A Little More Red in the Golden State: California

   For anyone interested in understanding how demographics affect election outcomes, I suggest The Big Sort by Bill Bishop.  For nowhere is this tendency more obvious than in California.  For example, of its 53 Congressional districts, 33 are rated Democratic with an average rating of 17.6 per district.  Of the 20 Republican rated districts, they are an average of 8.1 per district.  In only one of 53 districts- the 11th- does the opposition party currently hold the actual seat (and it is nominally Republican rated at that).  Of the 33 Democratic districts, thirty of them are urban.  These are the demographics that any potential statewide officeholder candidate must face.  Additionally, this is a state with a large Hispanic population.  Hispanics exceed 10% of the population in 43 of the 53 districts and they exceed 20% of the population in 36 of the 53 districts.  Conversely, blacks exceed 10% of the population in only seven districts.  Except in a very few instances, at the local level the sorting of politically like-minded people have essentially entrenched and strengthened the incumbent party.  And in California, the bulk of the population resides along the coast which has turned decidedly Democratic since the 1980s.

     So it is no wonder that Jerry Brown leads Meg Whitman in the Governor’s race this year.  Brown currently leads by an RCP average of 4.6 points and 7 points in a recent poll.  The average rating is close enough to the margin of error of most polls which keeps this race officially rated a toss-up.  In all fairness, the race has been back-and-forth in the polls and the tide may still turn.  Neither candidate has reached the 10-point lead in the polls yet just as neither candidate has hit the 50% mark.  Thus, it is obvious that neither candidate can deliver that knock out punch on their opponent and likewise, neither candidate has exactly endeared themselves to the electorate.  Under these conditions, California may just revert to that which they know and are accustomed to- the Democratic Party.  The next poll out in this race may very well be the most revealing and indicative of results on Election Day.  If Whitman is behind by 6 or more points, it would appear Brown has this race won.

     In the Senate race, the overall average is Boxer up by 2 points- clearly within any poll’s margin of error.  Except in one of 19 polls since Labor Day, Boxer has held the lead.  These pollsters are all over the political spectrum indicating consistency amongst poll findings.  Only the numbers are different.  The amount of money being spent on this race is phenomenal so each Party understands its importance to the political landscape come 2011.  Republicans should take heart in this race because Carly Fiorina has proven herself to be tough and resilient.  To stay so close for so long to so powerful a Senator as Boxer speaks volumes.  But, close is not enough this year.

     Obviously, voter turn-out will affect this race, especially in the urban areas.  In these areas, the incumbent Democrat representatives have won by large margins.  Their victory is taken for granted by the electorate at the local level.  So, in a sense, there is little incentive to turn out in large numbers in midterm elections in these staunch Democratic districts.  This would favor Fiorina.  If she wins, and thats a bif “IF” at this point, it would be by a very narrow margin.  Making sure voter fraud does not occur in these urban districts is very important.

    The question that Fiorina needs to help the voters answer is whether Barbara Boxer is too liberal for even liberal California.  The gap in polling points is not so much a movement towards Boxer as it is an erosion of Fiorina support.  She needs to attack some of Boxer’s more liberal stances in the past such as her vote against certifying Ohio’s votes in the 2004 election.  George Bush may be a dirty expression in California, but Boxer’s vote to ignore the will of voters in another state raises some eyebrows.

     Additionally, Fiorina needs to appeal to the state’s large Hispanic population.  Not the illegals who cannot vote anyway (one hopes), but the second and third generation Mexican-Americans.  She needs to appeal to their “Americanness” and link their hard working values and Roman Catholicism with the values of the Republican Party.  In a statewide race in a place like California, she even needs to leave herself open to the consideration of “comprehensive immigration reform.”  This is not necessarily an abrogation of beliefs and values.  It would be a statement of how she would legislate- honestly, open, deliberative, and independent.  If it takes a Spanish-speaking commercial, then do it.

