Dan Walters

Opinion: Low-voting election sets new pattern

This week’s election may be establishing a new pattern in California politics that could exacerbate the state’s already high level of polarization.

Two years ago, with a then-popular Barack Obama at the top of their ticket and a high turnout of their voters, Democrats rang up victories up and down the political pecking order.

This year, with Obama’s popularity down sharply and a record-low voter turnout, Republicans recouped. They picked up legislative and congressional seats and did surprisingly well in statewide races despite an almost total lack of campaign financing.

Obama’s fall from political grace hurt Democrats and also contributed to abysmally low voter turnout, especially among Democrats, that sharply narrowed the partisan voter gap.

We won’t know the final turnout percentage for weeks, but on Election Day scarcely 5 million votes were counted. It’s quite possible that when the count is complete, it could be something below 40 percent, more than 10 points lower than the previous record.

Were the pattern to become ingrained, we could see Democrats scoring big in presidential years and Republicans rebounding in non-presidential years – perhaps even enough to actually capture a statewide office, something they haven’t done since 2006.

Meanwhile, California’s politicians are digesting what the voters wrought this week.

Democratic legislative leaders must be embarrassed that despite having tremendous advantage in campaign funds, they lost enough seats to Republicans to erase the “supermajorities” that Democrats won in 2012.

That’s a big win for Jim Brulte, the former legislator who was elected state GOP chairman in hopes that he could restore the party’s much-diminished standing.

Brulte had made the supermajorities his prime target for spending very limited campaign funds.

The change will have more to do with bragging rights than practical impact. But it does mean that hopes of many Democrats and unions for extending the temporary tax increases enacted by voters in 2012 will not be realized in the Legislature. Instead, they will have to spend millions to put the tax extensions on the ballot in 2016.

Speaking of which, the new legislative and congressional seats that Republicans won this week will be at risk in 2016, when presidential politics will drive voter turnout upward by as much as 30 percentage points.

It’s also quite possible that California will have a serious U.S. Senate contest that year.

With Republicans capturing the Senate, Sen. Barbara Boxer’s hints about retiring may become real.

A Boxer retirement could set off a feeding frenzy among ambitious Democratic politicians such as Attorney General Kamala Harris and Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom, and might even encourage Republicans to take a serious shot.

Call The Bee’s Dan Walters, (916) 321-1195. Back columns, sacbee.com/dan-walters. Follow him on Twitter @WaltersBee.