Bill Whalen

What’s in store for California politics over next three decades?

Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., joins Sen. Dean Heller, R-Nev., and other Senate Republicans, last month at the annual Lake Tahoe Summit to preserve the lake and protect old-growth forests from wildfire threats.
Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., joins Sen. Dean Heller, R-Nev., and other Senate Republicans, last month at the annual Lake Tahoe Summit to preserve the lake and protect old-growth forests from wildfire threats. The Associated Press

With California celebrating 165 years of statehood this week, what better time to ponder where America’s nation-state will be in 2050, with 200 candles on the birthday cake.

What the experts tell us to expect: a California that’s more congested (another 12 million souls), more diverse (Hispanics expected to account for 47.6 percent of the population, compared to 38 percent today), with a receding coastline (rising tides lift all boats – and wash away beaches).

As for California’s political leadership: given that we replace governors like clockwork every eight years, there’s every reason to expect one of Gavin Newsom’s kids – or, a grandniece or nephew of Jerry Brown’s – on the ballot in 2050.

And California’s United States senators?

That depends on what Dianne Feinstein has up her sleeve.

Last week, word got out that California’s senior U.S. senator had mailed invites to a late September fundraiser in the nation’s capital, suggesting that she’s amenable to a re-election bid in 2018. (At 82, Feinstein already is America’s oldest U.S. senator.)

How does this pertain to 2050? If Feinstein is re-elected and serves until 2024, that’s 32 years for her in the chamber – supplanting the great Hiram Johnson as California’s longest-serving senator. Likewise, Barbara Boxer would have been looking at 30 years in the Senate had she decided to run for re-election next year.

Unless Californians suddenly grow tired of rubberstamping their senators – or, better yet, the state GOP starts running more competitive candidates – the Democrat who gets Feinstein’s seat in 2024 (if not earlier) could still be hanging around when the 2050 bicentennial arrives. That may also apply to Boxer’s successor. State Attorney General Kamala Harris, the favorite to win next year’s Senate contest, would be a youthful 86 in 2050.

The question is: what will those senators be doing for California in the time between Feinstein’s and Boxer’s retirement and the state’s bicentennial?

Earlier this summer, the House of Representatives voted (along party lines) to deprive America’s “sanctuary cities” of Justice Department grants in retaliation for harboring illegal immigrants. That puts California’s metropolises in the GOP Congress’ crosshairs. Meanwhile, at least two Republican presidential contenders – New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie and Florida Sen. Marco Rubio – vow to enforce federal drugs laws, if elected. That too targets California, which may or may not legalize pot next year.

Such is the challenge facing Feinstein’s and Boxer’s successors: defending California’s blue-state tendencies against a Republican Congress – and maybe future GOP presidents – possessing a red-state mentality.

This may not be much of a problem for California in the immediate future, thanks to the nation’s taste for divided government. Fourteen months before the 2016 election, the presidency can go either way; the House seems solidly Republican. But the GOP Senate, with Republicans defending 24 seats to only 10 for Democrats, could flip. It happened in the midterm elections of 2006 and 2014 – and it may again in 2018, should a new Democratic majority have to protect 25 seats to just eight for the Republicans.

But what if Washington ends up under absolute GOP control, as it was from 2001 to 2007? Feinstein’s successor will have to be a lot like ... well, DiFi herself in paddling left and paddling right, as Gov. Brown is fond of saying.

Over the years, Feinstein’s shown a knack for working both sides of the aisle, be it this summer’s amendment she co-piloted with Arizona Sen. John McCain limiting the government from using any interrogation technique not specified in the Army Field Manual, co-sponsoring a bill extending the Patriot Act, or joining with Senate Republicans to preserve Lake Tahoe and protect old-growth forests from wildfire threats.

It’s not an easy act to follow. Outreach doesn’t come easily – or naturally – in these hyperpartisan times. Then again, thanks to the seeming permanency of the job, California’s next pair of senators will have two or three decades to figure how to make it work.

Bill Whalen is a Hoover Institution research fellow and former speechwriter for Gov. Pete Wilson. Contact Whalen at whalenoped@gmail.com.

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