     In the House races, all but a few races are essentially decided.  In the suburbs of Fresno in the 19th District, Republican George Radnaovich is retiring, but Jeff Denham should retain the seat in a fairly reliable Republican district- one of a handful that went for McCain in California.  Diane Watson, the Democratic incumbent in the 38th District is also retiring and would appear safe for the Democrats.  This district is one of the highest rated Democratic districts in the state that gave Obama a 75 point win margin in 2008.  Enough said here.

     Perhaps the only Republican in “jeopardy” would be Brian Bilbray in the 50th District in the northern suburbs of San Diego.  However, this district, for California, has a fairly insubstantial Hispanic population.  And while Obama was winning the district in 2008, Bilbray walked away with a double digit victory margin.  Although Biilbray will most likely win this seat again, the district bears watching in future elections.

    The most likely Republican pick-up should be in the San Joachin Valley area of the 11th District.  Although held by a Democrat, this area is nominally rated a Republican district, currently represented by Jerry McNerny.  However, Republican opponent David Harmer has a 6-point lead in the latest poll and showing momentum entering the general election despite being outspent 3-1 by McNerny.  Another interesting race to watch is in the 18th District around Modesto.  Currently held by Dennis Cardoza, his Republican opponent, Mike Berryhill, has proven himself a stubborn opponent.  In the latest poll, Berryhill trails by only six points.  Cardoza has outraised him 100-1 as Berryhill operates on a shoestring budget.  This is even more interesting because Obama won this district by 31 points in 2008 while Cardoza was running unopposed.  One of three things is happening here: either they really like Berryhill’s message, they really dislike Obama, or anti-incumbent sentiment is centered here in California.  This may be an upset in the making.

     In the 20th District, incumbent Jim Costa cannot shake Republican Andy Vidak, an area farmer.  In fact, Vidak has outraised the incumbent Democrat and stayed within two points of him in the polls.  This, too, might very well be a sleeper race and pick-up for Republicans.  It will be interesting to watch the results late in the evening on Election Day.

    In the 47th District surrounding Anaheim, incumbent Democrat Loretta Sanchez finds herself up in the polls by only 2 points against State Assemblyman Van Tran.  Given the district’s large Hispanic population (around 68%), this closer than expected race is raising some eyebrows and was starting to gain some outside attention.  First, this is Anaheim which means Orange County which traditionally means a conservative oasis in a surrounding sea of liberalism.  Secondly, the growing Vietnamese-American population in the area cannot be underestimated.  The fact that Tran is even competitive here spells trouble for the Democrats.  And while it is true that the actual Hispanic electorate is less than 68% overall Hispanic population, Sanchez has her worries despite never pulling less than 60% of the vote since her upset victory over Bob Dornan in 1996.  So it is no wonder that she behaved like a caged raccoon.  Her appeal to ethnic solidarity- to paraphrase, “Vote for me because the Vietnamese are taking over”- was designed to energize the Hispanic vote.  But it shed an unnecessary spotlight on an otherwise sleepy Southern California Congressional race.

    In conclusion, despite the money, at this point I would have to (I don’t want to) call the Governor’s race for Jerry Brown.  Carly Fiorina presents the best and most formidable challenger Barbara Boxer has ever met.  If Fiorina cannot beat Boxer in 2010 given the current economic and political climate, then only death or retirement will end Boxer’s Senate career.  This represents the best chance for Republicans to topple “Don’t Call Me Ma’am” Boxer and it would be a true shame if Californians waste this opportunity.  While Republicans will definitely pick up one House seat, this hardly represents a seismic political shift in a state used to seismic shifts of another kind.  But, I do believe that anti-incumbent sentiment, especially in central California, will produce some surprises and upsets.  It would be poetic justice for Nancy Pelosi to sit on her throne in her San Francisco campaign headquarters and look slightly south and east in her own state as her power slowly slips away into minority party status.  It would be poetic justice if her own state ousts three Democratic incumbents at the epicenter of America’s Left Coast.  While she keeps her little throne in San Francisco, it will be nice to see her blinking-eye face when she loses the much bigger throne in Washington, DC.