The California Democratic Party: Let’s Get Ready to Rumble…

Governor Jerry Brown has been a leader in the California Democratic Party for decades but who will come next?

The famous cowboy turned humorist of the Great Depression era, Will Rogers once said “I am not a member of any organized political party, I am a Democrat”. At times, this may seem just as (if not more) true to today than when Rogers originally spoke it. Particularly here in California, this quote is very applicable.

Just a few days ago, State Senate Pro Temp Kevin De Leon announced that he will run against sitting US Senator Dianne Feinstein. A race that didn’t seem possible just six months ago.

This race can be seen as a culmination of some of the larger issues facing the California Democratic Party:

1. Candidate backlog

2. Prop. 14 (…again…)

3. The Role of the Resistance

The Candidate Backlog:

As mentioned in past articles, Democrats (in general) are largely located in California’s cities. Cities, by their nature, have a lot of people in them and in a state that has very politically active communities (like San Francisco, Los Angeles, and countless others) California has a lot of ambitious Democrats.

But there are only so many seats to run for, even in the largest state in the Union. These seats have been filled by largely the same cast of elected officials for decades. Since there are no term limits on US Senate seats and with an experienced and popular Governor, many ambitious Democrats have had to wait a long time for their shot at higher office. The first sign of this logjam was in the 2010 Governor’s race.

Early on, former Governor (then Attorney General) Jerry Brown had tossed his hat into the ring. But this didn’t sit particularly well with the younger Gavin Newsom, then sitting Mayor of San Francisco. Newsom wanted to run for Governor and wasn’t going to let Jerry Brown stop him.

After some ups and downs very early in Newsom’s run (and his personal relationship with Jerry Brown), Newsom decided to run for Lt. Governor. His decision to do so, in my opinion, was the best thing he could have done. He got to learn from one of the best California has ever had and while Newsom would be far from a third (or fifth) term of Brown, he has gained some invaluable lessons that would no doubt help him govern the largest state in the Union (if elected).

Until 2016, California had the same two US Senators for over two decades. Our current Governor will have served four full terms by the time he turns over the reins to the new Governor in 2019. These are just a few of the seats that haven’t vacated in some time and as a result, have kept a generation of younger leaders out of the large ticket elected offices. This lack of movement into higher offices has created a logjam of potential candidates. As mentioned above, this can be exemplified by Kevin De Leon’s run against Dianne Feinstein.

Prop.14…again…I know:

Image from The Daily Trojan , April 2010

Prop.14…again…I know:

If you have been keeping up with my articles, you are probably sick of me bringing up Prop 14, but it can’t go understated how much this has changed the calculus for candidates, on both sides of the aisle.

Prop 14 has opened the door for incumbents to face challenges from within their own party. This practice may become much more common in the future too. De Leon’s challenge to Feinstein maybe the first of many to come.

I’m sure some of you are asking; won’t this open the door for a Republican to win?

With the Republican Party still in rough shape (see last week’s piece for more on the CA GOP), it is very much an open ended question of whether a GOP candidate can break through and get on the general election ballot. With this looming question mark, ambitious Democrats won’t wait to find out and will be more likely to run against a sitting elected official and run at them from either of their flanks (from the center or from the left). Lookout for this since De Leon will likely try to outflank Feinstein from her left.

As the old saying goes, politics can make for strange bedfellows and this is true when it comes to Prop. 14 since a strong ally of the California GOP on this issue is the California Democratic Party. It is situations like the one mentioned above that make Prop 14 an issue for the California Democratic Party, as an institution.

As mentioned last week, the California Republican Party is looking to change or eliminate Prop.14 since their candidates can’t make it onto the ballot. But Democrats want to see changes to Prop. 14 because it is doing two big things to the party; 1) makes them spend a lot of money against their own and 2) it further drives a wedge in the party’s base.

On the first point, elections aren’t cheap and with Prop. 14 Democrats have to spend money against their own kind and totally play up the 5% of issues where the candidates don’t agree and never mention the 95% of the things they agree on. And by pouring gasoline on that 5%, you get into the second point. For example, Kamala Harris spent roughly $14 million on a race that she won by over 20 points in 2016. Imagine what a closer race would cost?

On the second point, by overlooking the vast majority of issues that two California Democrats would agree on, the areas where they don’t become where the campaigns live. This further drives the wedge in a party that is still fighting the 2016 primary fight. The best example of this was the race to replace the Chair of the California Democratic Party.

The 2017 Democratic State Convention exposed the still very open debate about the party’s future

John Burton, the legendary state legislator and brother of Congressmen Phil Burton (Godfather of the Golden Gate National Recreation Area), was retiring from his post atop of the California Democratic Party and the race for his successor would be a high profile and highly contentious race, regardless of any internal party fighting.

The race was between Eric Bauman, the Los Angeles County Democratic Party Chair (since 2001) and vice chair of the State Party (since 2009). Bauman represented the more center-left wing of the party (in national terms, the Clinton wing).

He would be running against Kimberly Ellis, the San Francisco newcomer, who gained a lot of traction prior to the Convention and represented the more liberal wing of the party (the Bernie wing). What unfolded was a microcosmic of the larger issues facing both the California and national Democratic Parties.

The first ballot showed that Bauman narrowly beat out Ellis. There was a re-count…and another…and another. Big guns were brought in to try and bridge the divided convention. Congressman Keith Ellison (D-MN) and deputy-chair of Democratic National Committee was brought in to rally support for Ellis. The convention ended with the race for Chair still unsettled. Bauman was still leading by roughly 60 votes but Ellis challenged the results and it wasn’t until a couple months later that she dropped the challenge and Bauman was officially named the new Chair of the California Democratic Party.

Was what happened at the State Convention an example of a party that went through a rough loss at the Presidential level and needed to air its grievances, making it essentially a one off? Or was this a sign of things to come? Or was it a little of both?

The Role of the Resistance:

The Resistance making itself known shortly after Trump’s Inauguration

As mentioned above, the 2018 Senate race will likely see Kevin De Leon run to Dianne Feinstein’s left. He will look to capture the energy behind the resistance to President Trump. Whether this portion of the electorate will show up in the numbers needed for De Leon to unseat Feinstein is still unclear, this far out from Election Day 2018, but we have seen what can happen when challenges from within one’s own party effect the whole party.

Since the rise of the Tea Party in 2010, the Republican Party is hardly recognizable to those who helped built it. As the Tea Party has morphed into Trump-ism, the GOP is locked in a civil war that even makes Democrats say “damn”.

The establishment members of the GOP are constantly being threatened by Steve Bannon and other Trump White House alum (and even the President himself). So do Democrats face a similar fate with the Resistance pushing the party more to the left?

The 2018 Senate race will be the testing ground. De Leon seems to already be striking the theme of “thank you for your service, but it’s time for a change”. Feinstein will likely use her very robust resume as a positive and highlight that these times are not ones for rookies on Capitol Hill.

The question of the 2018 Senate race will become: What can De Leon do that Feinstein can’t?

And here is where the Resistance comes into play. Will these largely more liberal voters value purity or pragmatism? In the GOP, we have seen a hard turn toward purity and this started to be seen in the 2016 Democratic Primary when Bernie Sanders famously stated “You can be a moderate. You can be a progressive. But you cannot be both.” Will this trend continue into 2018?

We won’t know the real answer until November 2018 but look carefully at the sparring jabs De Leon and Feinstein will toss at each other over the next year.

This may very well be the new normal for California Democrats.