votes still being counted, Democrats also were within striking distance of reclaiming supermajorities in both the state Assembly and the Senate.

Maybe most painful of all was the fate of Proposition 6. This was the effort to repeal a recent increase in the gas tax—or, at the very least, to tap into the California voters’ historic dislike of higher taxes and expensive commutes, and convince them to once again vote Republican. The measure failed, and Republicans were quick to blame the defeat of Prop 6 on Attorney General Xavier Becerra, a Democrat whose office was responsible for writing the text describing the measure on the ballot.

“A lot of people are going to wake up tomorrow very angry because they were tricked,” said San Diego Republican Party Chairman Tony Krvaric. He pointed to polling that showed voters approved of repealing the gas tax, but not Proposition 6. (An alternative explanation offered by Public Policy Institute of California president Mark Baldassare: Voters approve of the low gas taxes in concept, but worried about the specific consequences of repeal).

“We won on the issue,” insisted Carl DeMaio, who chaired the “Yes on 6” campaign. The lesson he took from the election wasn’t that the message itself was flawed, but that the party simply needs to fight harder.

“Every single election, every single race, we are going to make the fraudulently stolen gas-tax-repeal initiative a main issue in regular elections, and, yes, I predict, a couple recall elections very soon,” he said to the crowd. DeMaio has vowed to recall Becerra, as well as Democratic state Sens. Anthony Portantino and Richard Roth. He then led the crowd in a cheer: “We will fight!”

It was a cheer of defiance in the face of the declining fortunes for the GOP. That, of course, is not a new story. Earlier this year, Republican registration among California voters dipped below those of political independents, making the party of Ronald Reagan the state’s third-most-popular political affiliation, behind Democrat and “no thanks.”

But as national Republicans secured their grip on the U.S. Senate while surrendering control of the House, for California Republicans, the 2018 midterms feel like a new low.

It’s been more than 130 years since Californians replaced a Democratic governor with another Democratic governor. And while Gov. Jerry Brown was a fiscal conservative by Sacramento standards, Newsom can be considered the stuff of Republican nightmares: a San Francisco progressive who supports single-payer healthcare, picks Twitter fights with the president and has flirted with the idea of reforming Proposition 13, the property-tax-capping ballot measure that helped give birth to the modern conservative movement and the Reagan revolution.

“This will be the third time that higher taxes have won as an argument at the ballot in California,” said Bill Whalen, a former speechwriter for Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger and a fellow at Stanford’s Hoover Institution. In 2012, voters approved Proposition 30’s “millionaire’s tax” and then voted to extend it again four years later.

The fact that the average California voter elected not just to stick it to millionaires this time, but agreed to pay higher taxes at the pump, might suggest that “taxes are not the third rail” of California politics that they once were, he said.

“I think Republicans forgot that it’s not 1978 anymore,” added Jack Pitney, a political science professor at Claremont McKenna College, referring to the year that voters approved Prop 13 by a nearly 30-point margin. “That was a different time and a different electorate.”

For sure, California has changed a lot over the last 30 years. But even as the state has become more ethnically and racially diverse, the profile of the typical Republican voter has stayed relatively static: relatively white, old and affluent. Fortunately for the state GOP, this is the same demographic niche that most predictably turns out to vote. But in the absence of a message that might begin to convince Democrats and independents to switch parties, that may only postpone the inevitable. According to the Public Policy Institute of California, millennial voters are more likely than their elders to identify themselves as liberals, favor single-payer healthcare, and oppose the president. 

“This is a failing franchise,” said Whalen. He argued that the state party has two fundamental problems: “message and messengers.”

Cox put the blame for whatever messaging shortcomings his own campaign experienced on the press, at least in part.

“I wanted to have a dialogue and a discussion about what we needed to do to get rid of that money in politics,” he said. “At some point in time, the message has got to get out, and it’s got to be the media.”

But according to Whalen, the party put itself at a disadvantage when the most-prominent state Republican on this year’s ballot, Cox, was relatively unknown to most California voters prior to the final months of the campaign. Those further down on the ballot were—and likely still are—largely anonymous to all but the most politically engaged. With the exception of Steven Bailey, the retired El Dorado County judge who ran for attorney general, none of the party’s statewide candidates had experience in elected office.

“You’re counting on rookie quarterbacks to lead you to the Super Bowl,” said Whalen.

But even where experienced Republican political leaders do exist in California—city, county and congressional representatives increasingly concentrated in the exurbs and rural stretches away from the state’s populated coasts—it’s tough to convince an all-star player to join a team with such a lousy track record. A Republican hasn’t won statewide since 2006. And one of those candidates was Arnold Schwarzenegger, the rare “international movie star willing to run for office,” said Pitney. “But that bracket seems empty right now.”

