Separating the Diamonds from the Ashes in the California Primary

Understandably, many write off California as a lost cause. Others, possessed of eternal optimism, claim that California can still be saved. The June 5 primaries showed us that the odds for California are around 50-50. It really could go either way.

Statewide Statistics

The races for governor and U.S. senator were at the top of California’s ticket in this primary. Although the outcomes of both races are worlds apart, their differences actually highlight how—with a bit more discipline and leadership in the California GOP—the two could have complemented each other quite well.

In the race for governor, President Trump’s endorsement of Illinois businessman John Cox seems to have been enough to carry Cox over the finish line. Although it was a given that Democratic Lt. Governor and former San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom would come in first, Cox performed surprisingly well with a comfortable second place, receiving 26 percent to Newsom’s 33 percent.

The crowded field included challengers from all over the political spectrum. Newsom faced four other Democrats who flanked him both on his right and his left, with the campaign of his top challenger—the relatively moderate former Mayor of Los Angeles Antonio Villaraigosa—collapsing in the last few months. On the other side, Southern California Assemblyman Travis Allen kept neck-and-neck with Villaraigosa, and early on in the night even led him briefly, before falling to fourth place.

Contrast this with the results of the U.S. Senate race. The obvious frontrunner in that race, incumbent Dianne Feinstein, ran away with first place. But miles behind, the battle for second was surprisingly close as State Senator Kevin de León—an outright socialist and anti-Second Amendment buffoon—only narrowly fought off Republican businessman and veteran James Bradley, who ran on an explicitly pro-Trump platform. Just as Allen narrowly led Villaraigosa early on, there was a time where Bradley—a virtual unknown with almost no funding—was actually ahead of one of the top Democratic politicians in the state.

With this said, imagine what the California GOP could have done if it had put any of its resources behind Bradley; or, perhaps, if the party leadership had stepped into the Allen-Cox feud for governor and convinced one of them to drop out and run for senate. There had even been some hypothetical polling for the senate race with Cox as a prospective candidate, showing Cox coming in a strong second behind Feinstein.

But for now, the senate race will be—for the second time in a row—between two Democrats fighting over which of them is more liberal. While Cox did advance in the governor’s race, he faces long odds against Newsom in November, whereas he might have had a better chance against the octogenarian Feinstein.

Two other interesting developments are worthy of note: In the race for lieutenant governor, we will have two Democrats, Eleni Kounalakis and Ed Hernandez, facing off in November after shutting out Republican frontrunner Cole Harris. And in the race for insurance commissioner, we saw a close first-place finish by Steve Poizner, who held the office from 2007 to 2011 as a Republican (having been one of only two Republicans to win a statewide office in 2006, alongside Schwarzenegger).

This time Poizner ran as an independent. He emerged on top against two Democrats and a third-party candidate, with no official Republicans in the mix. Only time will tell if this strategy—embracing the fact that independent voters have surpassed Republicans in total registration in the state—actually pays off and delivers the prize in November.

Democrats’ Dreams Decimated

Of course, the narrative for the Democrats has always been that any potential path to reclaiming the House of Representatives rests in California. As such, the party has been eyeing seven districts with Republican incumbents that nonetheless voted for Hillary Clinton in 2016, mostly located in the Central Valley and Orange County.

Despite widespread fears (or hopes, depending on who you ask) that overcrowded Democratic fields would cause these districts to advance two Republicans to the general and shut out Democrats, these predictions did not come true. Democrats successfully advanced to the general election in tightly-contested Orange County races, facing off against Republicans Young Kim, Dana Rohrabacher, and Diane Harkey, respectively.

In six of these seven districts, the combined totals of all Republican votes still outnumbered the totals of Democrats, amounting to majorities ranging from 52 percent to 54 percent. Meanwhile, Democrats were thoroughly decimated in other closely watched races, where incumbents David Valadao, Steve Knight, and Mimi Walters all sailed to victory with 64 percent, 53 percent, and 53 percent (respectively), leaving little to no hope for their Democratic challengers.

The one and only district that gives the Democrats some hope is an Orange County seat that Democrats came within one percentage point of winning in 2016, when Democrat Doug Applegate nearly unseated Republican Darrell Issa. This year’s primary has produced a very close result, with the combined totals of the Democrats coming to just shy of 51 percent, to the Republicans’ 48 percent.

Swaying Supermajorities

One last interesting note is the status of the California state legislature. Although there was very little room for pickups on either side, two seats have already changed hands while two more could also flip in November, threatening the Democrats’ two-thirds supermajorities in both houses.

In Orange County, Democrat Josh Newman—widely regarded as the key vote behind the passage of the wildly unpopular SB-1, a 12-cent gas tax increase—was removed from office and replaced with Republican Ling Ling Chang. This historic event marks the first time in over 100 years that there has been a successful recall in the state senate. It also marked a complete reversal of the district’s result in 2016, where Newman narrowly defeated Chang by less than 1 percent. In the previous contest, Chang hurt herself among Republican voters due to her anti-Trump statements and by casting several explicitly anti-Second Amendment votes in the assembly. Riding off the usual trend of Republicans benefiting more from an off-year election (and, in this case, a special election), Chang finally claimed the victory that eluded her two years ago. Most significantly, this flip ends the Democrats’ supermajority in the State Senate.

