For the first time in a long time, California matters.
Long ignored on the national political stage as a solid blue state, the Golden State has watched neighbors like Nevada draw all the attention for years as the pivotal battlegrounds for the nation’s electoral fortunes. But this November, the fate of the Democrats’ much-hyped blue wave could crest in California, turning the tide on President Trump and Republicans in the battle for Congress.
It’s one of the biggest stories of the mid-term elections, and one that — along with contests for governor and U.S. Senator to battles over rent control and taxes — makes 2018 a marquee year for California politics. Here’s a look at some of the biggest showdowns on Nov. 6.
Will a blue wave carry California Democrats to Congress?
Sorry, Bay Area — California’s most crucial and competitive political races this year won’t be on your ballot. The most impactful elections in the state are the races for a swath of Republican-held congressional districts in the Central Valley and Southern California suburbs, where Democrats are making a big play and a half-dozen different races are considered among the most competitive in the country. Democrats need to flip 23 seats nationally to take control of the House, and California could provide the deciding wins. So far, the Democratic candidates have led in fundraising and most polls have predicted close races.
Democratic victories would show how quickly some longtime Republican strongholds like Orange County are changing, both politically and demographically. It’s possible that California’s 14 Republican members of Congress could be knocked down to single digits in the state’s 53-person House of Representatives delegation. That hasn’t happened since 1947 — back when the state only had 23 seats.
Can Dianne Feinstein be dethroned?
As Sen. Dianne Feinstein bids for a fifth full term, former State Senate leader Kevin de León is offering her a spirited challenge from the left. De León, who championed policies like single-payer health care, a “sanctuary state” law, and a 100 percent clean energy mandate, is hoping to tap into worries among some liberals that Feinstein has been a weak bulwark against the Trump administration. But he’s lagged in the polls and fundraising so far. If she wins and serves at least four more years, Feinstein — who at 85 is already the oldest member of the Senate — would become the longest-serving California senator in history.
One wild card in the Democrat-on-Democrat race is Republican and independent voters. Feinstein is clearly the more moderate choice, yet many GOP voters are incensed over what they consider her attempt to derail Supreme Court justice Brett Kavanaugh’s confirmation and could be inspired to send her a message by backing her rival. Many Republicans plan to sit out the race completely: Just over half of GOP likely voters and a fourth of independents said in one recent poll that they would leave their Senate ballot blank.
Can Gavin Newsom win a big mandate in governor’s race?
As Gov. Jerry Brown exits the political stage after 16 years in California’s top job, Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom is in a strong position to replace him. Several recent polls put Newsom double digits ahead of his Republican rival, San Diego County businessman John Cox. But Cox has tried to gain ground by focusing on California’s affordability crisis, from its sky-high housing costs to growing levels of homelessness, and painting Newsom, the former San Francisco mayor, as part of the political establishment that failed to fix those ills. Newsom has focused his general election campaign not on attacking Cox but on traveling the state to boost other Democrats, including the congressional hopefuls.
Barring any October surprises or a major upset, Newsom will be looking to claim a mandate for some of his ambitious and liberal policies, including a move to a single-payer health care system, more funding for education, and efforts to fight childhood poverty. Brown’s successor seems likely to lack his domineering influence in Sacramento — so racking up a big win could help Newsom show his political muscle.
Can anti-tax activists pull off the gas tax repeal?
One of the most high-profile ballot measures this year has been Proposition 6, repealing the state’s recently-hiked gas tax, which jumped 12 cents per gallon to help fund $5 billion in road repairs and public transit improvements. Small government activists and Republican elected officials have championed the repeal proposition, while construction and business groups have spent millions to oppose it. Brown, who backed the tax increase, could also step in to defend it with his $14 million warchest.
Republican strategists hoped that getting the repeal on the November ballot would help boost GOP voters’ turnout and protect the party’s vulnerable members of Congress. But the proposition itself has struggled to gain traction since the primary. One big hurdle is the ballot language describing the measure — written by Democratic Attorney General Xavier Becerra — which talks about eliminating “funding” for road repairs instead of more clearly stating that the tax would be repealed. A September poll found that only 39 percent of Californians backed Prop 6, even though 50 percent said they favored repealing the gas tax hike.
Will the housing crisis propel the proposition to expand rent control?
As Californians struggle with some of the highest housing costs in the nation, one ballot measure is aiming for a fix. Proposition 10 would repeal a decades-old law known as Costa-Hawkins, which restricts rent control on single-family homes and many newer apartments in cities around California. Supporters say trashing the law would let localities expand the most effective tool for making housing more affordable. But opponents argue that it would tie the hands of developers and end up stifling critically needed housing construction across the state.
