California Is Becoming a One-Party State, and That Party Is Liberal Democrats

The state Democratic Party declined to endorse Sen. Dianne Feinstein's bid for a fifth full term, as Republicans approach third-party status.

In a rather stunning turn of events on Saturday, the California Democratic Party declined to endorse longtime incumbent Sen. Dianne Feinstein in her bid for a fifth full term. At the annual meeting of 3,000 party members in San Diego, delegates voted 54-37 in favor of Kevin De León, the president of the State Senate who is mounting a primary vigorous challenge from Feinstein’s left. Sixty votes are required for an outright endorsement, so the party essentially deadlocked. Symbolically, however, it represents a shift in the party’s direction toward a new generation of leaders perceived as more solidly progressive.

Feinstein, a former mayor of San Francisco who has served in her current office since 1992, would be 91 years old when her term expires in 2025 — 56 years after she was first elected to the San Francisco Board of Supervisors. This rebuke is humiliating because of its rarity, although Feinstein is an entrenched incumbent with a huge war chest who will likely win the June 5 primary anyway. (Polls have Feinstein trouncing De León 46-17.) The power of incumbency is so strong that even billionaire mega-donor Tom Steyer opted not to run against her.

Feinstein’s team projected confidence in an interview with Roll Call, noting that the senator didn’t get the party’s official nod in 1992, either, although she has ever since. Sensing danger, she will likely become an even more vocal advocate of a renewed federal assault-weapons ban, an issue she has championed for decades and for which momentum has never been higher.

No question, a current of ageism tinged with likely sexism and anti-Semitism runs through a non-negligible portion of the criticism of Dianne Feinstein, who won in 2012 with a comfortable 62 percent of the vote. But she has occasionally infuriated progressives, from her general hawkishness to her opposition to single-payer health care to her pro-death penalty stance to her cautiously supportive rhetoric toward Donald Trump. On gun control, she has done singularly excellent work, but the second-wealthiest sitting senator has never been much of a leader on issues like a living wage, climate change, or racial and economic justice.

In a July 2017 editorial titled “Why Dianne Feinstein Shouldn’t Run Again,” the L.A. Times noted that “The centrism that bolstered Feinstein’s electoral prospects when she was on the ballot in the 1990s is no longer the sine qua non for victory in California, if it ever was.” Indeed, Feinstein votes cautiously, as if California were a purple state and some nonexistent GOP challenger is waiting somewhere in the wings, poised to strike.

There are younger California Democrats who have displayed real leadership in the meantime, like Rep. Adam Schiff‘s dogged investigations of Trump administration corruption or Rep. Ro Khanna‘s fight to preserve net neutrality. It’s simplistic and wrong to say that Feinstein is too old for her job, but it’s not as if this state doesn’t have a deep bench of talent to replace her — many of whom, it should be noted, are people of color. She’s not Joe Manchin, the conservative West Virginia Democrat who is that state’s only hope for keeping the seat in Team Blue’s hands.

And now we see the California Democratic party has veered sharply leftward — something that follows the state’s trajectory overall. One of the reasons many conservatives loathe California is because without this state, Donald Trump’s embarrassing and delegitimizing popular vote loss (by a margin of nearly 3 million) would have been a win. Hillary Clinton beat Trump by nearly two-to-one here, and if approximately five percent of the whopping 4,250,000 surplus votes she banked in California could have been strategically sprinkled around the Upper Midwest, she’d be in the White House today.

California was one of few states to grow appreciably bluer in 2016 — Texas, Georgia, and Arizona were the others — and while the Republican Party sits at its historical maximum in dozens of states, it’s essentially cratered here. The exceptions are the thinly populated northern interior of the state, Bakersfield and other pockets of the Central Valley, and — of course — much of Orange and San Diego counties. But in 2016, Orange County voted for the Democrats for the first time since 1936, with Clinton carrying six GOP-held House districts. Several Republicans incumbents have decided to bolt for the exits rather than face electorates that seem determined to oust them, and the remainder face steep re-election fights. Democrats need a net gain of 24 seats in November to hand Nancy Pelosi the gavel. It’s conceivable that as many as six of those seats could come from California, which would then have a delegation consisting of 45 Democrats and only eight Republicans. Eight!

That is also a good argument against the secession movement known as #CalExit. Without this state of 40 million people, Republicans might dominate the House of Representatives in perpetuity. 

Daily Kos Elections/Daniel Donner

Simply put, California rejects the modern Republican Party. Secretary of State Alex Padilla released the voter-registration numbers earlier this month, and the GOP showed a decline that’s so existential it has the Republicans falling to third-party status, well behind the Democrats and just beneath “No Party Preference.” Since 1997, California’s population has increased by about 7 million people, but there are 500,000 fewer Republicans in total. (Democrats gained 1.7 million new registered voters over that period — although, as Daily Kos Elections points out, the percentage of voters who identify as Democrats has remained flat.) 

Independents make up the rest — but those independents lean left once they get to the voting both. Most people don’t switch parties overnight. It’s an occasionally tortured psychological process that takes time and a lot of soul-searching. California is the state that produced Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan, and doubtless there are a lot of people — particularly older, affluent white people down south — who think of themselves as moderates and find the extremist iteration of the national GOP repellent. They might not quite consider themselves to be Democrats yet, although Trump’s unpopularity may speed that process along.

And California’s top-two primary system will reinforce the systemic Republican decline. Not since 2006 has the party won a single statewide office. Barring some catastrophe beyond the current political event horizon, the winners of the June 5 primary will be Democrats who then go on to win in November. Does anyone even think the GOP has a chance at winning either race? In Sacramento, Democrats are one vote short of a supermajority in both the Assembly and the State Senate, and it’s likelier than not they’ll regain that status under a new Democratic governor.

Considering the hellish dystopia that is the American political landscape, it’s hard not to feel pride and relief that California is the locus of progressive power. But one-party states aren’t necessarily a good thing. Japan’s Liberal Democratic Party has ruled since 1955 with only two brief interruptions, and of course, Jim Crow existed for a century in many monolithically Democratic Southern states. This state of affairs may prove transient or unsustainable in the long-term.

Meanwhile, President Too-Scared-to-Visit-California-During-His-Entire-First-Year-in-Office has decided to touch down in the Golden State after all, to review prototypes for his dream wall, and, of course, to attend a fundraiser in Los Angeles. Trump’s hostility to this sanctuary state is well-known, and we can expect him to demagogue at our expense while he’s yukking it up at the lectern. But California might well hate him more: A whopping 57 percent of California voters strongly disapprove of the president’s performance, with two-third disapproving overall. The result of all this concurrent trends is that California is becoming a one-party state, and that party is liberal Democrats.

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