The California Jungle

AP Photo/Mark J. Terrill

Kevin de Leon, California state Senate president pro tem and Democratic candidate for the U.S. Senate, speaks during an election party in Los Angeles

CONGRESS: At second glance, the numbers we have now from Tuesday’s primaries in California may look discouraging to Democrats. (At first glance, Democrats breathed a sigh of relief since they didn’t split their votes so badly in the swing congressional districts that they ran out of the money. In every one of those top-two races, a Democrat made it into the November runoff against a Republican.)

But at second glance, in six of the seven House districts represented by Republicans that Hillary Clinton carried in 2016, the total vote for the Republican candidates exceeded that for the Democrats. (The only race in which the aggregate Democratic vote exceeded the Republicans’ came in the 49th District, which Republican Darrell Issa barely carried in 2016 and where he prudently chose not to stand for re-election this time around.)

Don’t those aggregate numbers look bad for the Democrats?

Well, that’s why we need a third glance. To begin, it always takes California about a week to tally all its votes; probably more than one-third remain uncounted. And historically, the votes counted late—late absentees, provisional ballots—tend to be disproportionately Democratic.

Moreover, in five of the six districts where the aggregate GOP vote exceeds the Democrats’, the Republican vote totals don’t exceed the Democrats’ by much—the Republican total ranges from 51 percent to 53 percent. Those numbers will shrink some as more votes are counted. Which means five of these six districts (and six of the seven, counting Issa’s) are very much in play in November. The only one in which the Republican total on Tuesday was so high it made clear that the district was out of reach was David Valadao’s district in the San Joaquin Valley.

If I had to bet based on the numbers we’ve seen so far and one additional factor (my gut), I’d say the Democrats will take Issa’s, Dana Rohrabacher’s, and Steve Knight’s districts. Jeff Denham’s, Ed Royce’s, and Mimi Walters's are possible but more difficult.


STATEWIDE: By finishing a distant third in Tuesday’s gubernatorial primary, Antonio Villaraigosa appears to have reached the end of his road in electoral politics. That road is worthy of contemplation.

As a young man, Villaraigosa first entered politics as a member of a Los Angeles-based Latino organization on the quasi-Marxist left. Always a man on the make, he soon became an organizer for the teachers union and a board member of the Southern California ACLU (which has always been a major political player in Los Angeles). Elected to the State Assembly in the early ‘90s, he became an unusually adept Speaker, then an LA City Councilman, then a two-term mayor. It was his drive and ambition that fueled the successful initiative campaign in which LA County residents voted to raise their sales taxes to build a major rail system in the auto-capital of the world. (It required a two-thirds vote, which, absent Villaraigosa’s fundraising and campaigning, never would have happened.)

But Villaraigosa also went to war with his old employer, the teachers union, becoming the chief advocate for expanding charter schools across Los Angeles. He became a darling of the charter school billionaires, who spent $22 million on his behalf in the current gubernatorial campaign. In recent years, these charter school backers—led by Netflix’s Reed Hastings and developer Eli Broad—have funded a generation of centrist Democrats in the state legislature; Tuesday marks their first major electoral defeat. Villaraigosa’s reliance on the charter billionaires was one of a number of pivots he’s made to the right in recent years, in some instances to secure campaign donations (from, for instance, the bail bond industry), in other instances, to win more conservative votes he theoretically could gain given the bipartisan nature of the jungle primary. Villaraigosa spent a lot of time and resources campaigning in the state’s most Republican region, the San Joaquin Valley. On Tuesday, the Valley voted for Republicans John Cox and Travis Allen.

Kevin de León is another Democrat who began his political life on the left, and unlike Villaraigosa, he’s largely stayed there—in recent years, as president of the state Senate, authoring and steering to passing pioneering environmental and labor legislation. The paradox of de León’s Senate campaign against incumbent Dianne Feinstein is that he was more ideologically attuned to California’s Democrats than the more conservative Feinstein and he won most of the institutional endorsements that normally matter—yet he raised hardly any money. He won majority (but not the required super-majority) backing of delegates at the Democrats’ state convention, and the endorsement of virtually every union in the state. As Lenin said of Bukharin, he was “the rightful favorite of the entire party.” But it didn’t translate into money or votes—and in California, money is the indispensable prerequisite for votes.

Why no dough? First, some progressive individuals and institutions assumed (rightly) that he’d make the run-off, and they could, if so moved, give then. Second, unions were hoarding their money in case Villaraigosa made it into the finals, in which case, they would have had to spend a ton of money to make sure that Gavin Newsom, with whom they had better relations, defeated him. Now that Republican John Cox will be the one waging a doomed campaign against Newsom in November, unions will have more money available for other races. Whether they invest in de León or spend it all on the congressional races remains to be seen.

De León has already had a significant impact, however, in driving Feinstein to the left, much as Cynthia Nixon has done with Andrew Cuomo in New York. Twenty-eight years after Feinstein first appeared before a state Democratic convention to defiantly announce her support for the death penalty, DiFi abruptly changed her stance two weeks ago. She also has taken a far tougher line with President Trump since de León began running.

Given the electoral travails of Villaraigosa and de León, it’s easy to overlook how well the third of the three most prominent Latino pols in the state—Attorney General Xavier Becerra—did in Tuesday’s primary. Becerra ran 20 points ahead of his nearest rival (Republican Steven Bailey) and is assured of an easy re-election come November.

In 2001, Becerra, then a member of Congress, ran for mayor of Los Angeles, but proved to be a non-electrifying candidate, particularly when stacked up against the indefatigable Villaraigosa. This year, Becerra didn’t really have to campaign: Ever since Jerry Brown appointed him attorney general to succeed Kamala Harris (who’d moved on to the Senate), Becerra has been suing Donald Trump for one outrage after another. That, it’s clear, is all the campaigning he needs to do.

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