Election Day is just five weeks away, and California voters are angry. Some are frightened. Others are excited.
But the question – and the emotion – that will determine the outcome of these critical midterm elections and possibly control of Congress for the next two years is: which party’s voters are more motivated, Democrats or Republicans?
The Sacramento Bee’s California Influencers are largely in agreement that whichever of the two parties is able to mobilize its strongest supporters to vote will win the contested House of Representatives seats here.
But while most Influencers believe that Democratic candidates will benefit from a significant enthusiasm advantage in deep-blue California, the volatile political landscape makes that less than certain.
Angie Wei, California Labor Federation chief of staff, believes that Democrats will be sufficiently energized to turn out in high numbers – for one very specific reason. “The president isn’t on the ballot, but he’s the biggest thing to drive this election,” Wei said. “How many people who resist this president’s policies and character will turn out to vote?”
“Trump won in a ‘send a message’ election. It appears that this too will be a ‘send a message to Trump’ election in California,” agreed David Townsend, founder of TCT Public Affairs. “Democratic candidates will be wise to never mention Trump and stay focused on the critical issues and concerns of the voters in their district. But the shadow of Trump will be there.”
But California Republican Party Chairman Jim Brulte is unconvinced. “The most important thing to watch is the enthusiasm gap...if there is one,” Brulte said. “Early in the year Democrat voters were more enthusiastic than GOP voters....by the primary the Gap closed. It remains closed.”
Several Influencers pointed to evidence of increased engagement by demographic groups that historically have turned out in smaller numbers in previous midterm elections.
“We are seeing heightened levels of civic mobilization among women, young people, Latinos and other people of color. They are enthusiastic, energized and motivated to participate,” said Monica Lozano, president and CEO of the California Futures Foundation.
“Could it be actually possible that there could be our own version of a blue wave in historically red districts driven by women in the (congressional) districts won by Hillary Clinton in 2016?” asked Rosalind Hudnell, former chair and president of the Intel Foundation. “I’m going to be watching to see … whether California begins to see increased national interest for being a key influencer in Democrats taking back the House.”
Democratic campaign consultant Catherine Lew cited the battle over Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh as an added motivator for female voters, even suggesting a “#WatchOutBoys” hashtag.
“Whether in 1992 or 2018, hell hath no fury like a woman wronged. The reaction to the Kavanaugh hearings and reactions from women are a wild card dynamic to watch for going into this election cycle,” Lew said. “Following Anita Hill’s testimony 27 years ago, California became the first state in the nation to be represented in the Senate by two women. … 2018 could very well be another bellwether for Democrats and female candidates.”
Other Influencers agreed that the Supreme Court battle would motivate large numbers of voters, but foresaw a broader impact across the political spectrum.
“After a day of hearings on the nomination of Brett Kavanaugh to the Supreme Court, one could assume that there is sufficient anger to motivate voters on both sides” said Chet Hewitt, president and CEO of the Sierra Health Foundation.
“The Kavanaugh debacle makes for fairly disgusting theatre, but will probably serve only to increase voter turnout on both sides,” agreed Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Association President Jon Coupal. “Probably a wash.”
Chad Peace, founder and president of IVC Media, argued that voter anger would drive many Californians in less predictable directions.
“Hyper-partisan politics is a natural and predictable consequence of consultants from both sides of the aisle using the same playbook for decades: divide the electorate and turn out their respective base,” Peace said.
“Watch for candidates that are willing to buck the nationalized political narratives.”
And many Influencers offered guidance on what to watch for to determine the likely outcome of the most closely contested House races in the campaign’s final weeks.
“The ground game makes the difference,” said Sierra Club California Director Kathryn Phillips. “Advertising, free media, rallies and debates all play an important role. But the thing that will flip districts is how many volunteers on the ground, knocking on doors or making phone calls.”
“The money. Where it’s coming from and where it’s going.” said KCRW Los Angeles radio host Madeleine Brand.
“The midterms are almost as expensive this year as a presidential year.”
Dan Schnur, a veteran analyst and longtime participant in California politics, is director of the California Influencers series for The Sacramento Bee and McClatchy.