The March Primary: Some Good News for Republicans

Tony Quinn
Political Analyst

Three weeks after California’s early primary, and what seems almost light years ago, California’s left for dead Republican Party is showing surprising signs of life.  Given the hot Democratic presidential primary that was hardly expected, but in fact Republicans emerged from the primary with more than they started with.

For the first time in six years, Republicans actually gained a seat in the Assembly due to California’s top two runoff system.  In Antelope Valley’s 38th Assembly District, being vacated by Democratic Assemblywoman Christy Smith in her race for Congress, two Republicans emerged in first and second place, thus assuring new GOP Assembly member.  Five Democratic candidates split the Democratic vote, and all ran out of the money.

At the statewide level, the loss of Proposition 13, the $15 billion school bond, came as a surprise as there was virtually no campaign against it and a $10 million campaign in its favor.  But polling has shown that Californians feel they are overtaxed, and apparently voters reflected that view by turning down the heavily favored bond issue.

The November ballot will include a “split roll” initiative favored by unions to increase business property taxes.  With the wrenching recession caused by the coronavirus, it seems unlikely voters will want to add another burden on California businesses.  The need for job creation after the virus will likely trump more tax increases, giving Republicans a useful issue for the fall.

The November ballot will also include a measure to roll back parts of Proposition 47 by restricting parole and classifying some misdemeanors as felonies.  One of the authors of Proposition 47 was George Gascon, then district attorney of San Francisco. He has now moved back to Los Angeles where he is challenging current Los Angeles County DA Jackie Lacey, who has the support of police and law enforcement groups.

But the primary was not kind to Gascon, he ran a poor second with only 28 percent of the vote to Lacey’s 49 percent.  Could this be a backlash against too liberal criminal release polices, we’ll see in November.

Other anecdotal results also worked in the GOP’s favor.  Christy Smith is seeking the seat in congress left vacant by the resignation of freshman Democrat Rep. Katie Hill. Smith was the overwhelming Democratic Party favorite and ran a well financed campaign, but only emerged with 36 percent in the primary.  Republicans got the candidate they wanted, former Navy pilot Mike Garcia, who received 25 percent. The May 12 runoff election, which looked like a cakewalk for the Democrats, now looks much more competitive.

GOP Assemblyman Tom Lackey, also in the Antelope Valley, represents an increasingly Democratic district, but he has had the good fortune to run three times against former Democratic Assemblyman Steve Fox, whom he defeated in 2014 after Fox was accused of multiple incidents of sexual harassment and the Assembly paid out at least two six figure settlements to former Assembly staffers.

Democrats had a credible candidate for the seat in the primary, but helpful independent expenditures by business groups lifted Fox into second place again, thereby probably assuring Lackey another term in Sacramento.

One of the oddest races involved former GOP Assembly Leader Chad Mayes of the Inland Empire who the day before the filing deadline switched from Republican to No Party Preference, and thus ended up seeking re-election without a political party.  But Mayes gave outraged Republicans long enough to find a GOP candidate, Andrew Kotyuk, the mayor of San Jacinto. 

Kotyuk managed to run second to Mayes in the primary, but this also means there will be no Democrat on the ballot.  Mayes could suffer a pincer movement; GOP voters have a candidate they will vote for, but Democrats don’t. Therefore Democrats are more likely to leave their ballots blank while Republicans vote for Kotyuk.  Mayes could suffer the problem of past non-partisan candidates, too few voters because of lack of a party base.  

Assembly Republicans also got some breaks in Orange County where Assemblyman Bill Brough, also accused of sexual harassment, ran a poor fourth, and Assemblyman Tyler Diep, who voted for the controversial AB 5, also ran out of the money.  Both will probably be replaced by Republican women.

In 2018, Republicans lost seven congressional seats in California, half their representation on Washington, and the GOP hopes to reverse at least a couple of these losses in 2020.  One test of the viability of an incumbent in the top two open primary is whether he or she tops 50 percent. 

By this measure, at least four Democratic freshmen are in some trouble.  In the Fresno-Kings County 21st Congressional district, incumbent Democratic Congressman C.J. Cox only received 39 percent while 50 percent voted for his GOP opponent former Congressman David Valadao.  

To the north, Democratic Rep. Josh Harder received only 44 percent in his Modesto area district.  In Orange County, Democratic Congressmen Gil Cisneros and Harley Rouda each received 47 percent of the total vote.  In all four districts slightly more Republican than Democratic ballots were cast.

None of this says Republicans will win back all of these districts, or even any of these districts.  The primary is not a general election predictor, and President Trump remains highly unpopular in California.  And the GOP has to defend weak incumbents of their own; two Republican State Senators also ran under 50 percent in their primaries.

But there is a glimmer of hope for them that on law enforcement and taxes the public mood has moved more in the Republican direction.  California is entirely in Democratic hands so how the Democratic officeholders handle the pandemic will go far to determine the politics of 2020 and perhaps beyond.  In just three weeks since California’s primary, the political world, like the world at large, has undergone fundamental change. 

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