In all-blue California election results, lessons for Democratic Party

In the face of a GOP juggernaut across much of the US, Golden State voters opted for Democrats in major statewide races. California election results are not just an anomaly, analysts there say.

Eric Risberg/AP
California Gov.-elect Jerry Brown celebrates his election win during a rally in Oakland, Calif., on Nov. 2.
Mark J. Terrill/AP
Sen. Barbara Boxer (D) of Calif., gestures as she speaks to supporters after being projected the winner in her Senate race against Carly Fiorina, Nov. 2, in Los Angeles.

Democrats did something right, at least, in California.

In the face of a surging GOP elsewhere in the nation, California voters – who had credible and interesting Republican candidates to choose from in two big statewide races – elected to go with Democrats over Republicans, long-time politicians over fresh faces, single-party control over divided government, and, some would say, pragmatism over anger.

Do the state's election results hold lessons for the Democratic Party? Or is that bucking of the national trend nothing more than California being California – living in its own la-la land?

Not so, said some voters here. Their votes were born of experience, including a gridlocked state government that is perennially unable to grapple effectively with a multibillion-dollar budget deficit.

“Elsewhere in America, people are angry and so they looked at the president and voted the opposite party to make a statement," says Megan Martinez, a 20-something emergency medical technician, at the Sen. Barbara Boxer victory celebration. "Californians are angry but took the time to really look at [Democratic gubernatorial candidate] Jerry Brown and Barbara Boxer versus [GOP competitors] Meg Whitman and Carly Fiorina. They chose experience over fresh faces because we’re in very tough times. We already tried a fresh face with [Gov.] Arnold Schwarzenegger, and that didn’t work.”

California election results mean that the state is one of the few to remain all blue: Democrats will sit in the governor's office, hold both US Senate seats, and control the state legislature. Even Massachusetts has recently elected a Republican (Sen. Scott Brown in January), and reliably blue New York isn't sure yet which party will control the state Senate.

Analysts credit an intense burst of support by longtime Democratic allies – plus the party's edge among the many racial and ethnic subgroups here – for turning out the Democratic vote.

“Labor, the Democratic Party, and ethnic voters helped the Democrats win and buck the national GOP tide,” says Hal Dash, president and CEO of Cerrell & Accociates, a Democratic strategy consulting firm.

California's relatively large shares of Latinos, Asians, Pacific Islanders, and African-Americans tend to skew Democratic. That contributes to the Democrats' advantage in voter registration: 44 percent of voters register as Democrats, compared with 31 percent as Republicans and 25 percent as third-party or decline-to-state.

“Republicans in California just did not have the numbers or turnout statewide to topple Boxer and beat Jerry Brown,” says Mr. Dash. “Democratic enthusiasm started slow but finished strong, and that was another key.”

California's results are not just an aberration and may be a bellwether of what's to come for the rest of the nation, argues political scientist Barbara O'Connor.

“The rest of the country will learn these things pre-2012,” says Ms. O'Connor, director of the Institute for Study of Politics and Media at California State University, Sacramento. “Women won't just [automatically] vote for women. Personal wealth won't buy elections, and the tea party values on social issues don't appeal to our one-quarter independents. [We] already had a likable outsider [in Governor Schwarzenegger] and aren't willing to try it again."

Indeed, female voters in California were instrumental in the Democratic wins on Tuesday. Nationally, exit polls showed that women backed GOP candidates by about 48 percent to 51 percent for Democrats, but in California, 56 percent of women voters went for Mr. Brown and 40 percent for Ms. Whitman, says Lara Brown, a political scientist at Villanova University. In the Senate race, 56 percent of women went for Boxer and 39 percent for Ms. Fiorina. “In short, women in California chose to support the Democratic Party and not the anti-incumbent sentiment, which moved other women in other states away from the Democrats,” she says.

Governor-elect Brown has been in California politics for 40 years, and Barbara Boxer has served in the Senate for 28. The GOP's Whitman, a successful steward of eBay, was stung by her handling of revelations that she had employed an undocumented maid. Whitman’s avoidance of the press and negative ads more than offset her perhaps-too-polished responses in debates. She also managed to alienate the state’s fastest-growing voter bloc: Latinos.

“What this shows is that a hard line on immigration does not pay off in places like California,” says Angelica Salas, executive director of the Coalition for Humane Immigrant Rights of Los Angeles. After Proposition 187 – the 1994 citizens' initiative to deny education and health services to illegal immigrants –Latino voters in California became much more politically savvy. Calling Whitman hypocritical to be urging crackdowns on illegal immigrants even as she employed one, Ms. Salas says, Latinos “can smell a putrid idea when they hear one.”

A recent study by the Public Policy Institute of California, she notes, showed that 70 percent of illegal immigrants in the state live with someone who is a legal permanent resident or a US citizen.

“When a politician chooses to attack an undocumented immigrant, entire families feel attacked,” she says.

With these two big wins in the state's highest-profile races, Democrats should understand they must deliver or be thrown out, say other Latino activists.

“They need to turn the economy around and provide real jobs. Otherwise, the anger and frustration will only get larger and larger, and Barack Obama will be in serious trouble when his reelection comes up,” says Randy Ertll, executive director of El Centro de Accion Social, in Pasadena, Calif. “He will be blamed if the economy does not recuperate and may in fact lose his reelection bid.”

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