Explanations for What Happened in California’s Most Competitive Elections

Tuesday, December 9, 2014
Image credit: 
mervas, Shutterstock

On November 3rd, I provided some predictions for California’s top legislative and Congressional races.  With the dust settled, I can take a look back at those predictions to figure out what, indeed, happened.

Overall statewide turnout hovers around 42%, the lowest level of general election participation in California history.  In the low-profile gubernatorial race, Republican Neel Kashkari currently is taking 40% of the vote – the lowest Republican percentage among the seven partisan statewide offices. Meanwhile, Republican Secretary of State candidate Pete Peterson performed the best with 46.4% (Republican State Controller candidate Ashley Swearengin is right behind Peterson at 46%). 

Assuming the voter breakdown was somewhere between 2010 and 2012 (a reasonable assumption given the overall results), the partisan breakdown was likely somewhere around 45% Democrat, 33% Republican, and 22% Other.  Also assuming statewide contests remains polarized (i.e. Democrats voted uniformly – roughly 90% for a proxy – for the Democratic candidates), it would appear that Peterson and Swearengin likely managed to win well over 50% of the non-partisan voters.  

For Kashkari, I predicted a vote share of 42.6%, overestimating his percentage by 2.6 points.  Democrats likely “came home” to Jerry Brown in the end and due to lack of name recognition Kashkari didn’t perform as well with non-partisans.  But for Peterson and Swearengin, I was right on the mark – predicting 46.2%.  They obviously performed well with non-partisans, but also appear to have managed to win some cross-over partisan support.

For these three predictions, I overestimated Republican support by about 0.9 points.  Republicans missed an opportunity in the Secretary of State and Controller races.  Both were open seats (eliminating the incumbent advantage) and both had strong Republican candidates.  A little more investment in either Peterson or Swearengin could have helped the Republican reach the 15% Democrat and 60% non-partisan vote shares needed to cross the 50% threshold.


CA 7 (Ami Bera, D-Inc: 50.4% vs. Doug Ose, R: 49.6%): [Prediction: Toss-Up/Tilt R, Ose = 50.7%] On Election Night, Ose was winning, but the late counted ballots broke heavily Democratic (53% vs. 49% on Election Night). While Ose improved on Dan Lungren’s 2012 margin by 2.6 points, it still wasn’t enough.  One possible reason: the Ose campaign and outside Republican support focused almost solely on Obamacare.  Unfortunately for the Republicans, unlike the rest of the country, the ACA is actually viewed favorably in California.  And more problematic for the message: Bera wasn’t even in Congress to vote for the ACA when it passed.

CA 10 (Jeff Denham, R-Inc: 56.1% vs. Michael Eggman, D: 43.9): [Prediction: Likely R, Denham = 53.6%] I underestimated Denham’s vote share by about 2 ½ points. Denham’s margin improved by 6.8 points from 2012. Low turnout definitely aided Denham as did running against a first-time Democrat, who despite being the brother of a state Assemblywoman, had low name recognition and limited funds to boost it.  Denham has also broken from National Republicans strategically on a host of issues helping to inoculate himself against the GOP’s poor favorability ratings.

CA 21 (David Valadao, R-Inc: 57.8% vs. Amanda Renteria, D: 42.2%): [Prediction: Lean R, Valadao = 52.3%] I seriously underestimated Valadao’s support. Low turnout in this district likely depressed the Latino population’s participation.  Also, Renteria, despite being well-funded, hadn’t lived in the district/region (or even state for that matter) for a very long time, which matters to people in the Central Valley.  This provided fodder for Valadao in his messaging, while putting Renteria on constant defense. The fact that Democrats had to go to a Capitol Hill staffer for their candidate underscores the lack of a Democratic bench in the Central Valley.

CA 24 (Lois Capps, D-Inc: 51.9% vs. Chris Mitchum, R: 48.1%): [Prediction: Toss Up/Tilt D, Mitchum = 46.6%] In hindsight, Republicans probably should have invested in Mitchum, even though his ideology was to the right of this swingy coastal district.  Mitchum ended up closing the margin against Capps by 6.4 points compared to Abel Maldonado’s 2012 showing. Capps isn’t the best campaigner to start with and after 2012’s easy defeat of Maldonado, Capps appeared to never really take this election seriously.  Meanwhile, Mitchum did a good job tapping into people’s frustrations of Washington, D.C.  Of course, lower turnout also helped.

