Twelve months from now, the first mail ballots will be cast in the 2014 campaign. Right now, Democrats are sitting pretty: Gov. Jerry Brown is riding high in the polls, and President Barack Obama’s approval rating in the state is hovering near 55 percent. Meanwhile, the campaign of the GOP’s top gubernatorial hopeful, Abel Maldonado, is broke and in shambles.
To make matters worse, Republicans heading into next week’s state party convention in Anaheim continue to be assembled in a circular firing squad. The GOP’s tea party wing continues to have the upper hand over moderates. There’s little reason to believe that Republicans will embrace the issues important to the increasingly growing Latino voting bloc or moderating views on social issues that will bring younger voters back into their fold.
This state of affairs is leaving many Democrats smacking their lips about the prospect of a landslide win to solidify the Legislative gains they made in 2012, when they won supermajorities in both houses. Yet there are reasons that both parties should be nervous about what 2014 will bring.
Traditionally, elections in non-presidential years have given Republicans their best opportunities. Without Obama at the top of the ticket and with no strong challenger in sight to Jerry Brown, some anxious Democrats worry that the voters who propelled them to victory in 2012 will stay at home, as they typically do in off-year elections.
Just weeks ago, some labor leaders thought they had the elixir to that: a ballot measure to raise the minimum wage, and tying future increases to the cost-of-living. However, more pragmatic heads prevailed, with labor grabbing the opportunity to get the increases (minus the indexing) without heading to the ballot.
They bet that Democrats have such an advantage that many of the party faithful can still stay home and the party will roll to victory. They might be correct: Among likely voters for the 2014 general election, according to Political Data Inc., Democrats enjoy a significant 45-34 percent advantage. The more voters who head to the polls, the worse it gets for the GOP. Among low-propensity voters, which include increased numbers of Latinos, Democrats have an 18-percentage-point advantage.
While it is still early, there do not seem to be any major ballot measure campaigns that will stir the electorate for either party. Online privacy, medical liability and pension reform are all issues that excite Sacramento insiders, but don’t rev up most voters. Next year, Legislative Democrats and the governor seem unlikely to put additional tax increases or anything on the ballot that will boost voter interest.
None of this is good news for Republicans. The lack of a strong GOP standard-bearer will likely depress Republican turnout because gubernatorial campaigns do more than generate the excitement among the party faithful. They build a campaign infrastructure that helps candidates up and down the ballot.
That is one of the reasons newly elected California Republican Party Chairman Jim Brulte has been focusing so much of his efforts at the grass-roots level. Even in many battleground districts, Brulte has been starting at square one in trying to reassemble the building blocks of what it will take to win. He’s not there yet.
Republicans will argue that they can win in low-turnout scenarios, however. They point to one recent success: the flash-in-the-pan special election win in a Central Valley state Senate seat. But Democrats counter that that was a unique circumstance in a unique district, and that Republicans won’t be able to compete mano e mano when the playing field is expanded statewide.
The lack of a strong top of the ticket for Republicans also will diminish their chances for cracking the supermajority lock Democrats have in the Legislature. The GOP will have to claim all three major state Senate races – in the Sacramento Valley, Orange County and the Central Valley seat they just won – to get back in the game. Meanwhile, Democrats need to hold just one of those seats.
At first glance, the Assembly might look like a better bet for the GOP, as Democrats are at a record high 55 seats. But again, Democrats have the organizational and financial strength to defend the seats their incumbents hold. They even talk of making forays into three Republican districts won by Obama where Democratic voter registration gains have continued during the past year.
Of course, one year is a lifetime away in politics. National narratives – the success or failure of Obamacare, the showdown between the president and House Republicans over budget issues, a possible war in Syria – could turn the political world upside down.
For now, however, Republicans have plenty to worry about.
Steven Maviglio is a Sacramento-based Democratic political strategist who has worked for two Assembly speakers and former Gov. Gray Davis.