California Democrats lose supermajority. Can Republicans become relevant?

California Republicans have been marginalized for years, but two corruption scandals among Senate Democrats have opened a door – and raised questions about one-party rule.

By , Staff writer

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    A Department of Justice official holds a folder tagged with the names of California State Sen. Ron Calderon and his brother Tom Calderon, during a news conference outside the Edward R. Royal Federal Court building in Los Angeles last month. Senator Calderon surrendered to federal authorities to face multiple corruption counts.
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Thanks to a pair of high-profile corruption cases that will cost California Democrats their two-thirds majority in the state Senate, Republicans have at least a brief period of renewed clout in the Golden State after years of decline.

No Republican has been elected to statewide office since 2006, and the GOP's share of registered voters in the state has dipped to a historic low of 29.3 percent. No viable Republican candidates have emerged this year to contest statewide offices such as attorney general, controller, treasurer, and lieutenant governor.

But now, with the number of senators reduced by two, Democrats no longer have the supermajority needed to raise taxes or bonds, meaning Republican support will be needed for initiatives ranging from taxing oil companies to creating a rainy-day fund to an $11 billion water bond measure.

Recommended: How much do you know about California? Take our quiz.

Senate Republicans might be relevant again for less than a year if fall elections send back Democrats in the two vacated seats. But at a time when 37 of the 50 states are under one-party rule – with one party holding the governor's seat and both chambers of the legislature – California Republicans' reprieve resonates nationally.

Can they use the coming months to get a foot in the door, persuading state voters to break the Democrats' political hegemony this fall, or could their seeming good fortune backfire if voters see them as obstructionists?

Marginalized minority parties in other states will be watching to see if California's Republicans can make anything of their opportunity. Meanwhile, political scientists will be watching to see whether California heralds an increase of corruption in state legislatures, as often happens during extended periods of one-party rule.

“The reason why it's relevant to the country is because the number of swing seats in the [US House of Representatives] continues to go down; the number of polarized districts and states are going up,” says Lara Brown, author of “Jockeying for the American Presidency.” Many areas are becoming “bluer and redder by the year and corruption tends to arise more frequently in areas where there is one-party control. In short, one-party control does tend to foment a ‘culture of corruption.’ ”

State Sen. Ronald Calderon from Montebello was indicted last week by a federal grand jury on charges of bribery, fraud, money laundering, and related offenses. He is accused of helping to facilitate a $500 million health care fraud scheme. State Sen. Roderick Wright was granted a leave Tuesday after his conviction on eight felony counts of perjury and voter fraud. Prosecutors say he lied about living in the Inglewood district he represents when he ran for the seat.

Gary Aminoff, vice chairman of the Republican Party of Los Angeles County, says state Republicans welcome the opportunity.

“Republicans will use the fact that Democrats now need them to leverage the Democrats into dropping some of their proposed legislation, or into modifying some of their bills to make them less damaging to the taxpayers of California,” he says. “That is a good thing, and is the way that a two-party system is supposed to work.”

How California Republicans use this leverage could have implications beyond the state.

“What will the state GOP, previously marginalized, do with its newfound clout? How the state GOP creates and pursues its agenda in this situation bears close watching for trends in the party nationwide,” says Steven Schier, a political scientist at Carleton College in Northfield, Minn. 

Democrats will be eager to paint the Republicans as obstructionist, given that national Democrats will make that a theme in congressional races this fall.

“Republicans should be careful to make specific proposals to solve problems when using their leverage. They do not want to get an obstructionist reputation that Democrats could leverage into gaining more seats in the fall election,” says Michael Shires, professor of public policy at Pepperdine University. “The perspective for Republicans as obstructionists is a nationwide strategy by Democrats as they seek some leverage in the face of a struggling economy and an unpopular program in Obamacare.”

In California, the ethics issue has “opened the door to allow the minority party to have a voice and build some momentum in a state where the flow has been running counter to the national trends." But, he adds, "If Democrats in California can turn that into obstructionism, it may serve as a lesson for Democrats in other states.”

The Republicans' window of opportunity could be short.

The question to watch, “is whether the Dems just cool their heels on the big stuff till they get their supermajority back – in November at the latest,” says Sherry Bebitch Jeffe, a senior fellow at the School of Policy, Planning, and Development at the University of Southern California.

In the meantime, Democrats might not be too heartbroken.

Democrats are not too unhappy. In fact, they might actually be relieved,” says Jack Pitney, a professor of government at Claremont McKenna College. “Labor and progressive groups might have pressed them for tax increases and other potentially unpopular measures. Now they can respond, 'Gee, we’d love to do the right thing, but we just don’t have the votes.' "

Bob Huff, the Senate Republican leader, says the lesson for marginalized minority parties in other states is to stay hopeful and be ready.

“There can be the tendency to think you don’t matter when your numbers get as low as ours are, and perhaps get lazy and go play golf,” says Mr. Huff. “But the message here seems to be: Stay in your seats and do your job and remain vigilant. When voters see that, they’ll be appreciative. And then you’ll be ready for an opportunity like this.”

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