In the lead up to the June primary election, state party insiders at least thought they’d finally settled on an appealing message.

“I’m telling every candidate: When you run for office, you should come out … with, ‘Repeal the gas tax,’ and, ‘Oppose the sanctuary state,’” Krvaric told CALmatters earlier this year.

But as late as of this spring, the majority of Californians said they support state policies to protect undocumented immigrants.

Manuel Pastor, a sociology professor at the University of Southern California and the author of State of Resistance: What California’s Dizzying Descent and Remarkable Resurgence Mean for America’s Future, says that the state already tried that political line in the 1990s. In 1994, state voters passed Prop 187, a ballot measure that would have stripped undocumented immigrants of state services had it not been struck down by the courts.

“That was when we should have been paying attention to how to restructure our economy instead of turning inward and blaming other people for the problems that we had,” he said. While the nation as a whole may now be having its own “Prop 187 moment,” brought on in part by national demographic trends that mirror California’s a few decades back, voters here have “wisened up from that experience,” he said.

As for the gas-tax message, which Cox made one of the cornerstones of his campaign, the election results speak for themselves. The gap between the preferences of the state party’s base and those of the average voter seem increasingly impossible to bridge. And yet that is precisely the task before any Republican candidate who hopes to compete statewide.

Cox faced his own version of this challenge with his on-again, off-again relationship with the president over the last year. In 2016, Cox, famously, did not vote for Trump, instead casting his ballot for the libertarian Gary Johnson. But in a lead-up to the June primary, Cox noticeably warmed to the commander-in-chief, touting their biographical similarities and their mutual support for a southern border wall. It was the president’s endorsement that helped Cox secure a place on the general-election ballot.

But once Cox found himself competing for a wider electoral audience, he began doing his best to distance himself from Trump’s more-controversial policies and tweets, but without offending the president’s many supporters. “I’m not running for president,” he has said, employing a defense popular among Republicans across the state, and country.

The state party won’t have an easy time distancing itself from Washington, D.C., anytime soon, even if it wanted to, said Graeme Boushey, a political science professor at the UC Irvine.

“With a national GOP that has itself moved toward more-extreme politics, it’s hard for the state GOP to escape that shadow,” he said. Politics are increasingly nationalized, he continued. Many voters don’t know who represents them in Sacramento, or even in Congress, but they do know who the president is, and to which party he belongs.

Given the president’s political instinct to appeal to his base (a base that increasingly does not look like California) and not the electorate as a whole, that puts the state GOP in a bind, he said. “If that’s going to be the argument that the party has for the next 10 years, I don’t know that the Republican party nationally, and certainly not in California, can sustain that.”

Once again shutout from statewide office, some of the California candidates said they hope to instead to advance conservative policy in California through ballot measures.

Voters “don’t want anything with an ‘R’ next to its name,” said Konstantinos Roditis, the candidate for controller who had the “R” next to his name. “If we want to make change in California that people want, the best way, I believe, is to do it through the initiative process.”

Both he and the candidate for treasurer, Greg Conlon, discussed the possibility of putting a state proposition on the ballot aimed at reducing California’s public-sector pension liability as soon as 2020.

“Our positions are not really Republican; they’re really bipartisan, because the people want it,” said Roditis. “Democrats in Sacramento don’t want it.”

In the short term, the California Republican Party’s greatest hopes for broader political relevance may lie with the governor-elect. Many Republicans believe that Californians will tire of Democratic rule if and when Newsom begins to push through the many ambitious and expensive policies he’s promised on the campaign trail.

The lesson of the last few elections is that Californians have a modest appetite for certain taxes, said Jack Citrin, a UC Berkeley political scientist who has written about the politics of the California tax revolt. “It doesn’t mean that Californians are ready to embrace all kinds of higher taxes,” he said. “I would bet you that if you put Proposition 13 on the ballot as it applies to homeowners, it would pass again easily.”

A recession, and the budget crunch that would likely follow, could result in a similar political backlash. “You can’t sit around and wait for the revolution,” said Whalen. “But I would not get too far down the road with grim prophecies. Things can change quickly in politics.”

Think back to 1974. In the midterm elections after the Watergate hearings and the resignation of President Richard Nixon, the state Republican Party lost five seats in a once-in-a-generation electoral pummeling. But six years later, Ronald Reagan, another Californian, ran for president and won.

“This Republican Party will be back in this state,” Cox said, “and our path to success is going to be based upon delivering the quality of life that people need so desperately.”