CA 26 (Julia Brownley, D-Inc: 51.3% vs. Jeff Gorell, R: 48.7%): [Prediction: Toss Up/Tilt D, Gorell = 49.4%] It is unfortunate national Republicans didn’t provide more aid to Gorell, who, if he had won, would have instantly been a rising star in the party. Gorell’s biggest setback was a lack of funds from the start.  This permitted Brownley’s campaign to out-spend him on the air, but more importantly, allowed her to set the tone and message of the campaign.  This put Gorell on defense and prevented him from defining himself. Despite all of this, however, Gorell’s vote share was an improvement of about 1.4 points over Tony Strickland’s 2012 results.

CA 36 (Raul Ruiz, D-Inc: 54.2% vs. Brian Nestande, R: 45.8%): [Prediction: Toss Up/Tilt D, Nestande = 47.9%] Nestande also struggled to fundraise from the start and it would appear national Republicans were not particularly interested in this race from almost the beginning. Despite low turnout, Ruiz was one of just two Democrats who won their seat initially in 2012 to improve their margin.  This has less to do with Nestande (who just didn’t have enough funds to adequately present his message).  Ruiz recognized the swingy nature of the district and immediately after the 2012 election began building a marginally more moderate record, neutralizing Nestande’s one angle of attack.

CA 54 (Scott Peters, D-Inc: 51.6% vs. Carl DeMaio, R: 48.4%):  [Prediction: Lean R, DeMaio = 54.4%] I’ll admit, I was really wrong here.  Polling and his past electoral performance suggested DeMaio was the favorite, and instead, Peters’ improved on his 2012 showing. The late breaking allegations against DeMaio could have turned off some of DeMaio’s “lean” supporters and these voters might have either stayed home or voted for Peters.  The National Organization for Marriage’s endorsement of Peters could have hurt DeMaio more than originally expected. Or the Chamber of Commerce’s endorsement of Peters provided him enough cover with moderate and non-partisan voters to stave off DeMaio and Republican attacks on his voting record. In likelihood, it was a combination of these issues (and possibly others).

On average, my predictions were 0.1 points above the actual results. Despite multiple opportunities, national Republicans failed to gain seats in California. Many of these seats will remain competitive moving forward, but first, national Republicans need to learn that they have to adapt their strategy for California’s electoral environment.


SD 12 (Anthony Cannella, R-Inc: 60.5% vs. Shawn Bagely, D: 39.5%): [Prediction: Lean R, Cannella = 51.5%] The Central Valley has a lot of “Democrats in Name Only.”  Indeed, Cannella’s father – former state Assemblyman Sal Cannella – could be described as one of them.  Even despite low turnout, Cannella definitely won significant cross-over partisan support.  Cannella is very well respected by everyone – Democrats and Republicans – and has a moderate voting record.  Democrats essentially abandoned this district in the late autumn to focus resources elsewhere. 

SD 14 (Andy Vidak, R-Inc: 54.1% vs. Luis Chavez, D: 45.9%): [Prediction: Toss Up, Vidak = 50.4%] Despite the Democrats refocusing their efforts on Vidak (away from Cannella), the incumbent Republican elected in a special election managed to easily win – improving on his special election margin by 4.4 points. And 2014’s low turnout can’t explain the boost; total votes increased by almost 19,000 compared to the July 2013 special election, with Vidak getting 63% of the new votes.  It didn’t help that Chavez was connected with new Senate President Pro Tem, Kevin De Leon, who made some unflattering comments about the Central Valley earlier this year. But Vidak proved he is a workhorse in the Senate focusing on issues important to the Central Valley.  As with Cannella’s SD 12, even though SD 14 has a serious Democrat voter registration advantage, many of these voters are ancestral Democrats, who are likely more in line with Republicans than Sacramento’s Democrats.

SD 32 (Tony Mendoza, D: 52.3% vs. Mario Guerra, R: 47.7%):  [Prediction: Likely D, Guerra = 42.6%] Guerra was a strong candidate, who worked the district tirelessly.  This, coupled with Mendoza’s strong connections to the scandal-plagued Calderons, likely allowed Guerra to pull some stronger cross-over partisan votes in this D+14 district.

SD 34 (Jose Solorio, D: 41.9% vs. Janet Nguyen, R: 58.1%): [Prediction: Lean R, Nguyen = 53.9%] I appeared to have underestimated Nguyen’s support among the Asian communities as well as the how the lower turnout would affect Latino participation. In the end, Nguyen proved capable of winning over some Democrat partisans and won solidly among non-partisans.  Her success gives Republicans a strong ambassador to the Asian community to begin rebuilding inroads with a rapidly growing portion of the electorate.

