Expecting low turnout, California Democrats sharpen the focus

Doug Ose holds a rally at Rancho Cordova City Hall on Oct. 26  in Rancho Cordova. He is battling Rep. Ami Bera, D-Elk Grove.
Doug Ose holds a rally at Rancho Cordova City Hall on Oct. 26 in Rancho Cordova. He is battling Rep. Ami Bera, D-Elk Grove. rpench@sacbee.com

Four years ago, Republican then-Rep. Dan Lungren bested Democrat Ami Bera by 75 votes in a precinct covering the Arden Arcade area of Sacramento County. Two years later, Bera won the precinct by 66 votes on his way to unseating the veteran politician.

In 2010, Lungren finished 62 votes ahead of his challenger in a precinct along Coloma Road in Rancho Cordova. In 2012, Bera captured it by 7 votes. The trend held up across the redrawn congressional district, with Bera winning precincts he had narrowly lost in the previous cycle.

The shifts represent the challenges confronting Democratic incumbents Tuesday in the midterm election, which has no presidential contest on the ballot to draw those who vote infrequently to the polls.

Facing a challenge by former GOP Rep. Doug Ose in one of the country’s most expensive and closely watched races, Bera must turn out voters much as he did in 2012 to avoid being the first California House incumbent from his party to lose to a Republican in 20 years.

Statewide turnout could come in below levels registered in 2010, the last non-presidential election, a model that traditionally favors Republicans. Given the scarcity of competitive statewide races, no contest for the U.S. Senate and few ballot measures that excite casual voters, elections experts and pollsters anticipate high levels of apathy.

“The factors are in play to predict a low turnout,” said Mindy Romero, director of the California Civic Engagement Project at UC Davis. “The question is just how low and whether we’ll see a record.”

Anticipating the headwinds, Democrats in targeted congressional and state legislative races are mobilizing voters they think will move the needle in their favor. Rallying canvassers in Carmichael recently, Bera said his 2012 field operation was the largest and most active in the nation. This year, the campaign solicited pledges from 5,000 voters, knocked on 250,000 doors and made more than 470,000 calls as of Friday.

“Let me tell you why I am confident we are going to win this election despite all the money they are throwing at us,” Bera said, pointing to the outside group founded by Republican operative Karl Rove. “We are going to win because we are ahead of 2012.”

The California Democratic Party, which during the last cycle spent more than $3.4 million on congressional races, this year has spent more than $6 million. With more than 70 field offices, the party registered roughly 5 million door knocks and telephone dials and sent 3.5 million mailers into congressional districts. Among candidates benefiting are Bera and Reps. Scott Peters of San Diego, Julia Brownley of Valley Village and Raul Ruiz of Palm Desert.

The get-out-the-vote effort – the state party’s largest ever in a gubernatorial election – also extends to overlapping legislative contests. Party spending on the legislative side has exceeded $8 million, spokesman Tenoch Flores said. “Turnout during a midterm election is never equal to a presidential, and that’s why we need to redouble our effort to really get Democrats to the polls,” he said.

Seeing the opportunity to make midterm gains this year, Republicans also are aggressively working to get their voters to the polls. They are playing an offensive game, seeking to increase the number of legislative and congressional seats they hold. The California Republican Party has enlisted thousands of volunteers to knock on tens of thousands of doors and make hundreds of thousands of calls.

The party has amassed 70 million of what it calls “voter data points” – instances in which voters say they support a candidate, express interest in volunteering, agree to put up a yard sign or give money, spokeswoman Kaitlyn MacGregor said.

Bolstered by the presence of President Barack Obama, statewide turnout reached 72 percent of registered voters in 2012, when Democrats gained four House seats and won two-thirds supermajorities in the statehouse. Though the most optimistic projections show a steep drop-off, Democratic pollster Ben Tulchin said several factors work in their favor. The top-of-the-ticket race in which Gov. Jerry Brown holds a comfortable lead over Republican Neel Kashkari may not help Democrats. But Kashkari’s poor resources and low profile, he said, also won’t do much to rally Republican voters.

