The question for California legislative races is no longer whether Democrats will secure a majority. It’s how large their margin will be.
Once again, liberal leadership is contemplating a two-thirds majority that would allow them to pass taxes, amend political spending laws and move measures to the ballot without any Republican support. Fully cognizant of that possibility, the California Republican Party recently blasted out fundraising emails invoking the supermajority and inviting supporters to “ponder what that is going to do to your wallet and to California’s businesses……..MORE TAXES, MORE GOVERNMENT, LESS FREEDOM!”
Democrats succeeded in winning a supermajority in 2012 but relinquished it in 2014. Now, with a presidential election likely to amplify turnout, party strategists project confidence about finding a new high-water mark. The outcome will hinge on a dozen races featuring either open seats or challenges to Republican incumbents.
“California’s the land of opportunity, especially for Democrats this year,” said Steve Barkan, chief strategist for Assembly Democrats.
At the end of this legislative session, Democrats held 52 seats in the Assembly and 26 in the Senate. So if they can defend the districts they already control, Democrats would need to pick up at least two Assembly seats and one Senate seat to get to a two-thirds margin.
Democrats are working to expand the map with forays into districts not usually on the list of contested seats. Barkan credited demographics shifting in the party’s favor and spillover from the presidential campaign.
But Joe Justin, who is chief of staff to Republican Minority Leader Chad Mayes, R-Yucca Valley, and helps direct election strategy for Assembly Republicans, attributed it to Democrats’ edge in fundraising, saying “it’s easy to be brilliant” when you are in power and able to raise more money.
One new factor this year: the ascendance of Donald Trump. Multiple Democrats in contested districts have sought to tie their opponents to the divisive Republican standard-bearer. They hope it will win over centrist Republicans and voters from the bloc lacking a party preference, who in most of the districts below comprise between a fifth and a quarter of the electorate.
Justin brushed off the Trump gambit as an effort to “distract from the local issues” that Republicans won on in the first place.
“It doesn’t take a lot of creativity and frankly cheapens the campaign,” Justin said. “I think voters are going to see through that.”
All spending totals for these races are through Oct. 18. Some are rounded for simplicity. Party money refers to both state and county committees. Voter registration statistics reflect the California secretary of state’s report of voter sign-ups through Sept. 9.
Catharine Baker (R) vs. Cheryl Cook-Kallio (D)
While Assembly Speaker Anthony Rendon, D-Paramount, called this seat his top target, it could prove tough for Democrats to defeat Republican Baker, who won a bitter 2014 brawl that saw unions and business groups pour money into an expensive primary election clash between two Democrats and left no obvious 2016 Democratic candidate. Baker ran up a 6.4 point lead in this year’s primary, and she built a moderate voting record in her first term: a Bee analysis found she voted with Democrats on the floor more than any other Republican. Her vote to bolster California’s climate change goals led Gov. Jerry Brown to praise without naming the “one brave Republican” who voted in favor. Though the governor later endorsed Cook-Kallio, Baker’s relative moderation could help sway the non-partisan voters who make up the highest share of the electorate here (24.4 percent) in any of the battle districts. On top of the $668,000 in Republican party dollars for Baker and $1.08 million in Democratic party donations for Cook-Kallio, a tsunami of outside money has hit this district: groups funded by Republican benefactor Charles Munger Jr., dentists, oil companies, school reformers, car dealers, the real estate industry and others have spent more than $1 million for Baker.
Jordan Cunningham (R) vs. Dawn Ortiz-Legg (D)
AD 35 is one of two open seats where Democrats see a chance to disrupt a Republican win streak, in this case by replacing termed-out Republican Katcho Achadjian with a Democrat. Republicans still outnumber Democrats in this district but only by a few points, a margin that has been steadily shrinking. Cunningham and another Republican combined to win a majority of the vote in the primary, while Ortiz-Legg lagged in second with 45 percent. But the money pouring in demonstrates the seat’s competitiveness. The respective party organizations have spent $1.04 million (Democrats) and $338,000 (Republicans) to try to claim it. Cunningham has drawn nearly $200,000 in support from outside committees funded by agricultural employers, the tobacco industry, oil companies, utilities, real estate interests, school reformers and others, while some of those business-funded committees have paid to oppose Ortiz-Legg, including with mailers and radio spots.
