California Democrats are on track to make historic gains in the state Legislature.
They are on pace to control three-fourths of the Assembly — 60 out of 80 seats — a feat has not been accomplished in 135 years, in 1883. In the Senate, Democrats are likely to grab 29 seats out of 40, which would be the party’s largest advantage since 1962 (except for a brief period in 2012).
“Voters gave Democrats an advantage in the Legislature that is unprecedented in modern times,” said Alex Vassar, legislative historian for the California State Library.
A few races remain close as ballot counting concludes and some candidates have not yet conceded. But Democrats are already beginning to take their victory lap.
“When the nation looks toward California, it will look like the sun is rising in the west. That’s our future, shining bright,” said Assembly Speaker Anthony Rendon, D-Paramount.
The victories will give Democrats numbers well beyond the two-thirds threshold needed to approve tax increases or place constitutional amendments on the ballot without Republican votes. It remains unclear whether the Democratic caucus will, as it has in the past, include enough centrists to block liberal proposals opposed by business groups.
Chris Tapio, political consultant for moderate Democrats, said centrist candidates in California had a strong showing. Tapio claimed victories in four legislative races and said Sacramento will soon host more moderates than ever before.
“We were successful in keeping the Berniecrats and Democratic Socialists out of the Legislature entirely,” he said. “The Democrats that were elected in this huge wave are more your typical, mainstream Democrat views. Progressive: no doubt; but I wouldn’t say radical.”
Steve Maviglio, Democratic political consultant, said the historic number of Democrats will make it easier for the liberal wing of the party to pass bills without support from moderates. “There’s gonna be more progressives than ever. Two-thirds is not the holy grail. … The sheer number to get 41 votes is what it’s all about, and now it’s easier for the progressives to get there.”
Still, Maviglio cautioned against lumping lawmakers into ideological baskets.
“The Legislature is very much a member-by-member, personality-driven body,” he said. “You have to be effective in doing that to get votes.”
Because there’s no official legislative caucus for moderate Democrats, there’s not a precise number of them. While Tapio is unsure whether there will be enough centrists in the Capitol to quash a bill, he is confident the party will remain intact. “Despite the internal struggles that we have, we are still a pretty united party and share a common vision for the future.”
In a news conference after the election, Gov. Jerry Brown told reporters he doubts the supermajorities in the Assembly and Senate will affect significant policy issues.
“I think the chances of getting the Legislature to vote by two-thirds on new taxes are very, very limited and unlikely,” Brown said. “The fact is it’s a simple formula: The more Democrats win legislative seats, the more conservative are the ones who win. The caucus takes into itself more conservative-thinking people.”
Kevin Liao, spokesman for Rendon, said lawmakers have “no plans at this point on any tax increases.” He said Democrats will continue to work with Republican colleagues, just as they have in the past.
Senate Minority Leader Patricia Bates, R-Laguna Niguel, was not immediately available for comment. She is expected to win her re-election bid, though the Associated Press has yet to officially declare her the winner.
Assemblywoman Marie Waldron, R-Escondido, who was recently selected to lead Assembly Republicans, was not immediately available for comment either. But in a Nov. 7 news release announcing her leadership position, Waldron called for “an aggressive, new approach” to address “why our party continues to decline.”
Democrats were widely expected to gain ground in the Legislature, dominate statewide races and pick up a few Republican-held House seats, but a blue wave of this magnitude came as a surprise to many political leaders.
Former Republican Assembly leader Kristin Olsen said after the midterms the party is beyond repair, going so far as to call Republicans “dead” and “not salvageable at this point in time.” GOP political consultant Mike Madrid said his party’s best path forward is for a splintering of the moderate and progressive wings of the Democratic Party.
Editor’s Note: Previous versions of the story did not reference the brief 2012 period in which Democrats held 29 seats in the Senate before two senators resigned to take seats in the U.S. House of Representatives in January 2013. No votes on bills were taken during that period.