At the John L. Burton Democratic headquarters, California Democrats were partying like it was Election Night 2010, the year when Republicans won in every corner of the nation but in this deep blue state.
Maybe self-satisfied Democrats should have thought of 1994.
Sure, Democrats swept statewide offices for the second time in four years, and held strong majorities in the Legislature and in the congressional delegation.
But unlike other recent elections, when the GOP wave stopped on the eastern side of the Sierra, California Democrats for the first time in years felt the cold splash of defeat. Although votes remain to be counted, the ripples surely are washing back east.
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In House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi’s home state, Democrats apparently gained one seat east of Los Angeles formerly held by a Republican, but probably will lose other seats elsewhere.
No fewer than six congressional races were undecided on Wednesday. Republicans led in three and Democrats led in three. In one, Southern California first-termer Julia Brownley was ahead of her Republican challenger, Assemblyman Jeff Gorell, by a mere 530 votes.
Another Democrat, Jim Costa of Fresno, trailed by 736 votes. Costa has held legislative or congressional office since 1978, and had been on no one’s list of threatened incumbents.
In the most costly House race in the nation, Rep. Ami Bera, the freshman Democrat from Elk Grove, was in deep trouble, trailing by 3,000 votes to Republican Doug Ose.
In the state Assembly, Republicans had not defeated a Democratic incumbent since 1994, when they gained a 41-seat majority in the 80-seat lower house. That was the year in which Republican Gov. Pete Wilson won reelection against Jerry Brown’s sister, Kathleen; voters approved the anti-illegal-immigrant Proposition 187; and Newt Gingrich produced his Contract for – or on – America.
Republicans won’t gain that level of strength in California anytime soon. But on Tuesday, three Democratic Assembly members evidently lost their seats. In the Senate, Republicans gained a seat.
“It is clearly a wave election for Republicans. But you can’t catch the wave unless you’re on the board,” California GOP Chairman Jim Brulte said the morning after. “We had good candidates in the right places, candidates who reflected their districts.”
In other states, the Republican Party has money to throw around. In California, the Democratic Party is the one with the money advantage. That was evident on Tuesday night at the newly christened Democratic headquarters, a sleek two-story building at Ninth and S streets in downtown Sacramento.
Democratic politicians schmoozed at an invitation-only party for their constituents – lobbyists and the clients who keep politics in our town lubricated with money. Reporters were quarantined in the parking lot.
Brulte and his young operatives spent election night in the GOP’s leased space on the mezzanine of the Senator Hotel. No lobbyists or reporters showed up, though they would have been welcomed, Brulte said.
Democrats can blame their limp showing on low turnout. That certainly has something to do with it. But they have themselves to blame for that.
Former President Bill Clinton spent one hour on a college campus, UC Davis. Gov. Jerry Brown, who barely campaigned, did spend time on a campus, but that one was in New Haven, Conn., where he attended a Yale Law School reunion two weeks before the election.
Democratic Sens. Dianne Feinstein and Barbara Boxer, ever more distant from California and acting as if they are on the verge of retiring, rode warped hobbyhorses of the deeply flawed Propositions 45 and 46. The initiatives dealt with insider issues that don’t stir the imagination of any voters, let alone young people.
No Democrat talked in any detail about issues that are at the top of the minds for young people and their parents: jobs, the crushing cost of ever-escalating tuition, and student debt and predatory interest rates.
Brown focused on winning Proposition 1, the $7.5 billion water bond, and Proposition 2, the measure to compel a greater budget reserve. Of course, they were important, but hardly measures that drive voters to the polls.
Whether the water bond would have won without Republican support is hardly clear. Despite opposition from hard-liners, the GOP endorsed it, thanks to advocacy by Ron Nehring, the Republican candidate for lieutenant governor, and Republican Assembly Leader Kristin Olsen of the Modesto area.
Maybe 2014 was nothing more than a very bad year for Democrats. Maybe it was an aberration. But Republicans campaigned like the underdogs they were. Democrats ran like they were complacent. Or maybe the Democrats didn’t have much of anything to say to voters.
Follow Dan Morain on Twitter @DanielMorain.