The measure, which has been bankrolled by the AIDS Healthcare Foundation and Los Angeles activist Michael Weinstein, is facing headwinds: Several recent polls found it trailing, even though voters like the idea of rent control in general. Business groups, landlords and developers have spent big against it, as well as pharmaceutical companies annoyed by Weinstein’s previous ballot initiatives. The issue has also divided the state’s top politicians, with Newsom arguing against the proposition and Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti strongly backing it.
Will first-time candidates reshape California’s political makeup?
The state’s House races pit Democratic political newcomers against seasoned Republican veterans: None of the Democrats running in the state’s most competitive GOP-held congressional contests have ever served in public office, and all but one are on the ballot for the very first time, while their Republican opponents are either incumbents or have previously been elected to state office.
If they win, the crop of green politicos vow to bring a new perspective to Washington, D.C. But while most agree on liberal priorities like single-payer health care, they’re hardly homogeneous. From Harley Rouda, a businessman and former Republican, to Katie Porter, a law professor and protégé of Sen. Elizabeth Warren, “these folks are running in different directions,” said Claremont McKenna politics professor Jack Pitney. “The interesting question is, if the wave indeed comes in and if these folks are elected, what are they going to do?”
Can an indicted Republican win re-election?
Running for re-election in a suburban San Diego district that’s among the most Republican in the state, GOP Rep. Duncan Hunter seemed on paper to be one of California’s safest Republicans. But that changed when he was indicted in August for misuse of campaign funds. The charges, which Hunter denies, accuse him of using donors’ money as a personal piggy bank, bankrolling new clothes, video games, vacations and even travel for his pet rabbit. Court documents have also included damaging revelations like Hunter and his wife disparaging military officials.
Since the indictment, Hunter has run a scorched-earth and racially-charged campaign against his Democratic opponent, former Obama administration staffer Ammar Campa-Najjar. In scathing attack ads, Hunter has portrayed Campa-Najjar, who is part Palestinian, as a “security risk” with ties to “Muslim extremists.” Campa-Najjar’s grandfather was involved in the Munich terrorist attack of 1972, but the candidate (who is Christian) has repeatedly denounced his relative who died 16 years before he was born. Campa-Najjar also passed an FBI background check while working in the federal government, and notes that Hunter would likely fail such a check after his indictment. So far, Campa-Najjar has outraised Hunter by more than 10 times in the latest fundraising report, and several polls have shown a close race.
Can charter school advocates push one of their own into the state superintendent office?
One of the most expensive races on the ballot in California this year has been the contest for state superintendent of public instruction, which pits Oakland Assemblyman Tony Thurmond against Marshall Tuck, the former president of a charter school chain. Tuck, who ran in 2014 and lost by only a few percentage points, has received huge backing from charter school advocates, while state teachers unions have poured money into independent ads backing Thurmond.
The proxy war — with a total of $40 million spent so far — could have an impact on students around the state. Tuck wants to expand charter schools and enact limits on teacher tenure, while Thurmond has voiced skepticism about how effective charters have been and is calling for a pause on new charter schools opening.
Will California elect its first independent statewide elected official?
Insurance commissioner might not be the most high-profile job on the ballot this year. But Steve Poizner, who served one term as commissioner from 2007 to 2011 and wants to return to his old job, could make history as the first independent statewide official elected in California. A former Republican, Poizner ditched his party this year, and argues that the job deserves a nonpartisan leader.
So far, he’s led the few polls of the race, which pits him against State Sen. Ricardo Lara, a liberal from San Diego known for his advocacy for single-payer health care and immigrant rights. Lara has tried to poke holes in Poizner’s independent image, noting the candidate’s hard-right turn when he ran for governor in 2010. If Poizner’s bid is successful, he could inspire other GOP elected officials in California to jump ship and run without a party label — especially as the percentage of registered Republican voters in the state continues to tumble. As of September, there are 429,000 more independents than Republicans in the state.
Will a tumultuous political year spur Golden State voters to turn out?
California has struggled with dismal turnout numbers in recent midterm years, with a record low of 42 percent of registered voters casting their ballots in 2014. Some political observers think that trend could change this year, as Californians are spurred by antagonism to the Trump administration and a desire to shape the makeup of Congress.
One of the biggest questions going into the competitive races is the enthusiasm gap: Earlier this year, polls showed that Democrats were far more eager to vote than Republicans, both in California and across the country. But that gulf has seemed to narrow in the wake of the debate over Kavanaugh’s nomination, which raised the ire of many GOP voters. Both sides have invested in get-out-the-vote operations, and especially in the closest Congressional races, a couple percentage points could make all the difference.