A one-party state without the rancor
It is ironic that California, home of the far-right John Birch Society and such liberal bastions as Berkeley and Santa Monica, is drifting to the political center, even as national politics is lurching both left and right. It remains to be seen, however, whether this is another instance of the Golden State’s being out in front of the rest of the country or just inhabiting a parallel universe.
Today’s California is a bright blue state in federal elections. It is firmly on the progressive side on social issues and proactively seeks to lead the way in addressing climate change. At the same time, Governor Jerry Brown has imposed fiscal restraint. With the help of large Democratic legislative majorities and a voter-approved ballot measure that allows budget passage by a simple majority vote in the legislature, once red-hot appropriation wars have cooled.
A cadre of moderate Democrats has also been able to flex some political muscle in support of business-related issues in the Legislature, which has muted Republican rhetoric and charmed the GOP’s corporate allies. Political civility is the order of the day, at least for now.
Partisan warfare beyond Sacramento has ebbed considerably, partly because California is no longer a truly competitive two-party state. Instead, independent voters are becoming increasingly influential. Democratic registration has remained relatively flat; it has dropped a modest 0.5 percent since 2003, to 43.1 percent of the state electorate. GOP registration, meanwhile, fell 7.7 percent, to just 27.6 percent of registered voters.
The big registration gain has been among voters with no declared party preference. They make up 24 percent of registered voters, up 7.9 percent from 2003. These voters skew younger and are more Latino and Asian than the rest of the electorate. These voting blocs are more inclined to vote Democratic, which further isolates the GOP.
So it should not be surprising that Democrats have overwhelming majorities in the legislature and in the state’s congressional delegation. All statewide-elected officeholders are Democrats, and it has been more than a quarter of a century since the Republican presidential ticket carried California.
Demographics, of course, have played a big part in reshaping California’s political landscape. The state’s diverse population is not fertile ground for Republicans, particularly in light of the GOP’s anti-immigrant rhetoric and the party’s obstructionism in Washington. Social issues such as abortion rights and gun control also tilt California toward the Democrats.
This doesn’t mean that California has become a one-party state. It’s more a “no party” state. Modern California has long had a candidate-centric electoral process. This dynamic has been abetted by a series of systemic changes that have rearranged the political battlefield in ways that shifts the political wars toward the center of the ideological spectrum.
A major catalyst for California’s new “moderate” politics has been a series of ballot measures enacted by voters that overturned the state’s closed primary system, took reapportionment out of the hands of the legislature, unclogged the gridlock surrounding California’s historically contentious state-budget process and, most recently, revamped legislative term limits.
A consequential change has been the implementation of the “top two” primary. Under this system, all candidates for a legislative, congressional or statewide office compete on a single primary ballot. Voters then choose between the two top vote-getters — regardless of party affiliation — in the general election. No longer are there closed primaries in which the most liberal candidate generally prevails in Democratic districts, and hard-right conservatives dominate the Republican districts.
Under the new rules, campaigns increasingly look to the entire electorate in primaries, not just to the party faithful. In several legislative and congressional races, this has meant run-offs between two contenders from the same party. Independents and voters of the opposition party often hold the balance of power.
The race to fill retiring Senator Barbara Boxer’s seat may showcase the impact of the top-two primary system. In past elections, the two major-party finalists were chosen in closed Democratic and Republican primaries, which tilted liberal and conservative, respectively. Under the new system, all candidates from all parties will appear on the same ballot. So, on this June’s ballot, Democratic front-runners Attorney General Kamala Harris and Orange County Representative Loretta Sanchez will face lesser-known opponents, including former GOP state chairmen Duf Sundheim and Tom Del Beccaro.
Given their higher visibility and substantial funding advantages, the two Democrats will likely square off in the general election in November. Harris will have the advantage of a strong San Francisco Bay area base and the name recognition that comes with having been on the statewide ballot twice.
Sanchez, meanwhile, could appeal to the state’s substantial Latino voting bloc and draw on her Orange County and Southern California roots. Sanchez also has national-security chops from her 19 years in Congress, where she is the most senior woman member of the House Armed Services Committee and the House Homeland Security Committee.
While Harris probably would have had a significant advantage in a closed Democratic primary, the outcome of a Democrat-versus-Democrat contest in November is far less clear. Harris, who is very much in the mold of President Barack Obama, will have to compete for Republican and independent votes against a pugnacious candidate who has frequently taken pro-business and tough-on-terrorism stances. The outcome, like so many contested elections in California today, is likely to be decided in the middle.
None of this is to say that political donnybrooks are a thing of the past in the Golden State. Big issues remain unresolved, including billions of dollars in public pension obligations, decades of neglected infrastructure needs, education challenges and California’s perpetual water wars. Northern California still pretty much hates the South. Mega-interests — among them, powerful public-employee unions, Indian Gaming tribes, major businesses and environmental activists — still regularly duke it out in the capitol and on the ballot.
All things considered, though, politics and governance seem to be functioning far better in California than in Washington — or on the presidential campaign trail. At a time when “moderate” has become a dirty word on the national scene, California government is functioning — and functioning well — pretty much in the middle of the road.
It’s too early to say if the Golden State is just taking a breather from political dysfunction or if a new era of kinder, gentler politics has settled in and — like so many of California’s previous political movements and cultural trends — spreads across the nation.