On average, I underestimated the Senate Republican candidates in these competitive districts by 5.5 points.  Importantly for the Republicans, Nguyen’s flipping of SD 34 and Cannella/Vidak’s holding of SD 12 and SD 14 blocked the Democrats’ State Senate supermajority. And they did so a lot easier than most pundits were expecting.


AD 16 (Tim Sbranti, D: 48.4% vs. Catharine Baker, R: 51.6%): [Prediction: Toss Up/Tilt D, Baker = 47.7%] I suggested that if Baker could consolidate Democrat Steve Glazer’s support from the June primary, she could possibly get around 51.8%.  Apparently, she managed to do just that.  Baker’s campaign was smart in the sense that she distanced herself from the Republican brand and focused on local issues – particularly the BART strike.  This prevented Sbranti from running a typical Democrat vs. Republican campaign and allowed Baker to win over Democrats and non-partisans.

AD 36 (Steve Fox, D-Inc: 39.8% vs. Tom Lackey, R: 60.2%): [Prediction: Lean R, Lackey = 51.9%] This result has as much to do with Fox as it does with Lackey.  Lackey was a good candidate who remained focused for the duration of the entire campaign (as opposed to 2012’s Ron Smith, who stopped campaigning after the primary).  However, Fox proved to be both a terrible campaigner and a poor Assemblymember. 

AD 40 (Kathleen Henry, D: 44.3% vs. Marc Steinorth, R: 55.7%): [Prediction: Lean R, Steinorth = 51.3%] Turnout likely helped to boost Steinorth’s campaign, but also it isn’t clear exactly how seriously state Democrats took this race.

AD 44 (Jacqui Irwin, D: 52.3% vs. Rob McCoy, R: 47.7%): [Prediction: Toss Up/Tilt D, McCoy= 46.1%] McCoy was definitely to the right of this swingy coastal district and despite decently strong attempts to moderate his message and turn focus away from past statements/positions, low turnout wasn’t enough to boost him over 50%. Irwin, for her part, presented a moderate persona from the start, which allowed her to come off measured.  This eliminated an avenue of attack for McCoy.

AD 65 (Sharon Quirk-Silva, D-Inc: 45.4% vs. Young Kim, R: 54.6%):  [Prediction: Lean R, Kim = 53.0%] Low turnout definitely depressed Latino participation in this district.  But more importantly, Kim was able to consolidate the Democratically-leaning Asian voters and she ran a focused, well-funded campaign that provides a blueprint for other Republicans.

AD 66 (Al Muratsuchi, D-Inc: 49.7% vs. David Hadley, R: 50.3%): [Prediction: Toss Up, Hadley = 50.9%] Hadley managed to close the serious fundraising gap that most Republicans have against sitting Democrats, which enabled him to run an effective campaign, both getting his message out, but also building a ground game.  Hadley’s focus on connecting Muratsuchi to Sacramento and its failure to improve business competitiveness and public education forced the Democrat to remain on the defense for most of the campaign.  Finally, low turnout aided Hadley efforts.

On average, I underestimated Republican support by 1.5 points.  By flipping AD 16, AD 36, AD 65, and AD 66 and holding onto AD 40, Republican managed to break the Assembly Democrat’s supermajority.  Assembly Republicans need to pivot to the 2016 races immediately.  While AD 36 and AD 65 should be easy to hold, Baker and Hadley will be top targets (as well as some other districts Democrats decided against competing in due to the mid-term environment). Democrats need just 2 seats to win back the supermajority.

Overall, while Congressional Republicans failed to make advances, state legislative Republicans did.  In 2012, Republicans experienced a margin shift of 22 points against them in the Assembly competitive districts between the June primary and November general elections.  In 2014, the shift was 7 points in their favor.  And the 2014 competitive districts leaned more Democratic (avg. PVI of D+2) than 2012 (D+1). Senate Republicans cut their margin shift in half (15 points away to 7 points away) and again, the 2014 districts leaned more Democratic (D+6 vs. D+3). 2016 will be the real test as to whether this was a low turnout phenomenon or if state Republicans are starting to understand California’s new electoral landscape.  National Republicans, while their shift also improved, still view California competitive races as any other competitive race and until they adjust their strategy for the Golden State’s electoral environment, they will continue to come close, but not close enough.

Follow Carson Bruno on Twitter: @CarsonJFBruno.

Carson Bruno, a Hoover Institution research fellow, studies California's political and policy landscape.