CALmatters.org is a nonprofit, nonpartisan media venture explaining California policies and politics.

Published in Politics

California is politically lopsided: Most of the people live in the south, but most of the political power is based in the north.

In recent years, the majority of politicians elected to statewide offices have been northern Californians—including the governor, lieutenant governor, schools superintendent and both U.S. senators.

That could change after November’s election, because a striking number of statewide races this year pit a NorCal candidate against SoCal candidate, testing the political power and competing priorities of the Golden State’s two most populous regions.

But don’t count on it.

Northern California is likely to continue to dominate for reasons that largely boil down to this: People in the Bay Area just vote a lot more than those in Los Angeles. Economic and demographic changes overlap with voting trends, together situating California’s political nucleus in the heavily Democratic region in and around San Francisco.

“There is some built-in disadvantage for statewide candidates coming from the Los Angeles area,” said Mark Baldassare, president of the Public Policy Institute of California. “The voter turnout and participation is disappointing in L.A., compared to the rest of the state.”

Even though Los Angeles is the state’s most-populous county, it has the lowest turnout rate for registered voters. Of the 58 counties, L.A.’s turnout was dead-last in the 2014 election and second-to-last in the June primary. Participation is so abysmal in Los Angeles County that voters there actually cast fewer ballots than voters in the nine-county San Francisco Bay Area—even though Los Angeles County has 1.2 million more people registered to vote.

Turnout is better in other populous SoCal counties such as Orange, San Diego and here in Riverside, but still not as strong as in the Bay Area.

“It’s a tale of two economies. Where you have a declining middle class, you have fewer voters and less civic participation,” said Mike Madrid, a GOP political consultant with expertise in Latino voting trends.

Southern California is home to a greater share of Latinos than the Bay Area, and has many more people living in poverty—both characteristics correlated with low voting. Per-capita income is much higher in the Bay Area, and jobs there are being created faster. That not only means people are more likely to vote; it also gives candidates from the region a stronger network for fundraising.

“As the economy has separated, so has our democracy,” Madrid said. “The nine-county Bay Area is becoming whiter, wealthier and older. And that’s creating a power base that is driving the political leadership and discourse for the rest of the state.”

Of course, voters don’t always choose the candidate from their own region, and a home address in the Bay Area is no guarantee of a candidate’s success. Other factors—such as politics, fundraising and the power of incumbency—also come into play.

But with seven of the nine statewide races on November’s ballot featuring a north-south matchup, the question now is whether voters will defy the recent trend.

In the race for governor, the dominance of Northern California was clear when the primary was over in June. Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom, the former mayor of San Francisco, beat out two fellow Democrats from Los Angeles to face Republican John Cox of San Diego on the November ballot. Newsom is far ahead in the polls and fundraising in a state where just one-quarter of voters are registered GOP.

Given their advantage in voter registration and fundraising, Democrats—no matter which end of the state they live in—are favored to win in statewide contests against Republicans. One test will be in the race for insurance commissioner, which features a Democratic legislator from Los Angeles against a Silicon Valley entrepreneur who is running with no party preference. Steve Poizner, who was insurance commissioner from 2006-2010, used to be a Republican but changed his registration to run this year. He splits his time between Silicon Valley and San Diego, and is facing state Sen. Ricardo Lara, a Los Angeles Democrat, in this down-ticket race.

Because of California’s nonpartisan election system, some races feature two Democrats, making the outcomes harder to predict. Voters could choose a lieutenant governor who lives in San Francisco—real estate developer Eleni Kounalakis—or one who lives in Los Angeles, state Sen. Ed Hernandez. They could pick a statewide schools superintendent who hails from the Bay Area—Assemblyman Tony Thurmond—or one who helped run schools in Los Angeles, Marshall Tuck. U.S. Sen. Dianne Feinstein—a former mayor of San Francisco—is fighting a challenge from the left from state Sen. Kevin de León, a Democrat from Los Angeles.

“All else equal in terms of platform, and political leanings, if you have connections to the Bay Area, that is considered to be an advantage,” said Mindy Romero, director of the California Civic Engagement Project at the University of Southern California. “It’s both the voter strength in the Bay Area and the (fundraising) money that’s present in the Bay Area.”

The dynamic is different for legislative races—where the state is broken into districts with equal populations. Southern California’s large population means the region has many representatives in the Legislature, including the leaders of both the Senate and the Assembly.