In the Central Valley, Republican Justin Mendes came out on top against three-term incumbent Democrat Rudy Salas, with 52 percent to Salas’ 48 percent. That may not sound especially impressive at first, given that this is only the primary. But this result comes in a district where Democrats have a 23-point voter registration advantage. It has the potential to continue the kind of miracle seen in the the overlapping legislative districts where incumbent Republicans David Valadao in the 21st Congressional District (D+17) and Andy Vidak in the 14th State Senate District (D+20) are defying the partisan odds.

There was a similar Assembly upset in a Riverside seat, where Republican Bill Essayli received 53 percent while incumbent Democrat Sabrina Cervantes got 47 percent. Cervantes had just taken the seat from a two-term Republican incumbent in 2016 by a nine-point margin.

However, these potential victories in November may already have been offset by a rather shocking flip that has already been decided in the primary. A seat in San Diego was vacated by Rocky Chavez, an obnoxiously moderate Republican who opted to run for Congress instead, and came in a measly sixth place. His seat saw the only two Democrats in the field come out on top and shut out all six Republicans, thus guaranteeing that the district will go blue in November, which may preserve the Democratic supermajority in that chamber.

Just Beneath the Surface

I remain skeptical of the analyses that say California is on the verge of its very own “red wave.” At the same time, while the revelation that independent voters now outnumber Republicans in registration is cause for dampened enthusiasm among Republicans, the results of the primary at least show this: The California GOP is most definitely down, but not quite out . . . yet. There is no red wave, but there is certainly no blue wave either.

In reality, California is becoming an increasingly apathetic state. Despite being a hotbed of foaming-at-the-mouth “resistance,” the anti-Trump rhetoric turned out to be a whimper instead of a bang, and primary turnout was only 22 percent. That’s even lower than the 25 percent in 2014, which at the time was considered an even less contested gubernatorial race than this year’s, and which didn’t have a U.S. Senate seat at stake.

Despite this, Democrats undisputedly dominated the statewide races. When the totals of all Democratic votes are combined in the race for governor, the Democrats got 61 percent; the margin was just slightly higher in the U.S. Senate race, with Democrats receiving 62 percent overall.

Where the California GOP failed to prove itself at the statewide level, however, it regained some ground in the down-ballot races. From solid majorities in all but one of the hotly-contested Congressional races, to an historic state senate recall, to potentially unseating two Democratic incumbents in the assembly, the party proved that it has a stronger on-the-ground game in individual districts than the media would have you believe, even in areas where Democrats have the voter registration advantage.

Further, the California GOP’s results in several of the statewide races have proven the potential of a very novel concept: a unified California Republican Party, one that could stand in stark contrast to a very dysfunctional Democratic Party where socialists, liberals, and moderates fight amongst each other.

If the California GOP had united behind a single candidate for U.S. Senate, then a Republican might easily have sailed into second place when Comrade de León foundered. The race would not have to be yet another Dem-Dem matchup like it was in 2016. If the California GOP had united behind a single candidate for governor, then a Republican might have (narrowly) come out in first place in the primary. Note that if Cox’s totals (26 percent) were combined with Allen’s (10 percent) the hypothetical Republican’s total would have surpassed Newsom’s.

Even if the Democratic vote totals would still end up crushing said Republican in the general, just the image of a Republican coming in first in the primary, in California, would have been something to fire up Republican enthusiasm across the state, with that enthusiasm being enough to even further solidify the already strong down-ballot races.

So there won’t be a Cinderella story for the California GOP. John Cox is unlikely to become governor. We will not be seeing a “waking up” to the objective failure and destruction brought about by Democratic policies at the statewide level. Millions of voters (particularly illegals and college-aged voters) remain completely brainwashed by the insidious influence of the Left in Hollywood, academia, and Silicon Valley, among others.

If not Cinderella, however, think of the California Republican Party as that nerdy girl in a high school rom-com who, upon taking off her glasses, is suddenly . . . well, hot. She may not win Prom Queen, but she still gets to prove the snooty popular kids wrong in her own way after they spent the whole movie making fun of her. If the state’s Republican voters just ignore the hype of Democrats hopelessly outnumbering them, they’ll be able to take off the glasses and enjoy the dance, while the popular elites are left scratching their heads, wondering if it’s possible that they’re not always right.

Photo credit: Allen J. Schaben / Los Angeles Times

About Eric Lendrum

Eric Lendrum graduated from the University of California, Santa Barbara, where he was the Secretary of the College Republicans and the founding chairman of the school’s Young Americans for Freedom chapter. He has interned for Young America’s Foundation, the Heritage Foundation, and the White House, and has worked for numerous campaigns including the 2018 re-election of Congressman Devin Nunes (CA-22). He is currently a co-host of The Right Take podcast.

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