The California Influencer Series

What to watch for in the midterms: California leaders assess what’s at stake

A Los Angeles voter casts a lonely ballot last November. California’s turnout in the 2014 general election was a record low.
A Los Angeles voter casts a lonely ballot last November. California’s turnout in the 2014 general election was a record low. Associated Press file

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The California Influencers Series

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For months, we have asked the California Influencers, a group of policy and political experts, to identify the most important item on this November’s ballot.

A few mention the campaign for governor between Democrat Gavin Newsom and Republican John Cox. Others bring up the battle over Proposition 6, which would repeal a portion of the state’s gas tax, or the contest for State Superintendent of Public Instruction.

But in steadily increasing numbers, the Influencers point most frequently to what’s at stake in the several competitive California congressional races that experts in both parties believe could determine control of the U.S. House of Representatives.

“We’ll see whether or not the midterms are a referendum on the Republican Party in the age of Trump,” said Los Angeles radio host Madeleine Brand. “If the Republicans prevail, they will have a green light to pursue policies the president wants, (like) more tax cuts, a continued crackdown on undocumented immigrants and a loosening of environmental laws.”

Not surprisingly, Influencers disagreed on whether that outcome would be a good or a bad thing.

“Much of the direction California wants to take … is threatened by an overreaching federal government that is tilting in the other direction,” said Manuel Pastor, director of USC’s Program for Environmental and Regional Equity. “For California to thrive, the power of the current administration needs to be checked – and the House will be the institution to do it.”

“If the Democrats take the House, we can expect two years of solid gridlock,” countered Jon Coupal, president of the Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Association. “Republican control … would not mean that Democrats would be shut out of the process entirely as Republicans would still not have a filibuster-proof majority in the Senate. But it might mean we could start putting the rancor and hostility behind us and actually make progress – with compromises – in key policy areas.”

Another state race that drew considerable attention from the Influencers was the campaign for state insurance commissioner, not because of the office itself but because of the possibility of California electing its first statewide candidate who is registered as neither a Democrat or Republican.

“If Steve Poizner wins, he’ll be the first independent to succeed at being elected statewide and that could be an important playbook for the next decade in a state that appears it won’t elect Republicans to statewide offices,” said Republican consultant Rob Stutzman, who served as a senior adviser to former Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger.

“At a time when voters all across the country are expressing a dissatisfaction with partisan politics on both sides of the aisle, this one little race for insurance commissioner could be the most important of them all,” added Chad Peace, founder and president of IVC Media and strategist for the Independent Voter Project.

Many Influencers also cited the level of voter turnout as an especially critical indicator of the state’s political attitudes.

“The most important election ‘result’ is really voter turnout rates,” said Renata Simril, president and CEO of the LA84 Foundation. “If we can’t get people to engage in this environment and to care about important issues when so much is at stake, then democracy has bigger problems than a single election result, no matter how much the candidates and their backers spend.”

Others pointed to the levels of participation within specific voter groups as being of particular significance.

“The results of voter turnout among women, Latinos, and young people will be important,” said Larisa Cespedes, chair of the Hispanas Organized for Political Equality leadership training group and partner at the lobbying firm of Lang, Hansen, O’Malley and Miller.

“These voters will determine the composition of the California delegation in the House and will have a far-reaching impact through the 2020 general election.”

“The most important election result will be understanding how college-educated Republican women will vote,” said GOP strategist Mike Madrid, principal for the Grassroots Lab consulting group. “Their decisions will determine the fate of Congress as well as the future direction of the Republican Party.”

“The generation of Californians who will embody our future are deeply dissatisfied,” added California Endowment Senior Vice President Daniel Zingale. “If turnout continues to be unequal and low, it may indicate dissatisfaction slipping into powerlessness and despair. … But if the electorate this time does turn out to be more diverse and more equally representative of eligible Californians, that will be good news for all of us who love democracy and share a stake in its future.”

Election administration and voting advocate Astrid Ochoa pointed to structural reforms that were designed to increase turnout.

“Voter participation results will also be important indicators for the effectiveness of recent election reforms,” said Ochao, who cited same day voter registration and expanded options for early voting in Sacramento and several other counties. Ochoa also pointed voters to nonpartisan online voter information websites such as

And Cassandra Pye, president of the California Women Lead advocacy organization and founder and CEO of 3.14 Communications, summarized the importance of voter turnout by quoting Senator Dianne Feinstein from a recent candidate forum.

“You can march. You can talk all night. It doesn’t change anything,” Pye recalled Feinstein saying. “What changes things are elections.”

Dan Schnur, a veteran analyst and longtime participant in California politics, is director of the California Influencers series for McClatchy.