For Democrats and Republicans, the election results were like a tie football game, about as satisfying, the saying goes, as kissing one’s sister. Democrats had hoped for a tsunami but instead gutted out a House majority and picked up some governor’s seats, but their media stars have lost. Republicans avoided catastrophe, but losing those seats is not insignificant. A Wall Street Journal columnist declared, correctly, that the president did what he needed to do in the midterms. One writer for Slate came to a similar conclusion for the Democrats. It was a “bleh” election, but they too did what they needed to do by clawing back some political power.
Here in deep blue California, the results went pretty much as expected with few dramatic outcomes but a lot of incremental gains in a Democratic direction. When I woke up Wednesday morning, early GOP-favorable election numbers from inland counties gave way to the inevitable worsening results. In reality, there was nothing to give Republicans much hope — although there were some encouraging signs for right-of-center candidates who eschewed the Republican label. There also was a tiny bit of good news in terms of statewide ballot initiatives.
As expected, not a single Republican won any of the statewide offices (governor, lieutenant governor, treasurer, controller, secretary of state, insurance commissioner, attorney general or superintendent of public instruction). California Republicans had fielded a solid, thoughtful conservative to run for governor. No one seriously expected businessman John Cox to win the race against former San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom, but Republicans thought he might make a decent showing. Nevertheless, his 40.7 percent of the vote was barely above the 40-percent vote that Neel Kashkari, a “you’ve gotta have someone on the ballot” candidate, had received in 2014 against Jerry Brown.
According to the secretary of state’s final but unofficial vote tally, Cox had received just under 2.9 million votes. The other statewide candidates with R’s after their name received somewhere between 2.6 million and 2.75 million votes. None of them even touched the 40-percent mark. Remember, these are all two-way races because California’s top-two primary system eliminates third parties and even write-ins on the general election ballot. There was no one else to divert votes. With only around 25 percent registration, the GOP is a dying party at the state level — and one that has recently been surpassed by No Party Preference voters in terms of total registration. (The GOP is dwindling even in formerly Republican districts, but more on that later.)
However, two non-liberal candidates did well on Election Day. California’s top education official is elected rather than appointed and former charter-school operator Marshall Tuck, according to the latest count, was clinging to a lead over the teachers’-union backed Democrat, Tony Thurmond. Tuck has 50.7 percent of the vote, with a total of 3.09 million votes. That’s more votes than Cox received in his high-profile race. Tuck is a Democrat, but he is a reform-minded one. The superintendent of public instruction doesn’t have much power, but mainly gets a statewide bully pulpit given that education policy is determined by the Legislature, the governor, and the state board of education. Still, it can set the tone for reform, which is why Tuck received millions of dollars in campaign donations from charter-school backers in a race that mustered a total of $50 million in donations. But despite the oddities of this election, it does show that the right candidate can win a statewide race under the right circumstances.
The race for state insurance commissioner is another illuminating one, with former Republican commissioner Steve Poizner slightly trailing (as final ballots are counted) liberal Democratic state Sen. Ricardo Lara. Poizner was leading in public-opinion polls, which would have made a fascinating story given that he no longer is a Republican, although he had significant GOP support for this race. Poizner wanted to be the first No Party Preference candidate to ever win statewide election. The latest count gives him nearly 3.3 million votes, or nearly 49.3 percent of the vote count. That’s not bad. The insurance commissioner position is an important one, given that California’s system of insurance regulation gives the insurance “czar” the power to approve or deny rate changes or to allow insurers to offer new, innovative lines of insurance.
Both Tuck and Poizner are excellent, qualified candidates for these particular offices. Perhaps this is thin gruel or painfully obvious, but maybe the lesson for California conservatives is not to give up — but to back appropriate candidates, raise funds to run serious races, and make sure they steer clear of the Republican brand. The last point has to hurt, however.
Furthermore, conservatives can still score victories on statewide ballot initiatives, even though direct democracy has morphed into big-spending slugfests over issues that often have no business being on the ballot. Tuesday’s initiative results were a mixed bag. The big GOP-backed measure, Proposition 6, would have rolled back the recent, widely hated gas-tax increase. It lost 55 percent to 45 percent, but was hobbled by a disgraceful title and summary that hid that this was actually a tax repeal. Conservatives will struggle with these measures as long as Democratic partisans control the attorney general’s office. On a good note, voters rejected a statewide rent-control measure (allowing localities to have much more authority to impose such price controls). But they also voted overwhelmingly to ban chickens from cages, as part of a nudge to the vegan lifestyle.
Some state legislative races are still too close to call, but Democrats seem poised to regain their supermajority in the Senate and retain it in the Assembly. That means that they can raise taxes without any Republican support. A handful of congressional races still are really close, but Democrats look poised to gain seats held by Republicans Dana Rohrabacher of Huntington Beach and Steve Knight of Palmdale. Those suburban Southern California districts are becoming increasingly Democratic. Furthermore, Rep. Darrell Issa’s seat in northern San Diego County and southern Orange County looks likely to go to Democrat Mike Levin.
The election also showed that Orange County, home of Nixon and the heart and soul of the state’s conservative movement, is steadily becoming less Republican. As the returns rolled in, Gustavo Arellano wrote a telling obituary for the “old” Orange County. As he noted in the Los Angeles Times, “Regardless of the final vote tallies, the fact that Democrats came to O.C. to pick up House seats is a stake in Nixonland’s vampire heart.” But all is not lost for the GOP. Republicans can still do well provided they field sophisticated suburban conservatives such as Mimi Walters and fewer candidates who are campaigning as if the county is the same place it was in the 1980s. The election was pretty “bleh” in California, too, but it certainly reinforced trends we’ve long been seeing.
Steven Greenhut is a Sacramento-based writer. Write to him at firstname.lastname@example.org.