Christy Smith (D) vs. Dante Acosta (R)
The 38th also showcases Democratic ambitions to expand their map of traditionally in-play races by exploiting an open seat. Republican Assemblyman Scott Wilk is leaving to run for the Senate, creating an opportunity. The contours of the electorate are strikingly similar, too: Republicans hold a nearly identical registration lead that has also been diminishing steadily in the district, which spans parts of Los Angeles County and Ventura County. They would likely need to win over some of the 22.1 percent of voters who have not registered with either major party. Republican Acosta has benefited from some independent spending from a committee funded by a pro-business entity, Munger and an organization devoted to promoting Latino Republicans. Business interests and school reformers have spent against Smith. Party committees have weighed in with $740,000 for Smith and $191,000 for Acosta.
Marc Steinorth (R) vs. Abigail Medina (D)
For evidence of the party’s commitment to knocking out Assemblyman Marc Steinorth, R-Rancho Cucamonga, take a look at the support Medina has gotten from would-be future colleagues. At least 37 different Assembly Democrats, well more than half the caucus, have given maximum $4,200 donations to Medina’s campaign. That comes in addition to the $1.4 million the state Democratic Party and county committees have put in. Countering that, business interests that encompass the real estate industry, oil companies, insurance firms and dentists have spent over $700,000 to keep Steinorth in office, with the Republican Party donating $674,000. Medina took more votes in the primary, and registered Democrats outnumber Republicans in the San Bernardino County district – a demographic advantage that the Medina campaign sought to exploit with a harsh ad calling Steinorth and Trump “two sides of the same coin.”
Eric Linder (R) vs. Sabrina Cervantes (D)
In a state where the alliance between organized labor and Democrats is an elemental political fact, it’s unusual to see a Republican win a union endorsement. But for the first time in decades SEIU California has gone GOP, giving the nod to Republican Linder. On top of $213,000 from the party, Linder has benefited from a pile of outside spending from business groups like oil and pharmaceutical companies and from organized labor, including over $200,000 from SEIU branches and another $100,000 from the California arm of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees. We’ll see if it’s enough to shield the incumbent Republican against a vigorous challenge that’s drawn support from Rendon and $846,000 from the Democratic Party structure. Registration is almost evenly split between Republicans and Democrats here, putting pressure on both campaigns to make inroads with the 20.9 percent of voters without a party affiliation.
Young Kim (R) vs. Sharon Quirk-Silva (D)
This Orange County seat looks like one of those that could change hands every two years, with Republicans taking advantage of non-presidential years in which turnout tends to be lower and Democrats getting a bump from the big contest. Quirk-Silva claimed this seat in 2012, ousting incumbent Republican Chris Norby, before relinquishing it to Kim in 2014. Now Quirk-Silva looks to be in good position to reclaim the post, finishing nearly nine points ahead of Kim in the primary. Underscoring the benefits of running as a Democrat in a presidential year, particularly in a district with more registered Democrats than Republicans, the Quirk-Silva campaign has consistently sought to link Kim to Trump. This has drawn the most cumulative party spending of any Assembly race, with $1.8 million for Quirk-Silva and $645,000 for Kim. Business and real estate groups have promoted Kim, eclipsing organized labor’s outside help for Quirk-Silva.
David Hadley (R) vs. Al Muratsuchi (D)
Here, too, a Democrat ousted in 2014 hopes to reclaim his former seat and got some positive signs in the primary, where Hadley mustered just 44.6 percent of the vote as Muratsuchi and another Democrat split the remainder. The district features a nearly 10-point Democratic registration margin and a substantial slice of unaffiliated voters (22.7 percent). The Muratsuchi camp has worked relentlessly to join Hadley and Trump in voters’ minds. They have held multiple rallies near the Trump National Golf Club in Rancho Palos Verdes and funded “Trump Hadley” signs, leading Hadley to decry what he called “desperate and dishonest election tactics.” Hadley has gotten outside help from wealthy donors Bill Bloomfield, Gerald Marcil and Munger, who via his PAC is spending more than $1 million to help Hadley and defeat Muratsuchi. The parties have poured it on too, with $1.8 million for Muratsuchi and $366,00 for Hadley.