But because of the voting trends, many SoCal lawmakers are elected with fewer votes than their NorCal colleagues. Even though Assembly Speaker Anthony Rendon, who lives in Los Angeles County, is one of the state’s most powerful politicians, he was elected by about 89,000 voters in 2016, while several Bay Area legislators got at least 130,000 votes.  

Mike Trujillo, a Democratic political consultant in Los Angeles, said he’s hoping the energy this year over control of Congress will prompt more Southern Californians to vote. With several contested House races, the region is being blitzed by ads and volunteers reminding people an election is coming up.

“We do have a lot of those swing seats,” he said. “We’re hoping that is influential.”

CALmatters.org is a nonprofit, nonpartisan media venture explaining California’s policies and politics.

Published in Politics

The two men competing to be the next governor of California met earlier this week for their first (and, alas, probably only) one-on-one debate.

If you didn’t see it, that’s because the showdown—which was structured more as a spirited conversation than your standard dueling-podiums-style debate—was on the radio, hosted by political reporter Scott Shafer, out of the San Francisco-based station KQED.

And if you didn’t hear it, that’s because it was on a Monday. At 10 a.m. On a federal holiday.

It’s a low-profile treatment for what may be the sole in-person exchange of ideas between the two candidates vying to become the next leader of the fifth-largest economy on Earth. But then again, few voters will have a difficult time distinguishing Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom, a liberal Democrat and former mayor of San Francisco, from John Cox, a conservative Republican with the backing of President Trump.

On housing, both candidates agreed that a shortage of production was to blame, but they offered very different solutions. Newsom argued that local governments often exert too much influence blocking production: “There’s a certain point where the state of California needs to intervene.” Cox disagreed, arguing that the focus needs to be on reducing the cost of adding new units by cutting state environmental regulations.

The debate over housing quickly turned feisty as Newsom pointed to his proposed solutions, including boosting the state’s low-income housing tax credit and allowing local governments to skim property-tax revenue for affordable housing. He then said that Cox offers only ”an illusory strategy where he criticizes and identifies problems” but offers no substantive fixes.

Cox countered that all of Newsom’s solutions rely on “more government.”

Despite Cox’s best efforts to keep the conversation focused on bread-and-butter economic issues and his history of “fighting against the establishment,” Shafer asked about his views on gay marriage. In 2007, Cox said that allowing same-sex couples to marry would “open the floodgates to polygamy and bestiality.”

“I’ve evolved on those issues … just like Barack Obama,” said Cox.

When asked about gun control, the candidate criticized the shift in the conversation toward “guns and all of these social issues,” arguing that he is not running for governor to change state law on those topics, but is instead focused on affordability.

Cox was happy to talk about Proposition 6, the ballot measure that would repeal the recent increase in the state gas tax and other driver fees, which he has made a crux of his campaign. Cox argued that the state’s Democratic leadership “didn’t want to do the tough job” of eliminating wasteful spending and cutting environmental regulations, so it instead raised taxes and fees. He insisted that under his leadership, the state would be able to fund necessary road repairs without the new revenue.

“We’re going to use the money efficiently and cut good deals with contractors,” he said.

Newsom once again called that plan “illusory.”

“His plan is to make things worse,” said Newsom. “You can eliminate every single position at Caltrans (the state transportation agency) … and still struggle to find the money.”

Likewise, Newsom seized the opportunity to turn the discussion of the state’s sanctuary policy, which limits local and state law-enforcement agencies’ cooperation with federal immigration authorities, into an opportunity to paint Cox as President Trump’s acolyte.

“He believes very passionately in building the wal. He believes in the elimination of sanctuary policy,” said Newsom. “Trump would have an advocate in Sacramento if he becomes the next governor.”

Cox ignored the reference to the president but said he would indeed push for a repeal of California’s sanctuary state law. “If somebody is here illegally, and they’re engaged in criminal activities, I think it’s up to public officials to kick them out,” he said.

Similarly, the two candidates also offered different views on the state’s recent criminal-justice reforms, including the recent elimination of cash bail.

“You’re replacing a private business with a lot more state workers,” said Cox, whereas Newsom called the new law “an extraordinary step forward and a civil-rights reform.”

While Newsom celebrated the state’s climate change policy, saying the state should play a “role not just nationally but internationally to lead,” Cox was more circumspect. He agreed that the planet was warming and that human activity “may very well” be partially to blame, but he questioned whether the benefit of dramatically cutting emissions across the state was worth the cost to electricity ratepayers and drivers.

The fact this year’s governor’s race will likely feature just one debate during the general election (there were a few before the June primary) is unusual by historical standards, but it likely represents the new normal. As the Los Angeles Times reported, no race for governor or U.S. Senate has featured more than one post-primary debate since 2012. That may be a consequence of the growing political polarization of the state.

