Tuesday, November 4, 2008

Dems hoping to ride Obama wave

SACRAMENTO — When the state's political landscape settles after Tuesday's election, California is likely to be a deeper shade of blue than it is today — with Democrats up and down the ballot hoping to ride the coattails of presidential candidate Barack Obama.

In a mood to punish Republicans for President Bush's unpopular reign, voters are expected to send more Democrats to Congress, the state Assembly, and possibly the state Senate, and, in the process, push the state Capitol to the left on tax and spending policies, as well as on the environment, business regulation and social issues.

"This is shaping up to be the near collapse of the national Republican Party," said Democratic political consultant Garry South.

But it remains to be seen whether Republicans, already in the minority and on the defensive during this campaign, will be in full retreat as they enter the political wilderness. That would hinge, political observers said, on whether an expected record turnout of the California electorate reaches epic proportions. Obama led McCain by 22 points — 55 percent to 33 percent — in a Field Poll this week, and by 23 points in a survey by the Public Policy Institute of California.

"If there is going to be a Democratic tsunami, the question is how far onto the shore that wave lands," said Darry Sragow, a Democratic political consultant. "My guess is that the Obama campaign's efforts to increase the size of the Advertisementelectorate by appealing to African-Americans and young voters is meeting with success. People want to participate in making history, so the Democratic vote will be high."

Some Republicans are predicting the Obama tidal wave will fall short in California. Democrats may be able to "beat their chests" over relatively larger numbers in Congress and the state Legislature, said Dan Schnur, a GOP political consultant. But increases that don't add up to the magical two-thirds vote in the Legislature won't amount to much, he added, particularly given the tight fiscal climate, in which Democrats' taste for spending will be constrained.

"Even if they pick up a couple congressional or legislative seats, that doesn't have a profound effect on the broader political environment," said Schnur, who ran the California campaign for Republican nominee John McCain's presidential run in 2000. "If they get to a two-thirds margin, even in one chamber, that is going to have a significant impact. But that's unlikely."

How confident are Democrats? They've targeted 10 Assembly districts currently held by Republicans, and have sent legislative aides to Southern California this weekend to knock on doors in the 19th Senate District, a seat that had been held for eight years by conservative Sen. Tom McClintock, who is now running for Congress.

They need to pick up six Assembly seats and two Senate seats to gain a two-thirds majority in the Legislature — the key to being able to vote on taxes and the budget without Republican's blocking it. Even if they fall short by one seat in the Senate, Democrats will find themselves in a stronger bargaining position than they have during recent budget negotiations.

"Democrats are definitely trying to pick up dramatic seats going into very safe Republican districts," said Kevin Spillane, a Republican strategist. "It shows the environment Democrats are trying to ride. It's a very negative environment for Republicans right now."

Republicans could be hurt in two ways at the polls: aware that California has given its electoral votes to Democrats in every presidential election since 1992, Republican voters may decide it's not worth it to go to the polls, observers said. And any news suggesting Obama victories in crucial battleground states before California's polls close could further depress the vote.

Republicans, however, may find motivation farther down the ballot in Propositions 4, 8 and 11 — ballot measures, respectively, that would require teenagers seeking abortions to get parental consent; eliminate the right for gays to marry; and create an independent commission to draw political boundaries.

If they turn out for the social issues, Republicans could wind up protecting their vulnerable legislative seats — and sending a signal to the rest of the country, Schnur said, that "even in a state as blue as California, there's a strong, pronounced strain of cultural conservatism."

Passage or failure of Proposition 11 will determine the tone of the Legislature immediately after the election, Schnur said.

"If it passes, not only does it mean more equitable redistricting in a couple years, but more immediately it would instill some fear into the Legislature to come back and deal with the budget," Schnur said. "If it passes, it sends a strong signal of anger towards legislators of both parties. They'd come back to the Capitol with the vote still ringing in their ears."

If it fails, he said, lawmakers will come back even less concerned about the needs of their constituents. And the Democrats' longer-term prospects could be enhanced as they maintain control of the redistricting process in 2011, presumably) allowing them to draw even more favorable maps to solidify their majorities.

But their gains could be short-lived, said Jack Pitney, government professor at Claremont McKenna College.

Historically, big losses have been followed by recovery for Republicans: After Barry Goldwater's landslide defeat in 1964, Republicans gained Congressional seats and Ronald Reagan captured the California governorship in 1966; after Jimmy Carter rode Watergate to the White House in 1976, Republicans won on issues like Proposition 13 in 1978 and Reagan won the presidency in 1980. After Bill Clinton's win in 1992, Republicans took control of Congress in 1994.

"One of the heaviest burdens in this election is having an 'R' beside your name, so it will take a while to recover," Pitney said. "But it will happen. It will depend on when and how Obama messes up. At some point, Obama will run into trouble, and that's when Republicans will have a chance to recover."

Even if Democrats gain a two-thirds majority in both houses of the Legislature they will have to watch how they wield their power, Spillane said.

"If the Republican obstacle is removed, the conventional wisdom is that you are looking at a very significant change in how we deal with the budget and you'll see significant tax increases," Spillane said.

"But a complicating factor is that if those Democrats who win a moderate to conservative seat are voting for massive tax increases that's going to get in the way of their re-election."

Democrats believe they will have a clear mandate if Obama wins big.

"When the results of the election are digested, we will see that the clear message from voters nationally and from California that they do expect government to play a constructive role," Sragow said. "We'll enter an era of activist government again. That will be a fundamental shift from the turn we made as far back as 1968."

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