You'd be hard pressed to find a state deeper blue than California. Democrats dominate statewide politics, Jerry Brown seems headed for an easy re-election, and Republicans have had a tough time fielding credible statewide candidates. Yet, as Democrats gather in Los Angeles this weekend for their annual party convention, there are a few storm clouds, like political scandals in Sacramento -- and a growing concern that many Democrats won't even bother to vote this year.
Friday is the filing deadline for candidates to enter federal and state races for the June primary. It also signals the kickoff of the campaign season.
Democrats hold a supermajority in the state Assembly, have a popular governor, and hold every statewide office and more than two-thirds of California's seats in Congress. Many of these Democrats are up for re-election, but most aren’t expected to face much opposition.
In other words, Democrats in California are sitting pretty. So it’s a wonder if Democratic voters are even thinking about this election. Katie Fahey, an Oakland hairdresser, laughs with gusto at the question. “What election?" she asks. "I’m not thinking about it.” Fahey said she sometimes votes, but probably won’t for the midterm.
Daren Allen, who was waiting for a friend at the Point of View Salon, said she’s “just hoping Hillary runs,” then realized she was thinking about the 2016 election. “No, I haven’t done much thinking about the election this year," she said.
To be fair, the general election is about eight months away. But such voter indifference could signal trouble for the Democrats. Voter turnout was down in 2012, and midterm elections typically dip further. That’s a concern for Democrats because they stay home more often than Republicans.
“Jerry Brown should win in a landslide,” said Thad Kousser, an associate professor of political science at UC San Diego. “And so, I think, what a lot of Democrats in those Assembly and Senate districts are worried about is very low turnout because there’s nothing at top of ticket to motivate them to go to polls.”
Democratic pollster Ben Tulchin said, “You don’t have enough turnout, you don’t win the election." He added that turnout could determine whether Democrats have supermajorities in Sacramento or pick up seats they need in the House.
“If we can put together the Obama coalition … younger voters, Latinos, African-Americans, Asian-Americans, we’re going to win the competitive races,” said Tulchin.
But the “Obama coalition” didn’t come together in San Diego, where a Democrat lost last month’s mayoral race to a moderate Republican, despite the city now having more registered Democrats than Republicans. Low turnout sank the Democratic candidate, according to Tulchin. But, he said, the party could improve its chances by registering more Latinos.
“The more Latinos we register in competitive districts, the bigger advantage we get," Tulchin said. "And it can often end up being the difference between winning and losing.”
Latinos tend to vote Democratic. But in 2012 just 56 percent of Latino citizens were registered in California, compared with 72 percent of whites, according to the U.S. Census.
The Latino Caucus for the California Democratic Party is trying to boost these numbers. Chair Carlos Alcala said his caucus is registering more Latinos in high schools, at citizenship ceremonies and by using remote phone banks.
“We’ve also learned, surprisingly, that it really works when we talk … to the grandparents and they’re leaning on their children to be good citizens and to vote," Alcala said.
Lisa Garcia Bedolla, a professor of social and cultural studies at UC Berkeley, said a personal touch is key, and works a lot better than the party’s quick registration drives just before an election.
“You can’t just pop up a tent to do this kind of work and expect it to be effective," she said.
Garcia Bedolla said that’s especially true in areas like the Inland Empire and the Central Valley, where Democrats have had a tougher time winning.
“Usually you need organizations that have relationships with communities that folks trust,” said Garcia Bedolla. “And so it’s difficult in a place like the Central Valley, where you don’t have an established infrastructure to build on, to just all of a sudden have a widespread effort.”
State demographers predict that, as of this month, there will be more Latinos than whites in California.
Democratic political consultant Larry Tramutola suggested Democrats today should take a page from the farmworker movement of the 1960s and '70s.
“The thing that made that movement real is that there were people on the streets on every corner, confronting people about registration, about eating grapes … we don’t see any of that today," Traumutola said.
But, mass voter registration is not the job of political parties, said John Burton, chair of the California Democratic Party.
“The job of a political party is to win elections -- and you register voters and turn them out in areas where you can win," he said.
Burton said a possible ballot proposition raising the minimum wage could help Democrats in the fall. It’s an issue that affects Latinos and youth. But if that measure or something like it doesn’t qualify, Democrats will face a big challenge in key districts.
And in the long term, the lack of voter participation remains a really big challenge for the entire state.
There is also the fact that Democrats have lost their supermajority in the state Senate because of political scandals involving two Los Angeles County legislators. State Sen. Ron Calderon announced Sunday that he was taking a paid leave of absence to battle federal political corruption charges resulting from an FBI bribery probe. A few days earlier, state Sen. Roderick Wright said he that he, too, would take a paid leave while he fights felony convictions for perjury and voter fraud.