“I think there’s a growing cynicism about the utility of debates, Cal State Sacramento political scientist Kimberly Nalder told the Times.

Cox’s strategy during the debate mirrored the one he has employed for months on the campaign trail. He has tried to saddle Newsom with responsibility for California’s high gas taxes, high poverty rate, housing costs and every other economic woe facing the state. As a social conservative who opposes abortion, Cox has largely steered clear of those issues.

“This campaign is about change versus status quo,” he said. “Gavin has been part of the political class that has led this state downward.”

There’s a poetic irony in the claim that Newsom should be held responsible for so many of the state’s problems, given he has occasionally griped that the post of lieutenant governor offers little in the way of actual responsibility. But as a Bay Area Democrat, Newsom certainly represents more of a continuation of current policy than Cox.

For his part, Newsom also took a familiar tact in the debate, arguing that Cox was “in lockstep with Trump and Trumpism.” To hear Newsom tell it, Cox is the president’s Midwestern alter ego: a millionaire outsider with no political experience and ideas that are both unrealistic and unacceptable to most Californians.

In short, Cox hopes the election will be a referendum on the current political direction of the state, while Newsom wants every voter to have President Trump at front of mind as they fill in their ballot.

According to a recent poll from the Public Policy Institute of California, Newsom’s strategy appears more likely to succeed—and not just because he’s a Democrat in a blue state. Among likely voters, 61 percent disapprove of the way the Trump is handling the job. Meanwhile, by a slim 50-47 margin, more voters than not believe that California is headed in the right direction.

As the front-runner in a blue state, Newsom could be seen to have little to gain from more frequent, visible debates. In the newest Target Book Insider Track Survey, which asks consultants, lobbyists and other political players in California politics from both sides of the aisle, 37 percent of respondents said Newsom shouldn’t bother with debates because there’s no upside for him—only the risk of a downside. But 63 percent said he should debate, either because it would be a needed endorsement of the American political process (30 percent), or politically smart (8 percent), or both (25 percent).

For more on John Cox and Gavin Newsom—including video interviews and an ability to create a side-by-side comparison of the issues—explore the CALmatters voter guide. CALmatters.org is a nonprofit, nonpartisan media venture explaining California policies and politics.

Published in Politics

Patricia Brooks said it was sexual harassment when she was taking a call as a 911 dispatcher in San Mateo and a colleague reached his hand inside her bra and fondled her breast.

The courts disagreed in 2000, saying it wasn’t sexual harassment because the single incident didn’t amount to a “severe or pervasive” problem—the legal standard necessary in a civil suit. That decision led to a long-standing legal interpretation that critics say has allowed harassers “one free grope.” But not anymore.

A bill Gov. Jerry Brown signed over the weekend rejects that interpretation, clarifying that a single incident of harassment can be enough to meet the legal standard. In other words, starting on Jan. 1, California law essentially says: “Actually, no free gropes.”

It’s one of the more tangible changes Californians can expect from a suite of bills Brown signed that were inspired by the #MeToo movement, which erupted last year after The New York Times and The New Yorker exposed abuse by film producer Harvey Weinstein in coverage that eventually grew into global demands for change. In California, lawmakers introduced more than two dozen bills to combat workplace misconduct and hold offenders accountable.

Brown finished acting on them on Sept. 30, the constitutional deadline for him to sign or veto bills for the year, and the final opportunity for him to make laws as he nears the end of his historic four terms as governor. Brown’s decisions on the #MeToo bills reveal his penchant for, as he once famously described it, paddling a little on the left and a little on the right.

He sided with victims’ advocates in some cases, signing bills that put California at the forefront of clamping down on harassment. In other cases, he sided with employers, vetoing bills they said were too onerous.

“While there was definitely some great progress on the bills he did sign, we have a long way to go on preventing sexual harassment, especially on the particular challenges that low-wage workers face,” said Jessica Stender, a lawyer with Equal Rights Advocates, a sponsor of some of the bills, including the one providing guidance on the legal standard for harassment suits.

On the flip side, business interests concerned about litigation abuse said the lower standard will amount to a huge expansion of liability.

“It is going to significantly increase litigation,” predicted Caitlin Colman, a lobbyist for the Civil Justice Association of California. “It does not apply to just sexual harassment; it applies to all harassment claims.”

Samantha Corbin, a lobbyist who wrote an open letter last year decrying a culture of harassment in California’s political scene that was signed by hundreds of women, said she was disappointed but not surprised by Brown’s vetoes. Her advocacy group, called We Said Enough, lobbied for 13 anti-harassment bills this year. The governor signed eight and vetoed five.