Central to Democrats’ prospects is a voter-registration drive that swelled the party’s voter rolls by more than 68,000 voters in five Assembly districts, according to statewide breakdowns provided by Political Data Inc. Democrats are trying to protect incumbents Steve Fox of Palmdale, Sharon Quirk-Silva of Fullerton, Al Muratsuchi of Torrance and Rudy Salas of Bakersfield. They are also trying to wrest a seat from Republicans in Ventura County.

On the state Senate side, a parallel effort registered more than 24,000 new voters in the 14th district, the Fresno-area seat where Democrat Luis Chavez is challenging Republican Sen. Andy Vidak of Hanford. Democrats added 18,700 new voters in the 34th district, a seat being vacated by Sen. Lou Correa, D-Santa Ana, where GOP county Supervisor Janet Nguyen is taking on former Democratic Assemblyman Jose Solorio.

The newly minted voters mostly registered to cast ballots by mail, making it easier for the party and campaigns to ensure they actually vote. Democrats paired the registration effort with seminars on the technical aspects of voting, appearing at house parties with laminated versions of what ballots would look like and offering tips on how to navigate the process.

Both parties are working to energize their voters with messages they think will encourage more participation.

Republicans are criticizing Democrats for rolling back Proposition 13, imposing what they describe as a new gas tax and supporting the proposed high-speed rail system.

Democrats and their allies are yoking their opponents to the tea party and accusing them of opposing health care legislation, paid sick leave, domestic violence protection and tax credits.

They also are delivering messages designed to dampen enthusiasm on the other side and keep their own supporters from straying.

In a Spanish-language TV ad for Nguyen, a young Latino woman tells the camera that Solorio is no Correa. He “has forgotten his roots and his people,” she says, and “doesn’t deserve our vote.” In another Southern California district Republicans are hoping to capture, GOP Senate candidate Mario Guerra’s supporters are saying his opponent, former Democratic Assemblyman Tony Mendoza, “acts a lot like indicted politician Ron Calderon.”

On the Democratic side, Solorio charges that Nguyen voted to use a “loophole” to get around Proposition 13 protections and noting that she was fined by the state’s political ethics watchdog. And an outside group is using political jiu jitsu to back Muratsuchi. Their videos and fliers aimed at Democratic voters masquerade as ads supporting David Hadley, painting him as a proud tea party Republican who is a hero of the oil industry.

Exceedingly low turnout, however, could sink even the most adroit campaigns. John Nienstedt, president of Competitive Edge Research and Communication, a San Diego polling firm, said if current trends hold, statewide turnout will hit between 47 percent and 50 percent of registered voters.

“You can run the best campaign, but if the environment is crappy for you, you can’t get over that,” he said.

Ose’s campaign isn’t discussing its ground game, other than to say the effort exceeds those of past area campaigns and that the team is confident they are doing what it takes to win. Newly registered voters in the 7th District, who would tend to favor Bera, were far fewer than in 2012 and even fewer than in 2010.

At a recent campaign stop in Rancho Cordova, Ose talked about contrasts he is drawing at doorsteps, mentioning his support for lower taxes, fewer regulations and repealing the health care overhaul. He compared Bera to Obama and House Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi.

“We are going to stand in the street and, if necessary, brawl,” Ose said at the event. “We are not going to back down or back up from what we think this country needs to do and the direction we need to go.”

Bera continued walking precincts, talking about his efforts to expand health care access, improve the economy and the promises the congressman said he has delivered on since unseating Lungren.

“You’re going to hear people say, ‘Oh, you know what, people aren’t going to vote,’” he told supporters in Carmichael. “This is an election where a lot of people we are seeing are voting because they know what’s at stake.”

Call Christopher Cadelago, Bee Capitol Bureau, (916) 326-5538. Follow him on Twitter @ccadelago. Jim Miller of The Bee Capitol Bureau contributed to this report.

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