California and 'left coast' bucking the pro-GOP election trend?

In some key Senate and governors' races, the 'left coast' of California, Washington, and Oregon isn't tilting toward GOP as much as the rest of the country. Why not?

By , Staff writer

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    Sen. Barbara Boxer (D) of California spoke to a worker at an Oakland manufacturing plant Oct. 8. She leads Carly Fiorina, former Hewlett Packard CEO, in polls.
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California is bucking the national Republican-leaning trend this election cycle. Democrat Jerry Brown narrowly leads Meg Whitman in the race for governor, while – in a race that could prove crucial for Democratic efforts to hold Senate control – Democrat Barbara Boxer is narrowly ahead of Carly Fiorina in the US Senate race.

Fueled by voter anger over everything from government bailouts, the handling of the Gulf oil spill, and health-care policy, Republicans lead in Senate races from Boca Raton to Boise, Philadelphia to Phoenix, and have narrow leads in West Virginia, Colorado, and Kentucky. In gubernatorial races, Republicans have significant statistical leads in all but Arkansas, Colorado, Hawaii, Minnesota, and five of six New England states.

"The GOP trend is everywhere," says Steven Schier, a political scientist at Carleton College in Northfield, Minn., and author of several books on election trends. He notes that the states where Democrats are leading in Senate races cast 136 electoral votes in 2008, but the states where Republicans are leading cast 274 electoral votes.

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Why isn't California joining the trend?

"Given that California leans strongly Democratic, a GOP national trend may have smaller effects statewide than [in] other states," says Mr. Schier.

Democrats are still popular among their base, even if that base is less unenthusiastic than it was a year ago, says Lara Brown, author of "Jockeying for the American Presidency: The Political Opportunism of Aspirants."

"California is one of the Democrats' base states," she says. "Hence it is not really a surprise that, as the election gets closer, California Democrats – including the many liberal Democrats that make up the state Democratic Party – are doing precisely what President Obama wants because they still approve and agree with him."

But it's not just the base that is backing Demo­cratic candidates. Southern California construction foreman Booth Cameron, an Independent, says he's sticking with the Democrats because the GOP trend is based on "tea party" fearmongering. "I use facts to determine my vote – not emotion," he says.

A few months ago, says Ms. Brown, many liberals were not getting involved and many Democratic base states looked vulnerable.

"But now, as the rest of the country and the conservative Democrats and Independents continue to move away from this administration and Washington, the more liberal Democrats are shaking off their reluctance and getting back in the game to support the incumbents they voted into office in 2008."

Other analysts say the trend goes beyond California: "It may be the West Coast, not just California, that is out of touch with the rest of the country," says Robert Stern, president of the Center for Governmental Studies. Noting that senior US Sen. Patty Murray is expected to win against a strong GOP challenger in Washington State, and Oregon's Sen. Ron Wyden has a comfortable lead, Mr. Stern says "the West Coast is sometimes called the left coast. It may reinforce its name this year."

The reason California is bucking the national GOP trend also has to do with race, demographics, and social trends, according to Hal Dash, chief executive officer of Cerrell Associates, a Democratic consulting firm.

"We are the biggest multiethnic and multicultural state in the US," he says, "with large percentages of Latinos, Asians, Pacific Islanders, and African-Americans, which tend to register Democratic."

The most recent SurveyUSA poll showed Mr. Brown with a 24-point margin over Ms. Whitman among Latinos, even though Whitman has spent heavily on Spanish language media.

"Buying TV ads, billboards, and pushing commercials is not enough to capture the Latino vote," says Randy Ertll, executive director of El Centro de Accion Social in Pasadena. "Republicans need to devise a true, grass-roots campaign that will go directly to the Latino electorate."

"Latinos are still mad at the Republican party for its anti-illegal immigrant stance of Prop. 187 which denied undocumented immigrants social services and education," says Mr. Dash.

A final reason for California's liberal leanings is the state's reputation for being at the cutting edge of social trends. It's America's end-of-the-rainbow state, which tends to attract spiritual seekers and experimentation, he says

"The kind of people who tend to settle here are more progressive, and more environmental," says Dash. So far the tea party, which has caused a lot of political upheaval in other states, has not been strong here, he says.

But the perception that the tea party has no effect in California is off base, says Eric Garris, a Republican activist and founder of Antiwar.com. He says he was at a tea party rally with more than 1,000 people a few weeks ago, but it received no press coverage. "Many California tea party activists are also active against the war in Afghanistan, which doesn't fit the media's narrative for the tea party," he says.

[Editor's note: The original version used language that overstated Barbara Boxer's lead in California.]

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