SACRAMENTO, Calif. — Tuesday’s general election will be a super-charged affair compared to California’s sleepy primary in June, when less than a third of registered voters bothered to cast a ballot.
This time, Democrats are angling for even greater control of the state Legislature, both major parties are spending record amounts in newly competitive congressional districts, and the philosophical divide over the role of government and taxes is the backstory to several hotly contested ballot propositions.
Even with California on the sidelines of the presidential race, interest is running high, with a record 18.2 million Californians registered to vote.
The stakes are highest for Gov. Jerry Brown, who will have his next two years in office largely defined by the outcome of Proposition 30, his initiative to raise the sales tax and income taxes on high-income earners to help close the state budget deficit.
He and his union supporters are making a last-ditch appeal to undecided voters, but the growing prevalence of mail-in ballots means an estimated 3.5 million voters already have cast their votes.
Spending has been astronomical in this election cycle, partly a reflection of California’s new independent process for drawing legislative and congressional districts, and partly because the U.S. Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision allowed unlimited spending from corporations, unions and the wealthy as long as it was not directed by a candidate.
More than $350 million has poured in for and against the 10 ballot initiatives and one referendum, much of it from a handful of ultra-rich donors and major corporations.
Three of the propositions deal with taxes, one asks voters to abolish the death penalty, another would modify the state’s
Three Strikes law for repeat felon and an initiative with national implications would require labeling of genetically modified foods.
One initiative drawing some of the most money and advertising is Proposition 32, which is being pushed by corporate interests and is designed to prohibit unions from raising money for political purposes through paycheck deductions. It follows prolonged fights over the role of public employee unions in Wisconsin, Ohio and elsewhere in recent years.
Roughly a dozen of California’s 53 congressional seats are up for grabs, making it the most competitive House landscape in the nation. Outside groups and independent super PACs have spent more than $51 million on those races to date.
It’s the first time in decades the state’s congressional districts are in play, thanks to an independent panel established by voters that redrew the state’s political boundaries. Another political reform in full effect for the first time this year, the top-two primary system, created a number of runoffs between candidates from the same party.
That includes a congressional race in the San Fernando Valley that is as negative — and perhaps more so — than any Democrat vs. Republican race in the state. Reps. Howard Berman and Brad Sherman, both incumbent Democrats, nearly had a physical confrontation during one debate this fall, when Sherman grabbed the older and smaller Berman around the shoulder and shouted, “You want to get into this?”
The shouting hasn’t stopped there. In Northern California, voters have been inundated with advertising from four competitive House seats in the greater Sacramento area, which ranked eighth in the nation in October for political ad spending, according to the Sunlight Foundation.
Many of the ads are negative and personal attacks. Republicans and Democrats, and the groups aligned with them, have gone negative equally in the state’s most competitive congressional races.
The Sacramento-area contests include two Republican and two Democratic incumbents each facing serious challenges in redrawn districts.
Rep. Dan Lungren faces a second challenge from Democrat Ami Bera, and his GOP colleague, Rep. Jeff Denham, faces former space shuttle astronaut Jose Hernandez, a Democrat. Democratic Rep. John Garamendi is being challenged by moderate Republican Kim Vann, and Rep. Jerry McNerney faces Ricky Gill, a Republican from the Central Valley who has worked his family connections to match — or even outraise — the incumbent in campaign contributions.
So much out-of-state money has flowed into California this election that the son of liberal billionaire hedge fund manager George Soros founded his own super PAC — to stamp out super PACs.
Friends of Democracy has spent millions on TV ads and mailers against eight House Republicans that it says have a record of opposing campaign finance reforms, including Lungren and Rep. Mary Bono Mack, R-Palm Springs.
“While we would prefer to work ourselves out of a job, until that moment comes it’s the right time to use all the tools in our toolbox,” said David Donnelly, the group’s co-founder.
In the state Legislature, Democrats who have a majority in both houses are making a push for a supermajority, or two-thirds, in the state Senate, which would allow them to approve taxes and fee increases without Republican votes. They are unlikely to meet that threshold in the state Assembly.
Among the seats being targeted by Democrats is the 5th Senate District in the tip of the San Joaquin Valley from Galt to Modesto, which is about equally divided between Republicans and Democrats. Two members of the state Assembly, Republican Bill Berryhill and Democrat Cathleen Galgiani, are courting the district’s moderate voters.
The tight contests include Brown’s proposal to increase the statewide sales tax and income tax on people who make more than $250,000 a year.
Public opinion polls have shown it failing to garner majority support, but Brown and his Democratic allies were spending the final weekend targeting an estimated 800,000 newly registered and occasional voters in an effort to push it over the 50 percent threshold.
If the initiative loses, Brown has promised to follow through on $6 billion in automatic spending cuts, mostly to K-12 schools and colleges, that the state Legislature has already approved. Even more protracted fights over state spending are likely to follow.
His initiative is faring better than a rival tax initiative sponsored by wealthy civil rights attorney Molly Munger, whose Proposition 38 would raise income taxes across the board and send the extra revenue directly to school districts. Polls show it has little chance of passing.
Another tax initiative, Proposition 39, has a good chance of being approved. It would close a corporate tax loophole that benefits companies headquartered out of state and would generate $1 billion a year.
Even though California does not play a role in the presidential contest, Public Policy Institute of California President Mark Baldassare said voter enthusiasm about the race will affect turnout.
“And that may well make a difference in the outcomes of the statewide propositions,” he said.