Cathleen Galgiani (D) vs. Alan Nakanishi (R)
It shocked some political observers when outgoing Assembly Minority Leader Kristin Olsen, R-Riverbank, passed on running for this Stockton-anchored seat. Olsen said she had been made to understand that the Republican Party would not spend in the race. Instead, the incumbent Sen. Cathleen Galgiani, D-Stockton, a centrist Democrat who has allied herself with business and law enforcement, will face former Republican Assemblyman and now Lodi Mayor Alan Nakanishi. Regardless of the opponent, the Democratic Party is taking no chances, spending $314,000. Neither are the outside interests backing Galgiani. She has a friend in the real estate industry: the California Association of Realtors has spent more than $200,000 on her and a separate committee funded largely by Realtors, with additional money from the pharmaceutical industry and others, has kicked in almost half a million more. True to Olsen’s prediction, formal Republican Party committees haven’t given Nakanishi a cent.
Scott Wilk (R) vs. Johnathon Ervin (D)
Spanning Los Angeles County and San Bernardino County, this open seat offers Democrats a key pickup opportunity and has attracted a wave of outside spending. Assemblyman Scott Wilk, R-Santa Clarita, who combined with another Republican for a majority of primary votes, has gotten ample support both from the party ($629,000) and from independent spending by oil companies and real estate interests. But Democrats hold a three-point voter registration edge over Republicans, buoying hopes that a higher-turnout general election will favor Democrat Ervin, a veteran who has touted his military service and gotten $712,000 from the party.
Mike Antonovich (R) vs. Anthony Portantino (D)
Looking at indicators like registration numbers, Democrats would seem to be in good position to hold the seat of outgoing Sen. Carol Liu, D-La Cañada Flintridge, by electing former Assemblyman Anthony Portantino. But their 15-point registration advantage and strong primary showing, with five Democrats garnering a combined 60 percent of the vote, belie a tough contest. The Republican candidate, long-serving Los Angeles County Supervisor Mike Antonovich, has the name recognition that comes from holding public office for decades. Almost a quarter of voters (23.8 percent) have no party preference. The party money reflects the stakes: Portantino has garnered over $1.3 million in party money, while the Republican establishment has directed $528,000 to Antonovich’s campaign.
Henry Stern (D) vs. Steve Fazio (R)
The Senate is losing its foremost environmentalist as Sen. Fran Pavley, D-Agoura Hills, terms out. Former Pavley aide Henry Stern is vying to take his old boss’s post, but he’s faced resistance. Groups representing dentists and apartment owners spent hundreds of thousands of dollars to push their favored Democrat, Janice Kamenir-Reznik, past Stern in the primary, which came on top of $179,000 real estate dollars opposing Stern. Backed by $463,000 in countervailing cash from organized labor, Stern prevailed. The November election pits him against Republican Steve Fazio, who won only 37 percent of primary votes. Despite Democrats boasting an 11-point registration lead, the party is taking no chances, pouring nearly $800,000 into Stern’s campaign.
Ling Ling Chang (R) vs. Josh Newman (D)
With former Republican minority leader Bob Huff forced out by term limits, the fight for his seat – mostly encompassing Orange County but also absorbing parts of San Bernardino and Los Angeles County – has become a focal point for both parties. Republicans have first-term Assemblywoman Ling Ling Chang, R-Diamond Bar, but she faces a tough battle with Democrat Josh Newman after winning just 44 percent of the vote in the primary. She has been the top recipient of Republican money among Senate candidates, drawing $1.1 million. Business interests that include dentists as well as the oil, real estate and insurance industries have spent around $470,000 to boost Chang or hit Newman. Seeing opportunity in a district where they have a slender registration lead, Democratic committees have given Newman $734,000.
Editor’s note: This story was changed from print and online editions at 9:40 a.m. Oct. 19, 2016 to note that Assemblyman Scott Wilk is giving up his seat to run for the Senate.