“This governor has always strived for balance, particularly when you’re looking at contentious issues in the national spotlight,” Corbin said. “It’s very rare for him to go all in on one side.”

Brown signed bills that will:

  • Prohibit employers from requiring employees sign non-disparagement agreements.
  • Prohibit secrecy clauses in settlements for sexual misconduct, unless the complainant wants one.
  • Require employers with five or more employees to provide sexual harassment prevention training to both supervisors and staff.
  • Require California-based companies to add more women to their boards.

He vetoed bills that sought to:

  • Require the state government to track harassment complaints and settlements in an annual public report.
  • Get rid of arbitration clauses in employment agreements, making it easier for workers to sue rather than resolve conflicts in private arbitration.
  • Require large businesses to keep harassment records for at least five years.
  • Extend the amount of time harassment victims have to file complaints, from one year to three years.

“Employees who have experienced harassment or discrimination in the workplace should have every opportunity to have their complaints investigated,” Brown wrote in his veto of Assembly Bill 1870 to extend the amount of time victims have to complain. “I believe, however, that the current filing deadline—which has been in place since 1963—not only encourages prompt resolution while memories and evidence are fresh, but also ensures that unwelcome behavior is promptly reported and halted.”

Some advocates complained the bills Brown signed will largely help women working in professional settings, while those he vetoed were aimed at helping low-wage workers such as janitors, maids, waitresses and sales clerks.

“It seems the #MeToo protections won’t extend to women who don’t have a certain standing, access to attorneys or a level of existing power,” Democratic Assemblywoman Lorena Gonzalez Fletcher wrote on Facebook the night Brown vetoed several of her bills, including the one to ban mandatory arbitration, a practice to which more than half the nation’s nonunion private-sector workers are subject.

“It’s pretty hard to celebrate the gains for women who have the same educational and access advantages as I do, while denying any gains for women like my mom and grandmother who never had those opportunities. You shouldn’t need a Twitter account or an attorney to not be abused in your workplace. And some day, you won’t need either ... we don’t give up that easy.”

Brown’s veto said her anti-arbitration bill violates federal law. The California Chamber of Commerce had deemed it a “job killer,” saying it could burden businesses with an avalanche of lawsuits. Arbitration agreements “expedite the resolution of claims in a less costly environment than sending all claims through an overburdened court system,” the Chamber said in a statement.

The fight is certain to continue next year, after Californians choose a new governor. Gonzalez Fletcher may have a critical ally in her corner: One person who lobbied for her anti-arbitration bill this year was feminist filmmaker Jennifer Siebel Newsom. She, of course, is married to Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom, the front-runner in the race for governor.

CALmatters.org is a nonprofit, nonpartisan media venture explaining California’s policies and politics.

Published in Politics

Between last year’s deadly wildfires and this summer’s fatal blazes, utilities and insurers with a huge stake in fires’ aftermath have poured more than $3.2 million into California campaign donations, and another $5.2 million into lobbying at the state Capitol—a big spike.

Also fiercely lobbying on wildfire bills: plaintiffs attorneys, local governments and electrical worker unions.

Now, in the final weeks of the Legislature’s session, lawmakers on a special wildfire committee are considering proposals to beef up safety of the electrical system and change liability laws. CALmatters reviewed new lobbying and campaign finance reports covering the first six months of the year. The takeaways:

Lobbying is up—by a lot: The state’s three big electric utilities together more than doubled their spending on lobbying during the first half of this year, compared with the same period last year. The increase was driven largely by Pacific Gas and Electric, which spent $2.2 million on lobbying this year—triple what it spent in the first half of 2017.

Between April and June this year, PG&E reported spending $1.1 million specifically lobbying on wildfire legislation.

“This is really the biggest issue facing our company today,” said PG&E spokeswoman Lynsey Paulo, adding that PG&E pays for lobbying expenses with shareholder funds, not money from customers.

At issue: Who should be responsible for and pay for fire damages? Under existing law, utilities are liable if fires are traced to their equipment—even if there’s no negligence. Gov. Jerry Brown has proposed changing the law to relieve utilities of some liability—protection they desperately want.

Edison, which provides power to much of Southern California, including much of the Coachella Valley, spent $1.3 million lobbying in the first half of this year—double what it spent last year.

Insurance companies are the utilities’ main adversary in this: If utilities become less liable, insurers will have to bear more of the costs from disasters. Insurance trade associations increased their spending on lobbying in the state Capitol by 51 percent this year over last.

