California Remains Blue, But a Little Purple Creeps In

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Newly elected California Sen. Kamala Harris celebrates her victory on election night. (Maya Sugarman/KPCC)

For a political party that was portrayed as a chaotic mess, supposedly feeling the tightening grip of inhospitable demographics, Republicans sure are doing pretty well.

Republican Donald Trump, a man whose candidacy was once covered by the Huffington Post in its entertainment section, will now ascend to what is commonly referred to as the most powerful job in the world. He will appoint at least one Supreme Court justice, who will likely tilt the court right again.

Conventional wisdom once had Trump dragging his party into a vortex of steep electoral losses and internecine warfare. But in the Senate, the GOP held its majority, losing no more than two seats. In the House, as of this morning, Democrats had picked up just five seats, nowhere near enough to propel them into a majority.

Are We Blue?

But here in the Free State of California, where only 26 percent of voters are registered Republican, things proceeded mostly as normal, though voters sent out mixed messages on just how far they were willing to go to preserve and extend the state as a Democratic and progressive wonderland.

Clinton did defeat Trump in the state by nearly 2-1. But voters did not turn out for Hillary Clinton the way they twice did for Obama. Clinton received almost 1 million fewer votes in the state than Obama drew in 2012 and 2 million fewer than he received in 2008. Walking around the San Francisco neighborhood of Bernal Heights the last few days, the only "Hillary" signs I saw were for Hillary Ronen, a candidate for District 9 supervisor. The lack of turnout for Clinton in California was part of a national trend.


"I don't know how we're going to explain that," Salon's Joan Walsh said on KQED Forum this morning.

Still, Kamala Harris, the daughter of an Indian-American mother and a Jamaican-American father, easily defeated Loretta Sanchez, another Democrat. Harris will be just the second woman of black heritage to serve in the United States Senate. (Carol Moseley Braun was the other.)

Voters also approved an array of liberal-minded measures, the most high profile of which is Proposition 64, the legalization of marijuana for recreational use. A similar measure failed in 2010. Proposition 55, an extension of income tax increases on high-income earners, also sailed to victory.

A recent illustration from KQED's Drawn to the Bay.
A recent illustration from KQED's Drawn to the Bay. (Mark Fiore/KQED)

The tax was first approved in 2012, when Gov. Jerry Brown gave it the hard sell as a way to help the state cope with a severe revenue shortfall  after the financial crisis. At the time, the state GOP hewed to the anti-tax orthodoxy of activist Grover Norquist, who had been involved in Brown's failure to extend some taxes a couple of years earlier. The vote by the public to raise taxes on itself circumvented those legislators.

Californians also voted to raise the cigarette tax and to roll back a 1998 requirement that schools teach all students in only English unless parents obtained a waiver. 

And Californians went to the ballot over bullets, bucking the NRA by enacting a series of strict gun control measures. The new restrictions set up a process by which convicted felons must surrender their firearms, ban magazines that can hold more than 10 rounds of bullets and require background checks to purchase ammunition.

“If we look at all of the ballot measures, the fact that we’re electing a woman of color to be our U.S. senator, a Democrat," UC Berkeley professor Lisa Garcia Bedolla told KQED last night. "You look at all the ballot measures — the tax measures have passed, we’ve legalized marijuana, we’re pushing gun control, so really a policy prescription that is very different from what the rest of the country is pushing for. It's really a reflection of the diversity of our state, and where we are politically and have been for the last decade.”

Liberals, however, did not run the table. A repeal of the state's death penalty was rejected, while a measure that would expedite the process and result in quicker executions is currently leading.

In the state Legislature, the Democrats appeared to fall short in their attempt to regain a supermajority. That would have allowed Democrats to raise taxes and put constitutional amendments on the ballot without a single Republican crossing lines.

In reality, though, moderate, pro-business Democrats from swing districts would have made that difficult. When Democrats enjoyed a supermajority from the Obama election of 2012 to early 2014, the party did not run tax-and-spend wild.

"As the Legislature finds a center where centrist Republicans and centrist Democrats can find common ground, the common wisdom is that if you’re a Democrat you’ll vote for taxes is not the case,” state Sen. Steve Glazer told KQED in October.

Also heartening to the state GOP: Some House Republicans who were considered endangered managed to hold on. Those include Rep. Steve Knight, of Santa Clarita; Rep. Jeff Denham, of Turlock; and Rep. David Valadao, of Hanford.

Rep. Darrell Issa of San Diego County, the subpoena-happy chairman of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee for four years, is still holding a lead in a very tight race against political neophyte Doug Applegate.

But Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom, who is running for governor, tried to put a positive spin on the night at a rally:

"Be proud of this place you call home. It’s a magical place. A state we love to say of dreamers, doers, of entrepreneurs, of innovators, that has long prided itself and tonight we reinforce that of being on the leading and cutting edge. If Trump wins, it’s the last vestige of the past. The last gasp of the past." 

Correction: This post has been updated to reflect that Rep. Darrell Issa is still leading in a tight race.