Perspectives: GOP tidal wave stopped at state line

By R. Michael Alvarez
Posted: 11/06/2010 07:12:23 AM PDT

Tuesday's elections were historic. We will look back on 2010 as one of the most important midterm elections in recent memory.

First, Washington politics is about to change, big time. With Republicans picking up a majority of House seats, there will be new political leadership and a change of focus in one branch of our government. No doubt, the new Republican House leaders will look at their sweeping victory as a mandate for change.

These elections will also undoubtedly usher in a new era of partisan wrangling, and most likely gridlock. With Republicans holding a solid majority in the House, they will be able to stymie Democratic initiatives coming either from the Senate or the White House.

Republicans can also use their new power to launch investigations and to attack the Obama administration. While this will satisfy some conservatives throughout the nation, it will likely alienate other voters who are looking for real solutions to pressing problems.

While it is early to say exactly what drove voting decisions across the nation, in the first national exit poll reported by CNN, most voters said that the economy was the most important issue facing the country today. It was important to note that few named health care, illegal immigration or the war in Afghanistan.

But I doubt that many of those voting Tuesday for change believe that partisan gridlock and politically motivated investigations will produce new jobs, restore value to their homes or lead to a better standard of living for their families.

So unless the politicians in Washington are solution-driven, we might see an even angrier electorate in 2012.

Second, while this tidal wave of change swept the nation, it seems to have stopped at the California border. Democratic candidates like Jerry Brown and Barbara Boxer successfully fought back the Republican tide, as did many legislative candidates across the state. A good example of the latter is incumbent Adam Schiff, D-Pasadena, who easily and overwhelmingly brushed off what some thought could be a strong challenge from tea party-aligned Republican John Colbert.

Why didn't the Republican tidal wave sweep over California? This will be something that pundits and researchers look at in the future, but at this point there seems to be a couple of possible explanations. At the state level, Republican candidates were inexperienced and lacked a message that resonated throughout the state.

Neither Fiorina nor Whitman seemed sure of themselves as politicians, and they never got traction with their messages. At the congressional level, California is so heavily gerrymandered that national tides did not do much damage to incumbents.

Additionally, it is likely that California's electorate on Tuesday was distinct from the rest of the nation. As I visited polling places on Tuesday, in many parts of Los Angeles County there were energized voters, and visible voter-mobilization efforts. Early analysis of exit poll data indicates that those efforts might have led to a significant increase in Latino participation, another possible reason Republicans failed throughout the state.

Third, after Tuesday's races, the future of the Republican Party in California at the state level is unclear. At this point, Democratic candidates have swept all of the statewide offices except for the attorney general's seat; that race may not be decided for weeks, with Kamala Harris of San Francisco currently in a slim lead. Given the virtual Democratic sweep at the state level in a Republican year nationally, it surely looks as if California Republicans are out of sync with California voters.

Fourth, the two top-of-the ticket races provide strong evidence that well-heeled candidates do not always win elections. Whitman spent at least $142 million of her own money on her failed bid. Fiorina spent more than $5 million from her pocketbook in another failed effort.

Rich, free-spending candidates strike fear into the hearts of their potential opponents, but winning an election in California requires more than a large bank balance. While there is no guarantee that well-heeled individuals won't blow their fortunes in future elections, my guess is that Whitman and Fiorina's losses on Tuesday may force other rick potential candidates to rethink their political plans.

Finally, there was a trio of ballot measures in California of future importance: propositions 19, 20 and 25. Proposition 19, which would have legalized marijuana in California, lost badly. It never raised a lot of money, at least until billionaire George Soros weighed in at the last minute. But the measure attracted a lot of attention across the nation. Despite failing at the polls, we might see another similar ballot measure in the near future - 45 percent of California voters said "yes" to legal pot.

But both propositions 20 and 25 did pass, and they will have long-lasting effects on politics and governance in California.

Proposition 20 added the responsibility of drawing congressional district boundaries to the new Citizens Redistricting Commission, which was put into place after Proposition 11 passed in 2008.

The work of this new commission will begin shortly, and because it will take the power to draw legislative districts away from politicians, we could see more competitive state legislative and congressional elections soon.

If Proposition 20 will change who gets elected in California, Proposition 25 is likely to change one of the most important things state legislators do in office - produce a state budget. Proposition 25, which was strongly supported at the polls on Tuesday, will lower the vote requirement to pass a budget from a two-thirds to a simple majority. This could reduce the budgetary gridlock we have seen in recent years in Sacramento, and eliminate one of the primary sources of partisan friction in our state's politics.

R. Michael Alvarez is a professor of political science at Caltech whose research focuses on voting behavior and election technologies.

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