There’s a whole lotta wining and dining going on: Most of the money utilities and insurance companies spent on lobbying went to lobbyists, lawyers and publicity campaigns. But the total also includes a lot of cocktails and steaks the companies bought for government officials they are trying to influence—nearly $69,000 worth of goodies for the first half of this year.

PG&E treated GOP Sen. Anthony Cannella of Ceres and six of his staff members to a San Francisco Giants game in May. In July, Cannella was appointed to the committee crafting wildfire legislation. He declined to comment for this story.

Overall, PG&E spent more than $3,000 entertaining government officials, including a breakfast in February for Sen. Bill Dodd, a Napa Democrat who is co-chair of the wildfire committee, and a lunch in June for Todd Derum, chief of the Sonoma division of Cal Fire, the agency investigating last year’s fires. Cal Fire has said PG&E’s equipment was involved in 16 fires, and that in 11 of those, the company violated state safety codes. Cal Fire has not yet completed its investigation of the deadliest blaze, known as the Tubbs Fire.

Edison spent more than $45,000 entertaining officials. That included a $12,000 reception in January attended by more than 100 legislators and staff members, and a dinner in March at a Los Angeles steakhouse for Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom, who is running for governor.

The Personal Insurance Federation of California spent $14,300 entertaining lawmakers and their staff, including an $8,500 reception in March and a $4,000 soiree at a Sacramento nightclub in April. In addition, the trade association treated officials to microbrews, sushi dinners and other goodies, such as a $53 cake for an assemblywoman’s chief of staff.

Rex Frazier, the Personal Insurance Federation lobbyist, said government decisions have a huge impact on the insurance business because it is so highly regulated. “With that,” he said, “comes relationship-building with legislators.”

The victims advocacy group is funded almost entirely by lawyers: Fire victims are lobbying to preserve liability laws and pass new rules that could help prevent future wildfires. Their advocacy group Up From the Ashes is represented by a lobbyist who lost his Santa Rosa home in the fires. The group blames PG&E and Edison for not doing enough to prevent last year’s disasters, some of which were sparked by power lines too close to branches and brush.

Up From the Ashes spent about $564,000 lobbying between April and June, with about $55,000 going to a lobbying firm and the rest to a publicity campaign. Where did the money come from? Essentially, law firms involved in lawsuits against utilities.

 “We appreciate their funding so we can have a voice,” said Patrick McCallum, the lobbyist for Up From the Ashes, which represents about 600 homeowners, businesses and local governments that lost property in last year’s fires.

It’s a bipartisan love affair: The industries involved in the fight over wildfire legislation aren’t playing favorites: They’ve showered dozens of Republican and Democratic legislators with large campaign contributions and pour huge sums into committees to elect politicians from both parties.

Edison gave $1.1 million to California political campaigns this year, including $250,000 each to the California Democratic Party and the California Republican Party. It also gave $25,000 each to a GOP group called California Trailblazers and the Democratic campaign fighting a senator’s recall. In advance of the June primary, Edison gave $29,200 each to Gavin Newsom and Antonio Villaraigosa, Democratic rivals in the gubernatorial race.

PG&E has given more than $900,000 in political donations this year, including $175,000 to the California Democratic Party and $110,000 to the California Republican Party. It’s also given $25,000 to a committee that supports moderate Republicans and $40,000 to one that supports moderate Democrats.

In addition, PG&E gave $150,000 to a campaign supporting Newsom for governor, and paid nearly $400,000 to a political consulting firm that ran Brown’s campaign for governor and is helping with Newsom’s.

The Farmers insurance company gave $96,500 to the state GOP and $10,000 each to the California Democratic Party and the Newsom campaign.

One lawmaker doesn’t want PG&E’s money: On June 4, PG&E sent $1,000 to the re-election campaign for Democratic Assemblyman Jim Wood. On June 30, he returned the money.

Wood declined to comment on why he sent back the PG&E money, instead saying through a spokeswoman that he did not solicit the donation.

But here’s a clue: He represents parts of Santa Rosa devastated by last year’s fires. Now he sits on the wildfire committee, where he’s questioning whether the Legislature should change liability laws before Cal Fire completes its investigations.

CALmatters.org is a nonprofit, nonpartisan media venture explaining California’s policies and politics.

Published in Politics

With primary-election ballots still being tallied across the state, things are looking good for the California Republican Party … that is, not catastrophically bad.

It may be as close to good as the state’s second-biggest political party can hope for in California in 2018.

Assuming preliminary results hold, Democrats and Republicans fought to a virtual standstill on Election Day, avoiding the nightmare scenarios that political insiders had been fretting about for months.

