Despite faltering in every contest for statewide office, California Republicans appear to have attained their objectives in the general election Tuesday, depriving Democrats of supermajorities in both houses of the Legislature and chipping away at their numbers in the U.S. House of Representatives.
For the first time since 1994, Republicans unseated Democratic incumbents in the statehouse. The party is also poised for the first time in two decades to oust one or more sitting Democratic members of Congress. One of them could be in a Sacramento County swing district, where former Republican Rep. Doug Ose leads Democratic Rep. Ami Bera in a race still too close to call.
Democrats are also waiting for vote-counting to determine whether they keep congressional seats in San Diego, Fresno and Ventura County.
California GOP Chairman Jim Brulte largely avoided the more compelling but costly offices for governor, attorney general and state controller, allowing the party to focus its resources on reclaiming some of the legislative seats it lost in 2012. After fielding a more diverse set of candidates in the close races, the election put the party on the brink of gaining three or four seats in the Assembly and one in the Senate.
Brulte said the victories should give pause to Democrats who campaign as pragmatists and then don’t consistently operate as such once they are elected.
“Democrats who come up here, and tell the people in their district that they are moderate, and then vote the liberal agenda, they are going to have to think twice – because three of them were taken out (Tuesday),” Brulte said.
Supermajorities secured by Democrats two years ago – for the first time in more than a century – empowered them to raise taxes, place constitutional amendments on the ballot and alter campaign finance laws without getting support from Republicans. While they scarcely used those abilities in the 2013-14 session, Republicans can again begin exercising leverage during policy debates. Analysts said the victories may also send a message to the party’s fatigued donors.
“They showed that they are not dead yet and are capable of winning territory that had been in Democratic hands,” said Jack Pitney, a government professor at Claremont McKenna College. “They can now point to some victories, and they can plausibly say that they are on the road to political recovery.”
The election results pave the way for perhaps the most diverse Republican caucuses ever in either house of the Legislature. Taking their seats will be Janet Nguyen, who is Vietnamese American, Young Kim, a Korean American, and Ling Ling Chang, who is Chinese American.
“The candidate who most looks like, sounds like, and has the shared values and experience of the majority of people in their neighborhoods tends to win,” Brulte said. “Our legislative and congressional leaders did a great job recruiting candidates who reflect the districts in which they were running.”
Democrats blamed the losses on exceedingly low voter turnout and being spread too thin.
John Burton, chairman of the California Democratic Party, said the congressional seats may fall to the “Obama sweep that just went throughout the country.” At the legislative level, he said, Democrats were bound to cede some gains from last cycle, including in historically GOP Orange County and in the Antelope Valley.
“The Democrats had an embarrassment of riches,” Burton said, noting that the party’s lawmakers need only a simply majority to approve a state budget. “Both the speaker and pro tem and I knew that it was a very uphill battle trying to hold onto all of those gains we made because we just had so many of them.”
Assembly Speaker Toni Atkins, D-San Diego, said the party was pleased with its efforts to register new voters as well as the financial resources it committed. However, she said, it “can’t force people to vote.”
“We’re incredibly disappointed. Are we shocked beyond belief? No,” Atkins said. “We had a range of possibility, and this is our worst-case scenario.”
On Tuesday, two vulnerable freshmen, Steve Fox of Palmdale and Sharon Quirk-Silva of Fullerton, lost their seats by wide margins. While Democrat Jacqui Irwin is leading Republican Rob McCoy in the Ventura County seat being vacated by GOP Assemblyman Jeff Gorell, Assemblyman Al Muratsuchi, D-Torrance, trails his GOP opponent, David Hadley, by about 2,300 votes.
On Wednesday, Democrat Tim Sbranti conceded to Republican Catharine Baker. An attorney, she gives the GOP its first Bay Area presence since 2008, when Guy Houston held a previous version of the district that stretched from Contra Costa into Sacramento County.
Assemblywoman Kristin Olsen, the incoming Assembly GOP leader, expects her caucus to gain three seats, bringing its numbers to 28 in the 80-member house.
“The numbers look strong. We’ll be having people on the ground in those races as the vote count continues,” she said. “But it looks like it’s a healthy enough margin that we’re going to have a net gain of three.”
“We’re in significant minority status,” Olsen acknowledged. “Now, we have to take the responsibility the voters gave us to work across the aisle, to work with Democrats and Republicans alike, and be solution-focused and drive results for all Californians.”
Republican Party committees poured money into legislative contests leading up to Tuesday’s election. Central to their effort was Republican activist Charles Munger Jr., whose Spirit of Democracy committee spent $3.9 million in legislative races in addition to his personal giving.
In the Senate, Republicans captured two contested contests. Nguyen, an Orange County supervisor, vanquished former Democratic Assemblyman Democrat Jose Solorio. Andy Vidak, R-Hanford, successfully fended off Democrat Luis Chavez to keep a seat he first won in a close special election last year.
Incoming Senate President Pro Tem Kevin de León praised what he characterized as his party’s state-of-the-art campaign that returned an overwhelming Democratic majority to the Senate and successfully beat back Republican attacks on Democratic Senate candidate Tony Mendoza, a former assemblyman.
“Even in California, however, national turnout trends took a toll,” de León said. “In a handful of districts where Democrats began at a deep mathematical disadvantage, record low turnout essentially counterbalanced powerful ground campaigns and unprecedented registration and turnout programs.”
California Democrats were coming off a gain of four seats in the House in 2012. In the close congressional contests, Bera trails Ose by about 3,000 votes with tens of thousands of ballots left to be counted. Democratic Reps. Scott Peters and Jim Costa have fallen behind Republicans Carl DeMaio of San Diego and Johnny Tacherra of Burrel, and Julia Brownley is clinging to a slim advantage over Gorell.
Ose anticipates having a final result on Saturday, while Bera said Wednesday that he’s “confident we will again come out on top once all the votes are counted.”
Assessing the GOP’s showing, Pitney said losses demonstrate how much work the party must still do to recover. In most states, he said, being shut out of all statewide offices since 2006 but preventing lopsided gains in the House and Legislature wouldn’t be reason to celebrate.
But, he said, Republicans may be operating on the premise of a 1966 novel’s title: “Been down so long it looks like up to me.”
Call Christopher Cadelago, Bee Capitol Bureau, (916) 326-5538. Follow him on Twitter @ccadelago