Democrats have had an iron grip on power in California for at least the last decade; without Arnold Schwarzenegger’s celebrity governorship, it would be more like a generation. Democrats have supermajorities in both chambers of the state legislature, control all of the statewide offices, and haven’t elected a Republican to the US Senate since Pete Wilson in 1988. The Golden State has turned so blue that last year’s general election to replace Barbara Boxer featured two Democrats and no Republicans at all.
That grip on power might get threatened now, Politico reports, thanks to burgeoning sexual harassment scandals within the party. Will this give Republicans an opening for a comeback in California? (Spoiler: Naaah.)
Scandal-induced resignations will cost California’s Democratic Party its supermajority in the state Legislature at least temporarily next year, and the fallout is spilling into the 2018 elections. It’s scrambling calculations for some of the state’s most powerful politicians in Sacramento, and even House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi was caught in the fray when she defended now former-Rep. John Conyers last month as an “icon.”
“We’re in unchartered territory here,” said Garry South, a veteran Democratic strategist who advised former California Gov. Gray Davis. “This whole issue has hit a critical mass in a very short time. I’ve never seen anything like it before — and I don’t know where it ends.”
Where it won’t end is in a bounceback for the GOP, but we’ll get to that in a moment. Just how bad is this scandal, anyway? Bad enough for some progressive activists to claim that the Democrats are hiding rapists and molesters among their leaders:
Among those who have been outspoken in their demands for more action is Christine Pelosi, chairwoman of the California Democratic Party Women’s Caucus and Nancy Pelosi’s daughter, who told lawmakers at the start of an Assembly hearing last month, “We have rapists in this building. We have molesters among us.” …
“It’s kind of a snowball effect, and every week seems to bring a new powerful man who is brought down by these accusations,” said Jessica Levinson, a Los Angeles-based political analyst. “And I don’t feel that we’ve totally cleaned house- and all the accusations are made and everybody else who remains in power has never conducted themselves in an inappropriate way before.”
The political environment in California appears similar to what we’ve seen nationally, only with perhaps even greater intensity. As alleged victims come forward and get a respectful hearing, others feel more comfortable in coming forward, too. It’s taken decades for the lid to come off, so this will continue to intensify as those claims emerge. Since the accountability structures in the California legislature for abuse are similar to that of Congress — which is to say next to nothing — there may be a whole lot of abuses left to uncover. And since Democrats have had Sacramento mainly to themselves for the last few decades, the abusers will overwhelmingly be Democrats.
Democrats have a big problem in California, legally and politically. What they almost certainly don’t have is an electoral problem. For most of these districts, the option for voters dealing with a scandal-plagued Democratic incumbent will be another Democrat, not a Republican. There may be a few politicians in battleground districts where the GOP might find a competitive challenger, but those districts are few and far between in California. The damage might be more noticeable in statewide elections, but it would take a tremendous amount of damage to translate into electoral success.
The results of the 2016 primary for the Senate seat won by Kamala Harris provides us a clear window into the California GOP’s prospects. California uses a so-called “nonpartisan blanket primary” in which all candidates regardless of party affiliation compete. The top vote-getting Republican in that primary was former state party chair George “Duf” Sundheim … who got 7.8% of the vote. Democrat Loretta Sanchez got 18.9% of the vote to come in second. Sanchez raised $3.2 million and Harris raised $9.7 million for their campaigns by the time of the primary; the top five Republicans didn’t even raise $1 million combined.
California isn’t a Democratic bastion by accident or by fluke. It’s deep blue because its voters want it that way. Primarily that’s driven by the greater Los Angeles area and San Francisco-Oakland population centers, but that accounts for 2/3rds of the state’s population, too. The sexual harassment scandal will be embarrassing and potentially could end many Democrats’ political careers, but Republicans won’t get too much benefit out of it. If they want to compete in the Golden State, they need to make inroads in Democratic strongholds and convince them that decades of Democratic failure has to be countered with smaller-government policies and economic approaches that rebuild businesses in their communities. Until that happens, the GOP will remain on the sidelines in California no matter how many scandals plague the Democrats.