Republicans made it into the top two spots in some of the most important contests for statewide office. That includes a decisive second-place finish by San Diego businessman John Cox, who will go on to face Democratic Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom in the race for governor. That could prop up conservative turnout in November even as Newsom tries to rally his base against the candidate he calls a “foot soldier” of President Trump.

But Republicans failed to make it into the November race for U.S. Senate (which was largely expected), lieutenant governor (not quite as expected) and insurance commissioner (though a former Republican with no current party affiliation came in first).

Republicans did not manage to shut Democrats out of any competitive congressional races—despite the Democrats’ own worries about that—boosting the latter’s hopes of regaining control of the House in November.

Republican turnout was not suppressed by Trump, his low statewide approval ratings notwithstanding. So now what for the California GOP?

“They’re looking to charge up the base in seven key congressional districts,” said Mike Madrid, referring to seven Republican-held districts in which a majority of voters supported Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton in 2016. “In California Republican politics, that’s about all you can consider a victory at this point.”

Madrid is a Republican political consultant who worked for Antonio Villaraigosa’s gubernatorial campaign and is sharply critical of the party under Trump.

A California Republican hasn’t been elected to any of the statewide constitutional offices or the U.S. Senate since 2006. Party registration has been sliding ever since, dipping below the share of voters without a party affiliation.

Republicans may have placed second in a number of statewide races this time, but if recent trends continue, that merely forestalls defeat in November. At last count, the various Democratic candidates for governor cobbled together more than 60 percent of the vote, compared to less than 40 percent for the Republicans.

In the attorney general’s race, where Republicans also managed to avoid a shutout, incumbent Xavier Becerra leads retired judge Steven Bailey, who placed second, by 20 percentage points.

One right-of-center candidate may have scored a first-place victory, though he isn’t listed as a Republican. Steve Poizner, who served as the state’s Republican insurance commissioner from 2007 through 2011, ran for his old job without a stated political party preference. The lack of an “R” next to his name may have helped.

“We understand that we’re the underdogs,” said state party chairman Jim Brulte. For months, he has argued that the party’s way forward is to consistently remind voters that Democrats have controlled every lever of power in Sacramento for eight years—and are therefore responsible for any problems facing the state.

“They own it; they broke it, and we’re the fix,” he said. “Their strategic reason for wanting to mention Donald Trump inevery other sentence is because even though they’re in charge, they don’t want to take credit for California.”

Democrats get it.

“It’s going to be Trump, Trumpism and the Resistance,” said Newsom spokesman Nathan Click while describing the campaign ahead. In his speech on election night, Newsom described Cox as “a foot soldier in Trump’s war on California.”

Cox responded in his own speech the same night: “It wasn’t Donald Trump who made us the highest tax state in the country. It was Gavin Newsom and the Democrats.”

Hammering Democrats on taxes, particularly on the recent increase in the state’s gas tax, will be a central talking point for Republicans in the coming months.

In one unequivocally good piece of news for the state’s GOP in this election, voters overwhelmingly opted to fire Josh Newman from his state Senate seat in Orange County. The successful recall campaign strips Democrats of their supermajority control of the state Senate, although they hope to win it back in the fall. It also provides Republicans with a political game plan for the months ahead.

“People who supported the gas tax (increase) are going to have a lot of explaining to do,” said Brulte.

Pete Peterson, a Republican who ran for California secretary of state in 2014 and who is now the dean of Pepperdine University's School of Public Policy, said he hopes the party thinks a bit bigger than the gas tax. By overwhelming backing a left-leaning candidate like Newsom over a relative moderate like Villaraigosa, the Democrats have left the Republican Party an opening in California, he said.

The premise of the Villaraigosa campaign was to tack toward the center of California’s political spectrum, embracing targeted government assistance and a liberal immigration policy, while pumping the brakes on expensive programs like a proposed single-payer health-care system, enthusiastically supporting charter schools and occasionally wading into conservative rhetorical territory about red tape and bureaucratic excess.

With Villaraigosa’s loss, “there’s a significant part of the Democratic Party that is not going to be represented in this governor’s race,” said Peterson, who supports Cox. “So the question I have for Republicans is: Do you see that as an opportunity?”

Madrid says it’s too late. Cox embraced the support of President Donald Trump and spoke in favor of his immigration policies.

“To think that somehow moderates, centrist Democrats are going to move over and vote for a Trump supporter because they’re paying some extra money at the pump completely fails to grasp what is happening in this country and this state,” Madrid said.

CALmatters.org is a nonprofit, nonpartisan media venture explaining California policies and politics.

Published in Politics

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