The Supermajorities – Senate

Scott Lay
Publisher of The Nooner

The most frequent question I get is about whether Democrats will hold supermajorities in the Assembly and State Senate. For the Assembly, that means 54 Democrats and for the State Senate it means 27. Going into this cycle’s elections, Dems start with 27 seats in the Senate and 55 in the Assembly.

I’ve provided detailed memos on each race to Nooner subscribers, so this will be more of a summary, and I am focusing on the State Senate.

Honestly, the “supermajority” status is really a point of political pride, rather than practical help for Democrats. There are actually few votes that use a party-line supermajority. After the approval by voters of Proposition 25, which lowered the approval threshhold for the state budget and associated “trailer” bills from two-thirds to a simple majority, the supermajority was much less important.

Of course, in my years as a budget lobbyist sitting in room 4202 at 2am, I longed for a supermajority by either party. I remember Maurice Johannessen walking around with his wish list, essentially creating budgetary extortion for a district (which oddly included Davis). On the other side, we can’t forget Debra Bowen‘s hold-out when she was an Assemblymember.

After Prop. 25, there are few votes that come down to a supermajority on a partisan basis. If Jerry Brown started appointing controversial people to some state boards and positions, that would require a supermajority, but that is so Jerry Brown 1.0, and we’re in 2.0.

Anyway, Democrats are in a tough position this year. Some folks will credit a Republican surge if Democrats lose the supermajority in the State Senate. It’s a flaw if Democrats think they have a structural supermajority and a similar flaw if Republicans walk away from this election feeling confident about some sort of political shift. At the end of the day, this is a status quo, non-presidential, election.

As I wrote in my memo to subscribers, there are only three State Senate seats theoretically in play. And, Democrats have already ceded SD12 to Anthony Cannella, who has often voted with Democrats and whose father was a Democratic Assemblymember. Thus, you are down to two seats–SD14 (Kings) and SD34 (Orange County). Dems lose one seat due to redistricting. Ironically, Leland Yee’s San Francisco seat is going to the redistricting spirit in the sky, and a new seat is created in the Sierra foothills (where Tom Berryhill will be elected).

SD14 is an offensive play for Democrats trying to unseat Andy Vidak, who grabbed the seat last year in a special election following the resignation of Michael Rubio. SD34 is the seat currently held by Lou Correa, although the district has shifted to the northwest and is more challenging for Democrats.

Both are challenging for Democrats in a super low turnout year like we’re encountering. Despite the barrage of panic emails that those of us on every list are receiving, voters aren’t engaged on any major issue. Those who actually are willing to switch parties–which amount to very few including independent voters–really don’t care about high speed rail or other issues that candidates are using in campaigns. It’s not about issues, but rather turnout.

That’s the challenge for Democrats. On paper, both SD12 and SD14 should be reasonable targets for the majority party. However, there are two fundamental facts that provide a problem for Dems. In both districts, there is a huge turnout variable between presidential years and non-presidential statewide elections. That is your baseline challenge for Dems.

In SD14, there appears to be a large number of Latino Democrats who vote regularly, and vote for moderate candidates who are either Democrats or Republicans. Without getting too deep, these are folks who have moved up into farm management and gained citizenship under IRCA in 1986 under Reagan. They still identify as Democrats, but wear the management hat and remember Reagan signing the bill that gave them citizenship. Beyond that, this group of voters is not persuaded by social issues like same-sex marriage and abortion as they are devout Catholics. Thus, Andy Vidak is the favorite to win re-election.

If we accept that SD14 will continue to be held by Republicans, the supermajority will be decided by SD34 in Orange County.

Similar to SD12 and SD14, this seat would be in the likely Democrats column in a presidential year. But, give that up. Even-numbered seats are up in “mid-term” elections and that changes the dynamic. And, this is the first time the new even-numbered districts have been used after redistricting. Whether Dems or Reps “win” this battle, we should ignore the podium pounding. Dems hit a high water mark in 2012 and some normalization should be expected. If Dems hold supermajorities in both houses, it would be a huge win for their operation, although it wouldn’t be a policy endorsement.

The State Senate “supermajority” will be decided by the Orange County seat.

Honestly, the geeks have been having a back-channel conversation about SD34. The race makes us want to be back in college studying political “science.” At some point in politics, you just have to put race in the middle of the table and talk about it. Well, I guess The Nooner is our table.

In SD34, you have a Latino Democrat against a Vietnamese Republican. There is a group of voters who vote party-line always. In 2010, they broke 48-43 for Meg Whitman over Jerry Brown. We have to assume that is our baseline. This is the only seat currently held by Democrats in which Meg Whitman received more votes than Jerry Brown.

What we don’t know is how the voters not loyal to a party will do, and race becomes a big part. In both AD65 and SD34, there is a legitimate question as to whether Asian voters are more loyal to political ideology or to broadly defined race. Do Korean-Americans vote for Vietnamese-Americans and vice-versa? Locally, these communities have not always been on the same page, arguing over zoning and other community-based politics. I would proffer that both SD34 and AD65 will come down to this fundamental question.

At the end of the day, holding a supermajority in the State Senate is a huge hurdle for Democrats to overcome. Don’t read too much into it, however, as it’s not a political shift but rather redistricting and a low-turnout, non-presidential election.

And, even if Democrats hold a supermajorty, it’s not really operative. We will have a vacancy in SD07 when Mark DeSaulnier is elected to replace outgoing Congressman George Miller, setting up battle royale between a large field, including perhaps Susan Bonilla, Joan Buchanan, Steve Glazer, and Catharine Baker. Further, there is another senator who is rumored to be stepping down at the end of the year, setting up a tough battle between a current Assemblymember and a former Assemblymember.

Originally published in the Nooner.

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