Sanctuary State Politics: A Blue Wave in California By Nicky Riordan
The California State Legislature passed various protections for immigrants in late 2017 making California the first "sanctuary state." Stark internal division within the state and the political parties on immigration is nothing new. The current political climate under the Trump Administration and Jeff Sessions’ Department of Justice, paired with high-stakes midterm elections later this year, have brought new life to the conversation. This series will analyze nuanced dynamics of immigration policy and ideology across California during the 2018 midterm campaign.
How Democrats flipped nearly every target seat in California, gained supermajorities across the state, and even beat Republican incumbents in local races that seemed out of reach is important element of the 2018 midterm. Reporting before the election highlighted a national rift in the Democratic party over the impact of discussing immigration policy and taking Trump’s bait.
In California, this debate was an even more nuanced and complicated one, as polling showed that although most voters support immigration reform, they still ranked it below jobs and health care as a priority. But amid an election of many competing narratives, the overall Democratic strategy in California to push a moderate agenda for affordable healthcare, middle class tax priorities, and inclusion where appropriate, was a winning one.
The seven key congressional targets are a good place to start, because the Congressional partisan margin shifts from 2016 to 2018 were nearly seismic. In the six districts Democrats have officially flipped in the state (10, 25, 39, 45, 48, and 49), the shift from Republican margin of victory in 2016 to Democratic margin of victory in 2018 spanned from a low of 7.6 percent, to a high of 23.4 percent. All of the target districts were areas Clinton won in 2016, but not by the margins seen in 2018 for Congressional candidates.
Four of these districts ran incumbent Republicans, and the median shift in those districts was on average three points higher than in non-incumbent districts. Overall, despite what appear to be thin final margins in some of the races, the Democrats performed impressively in all races, and are currently on track to pull out a victory in the seventh target district (21).
In addition to margins of victory, the voter registration numbers tell a story of their own. According to voter registration reports from the California Secretary of State, Republican registration in those districts has been steadily declining since the 2016 primary election in June of that year. The party saw decreases of 2-3 points between the primary and general election in 2016 in each district, and another 2-4 points by the 2018 midterms.
Democratic registration did not change significantly during the same period, and No Party Preference registration increased by the exact margin of Republican decreases in four out of six of those districts. Although Democrats did not expand their voting base, they were able to win over moderate conservatives and newly-minted NPP’s with their message, and relegate California Republicans to less than ten Congressional seats of the 53 statewide.
The reasons for these shifts are not binary or simple, and each district and region of California tells a different story about the effect of immigration on the election results. The fact remains, however, that the results reflect a strong rebuke of President Trump overall - a candidate who built his campaign on dangerous rhetoric regarding immigration and isolationism. Although it is highly likely that the blue wave in Orange County wasn’t largely due to immigration rhetoric, we can safely conclude that immigration played an outsized role in other races statewide.
The Central Valley seats flipped by Democrats represent areas of the state that rely on immigrants for the agricultural workforce, and the remaining Congressional seat to be called in that region featured an incumbent Republican with a comfortable cushion who is now likely to lose to a Democratic opponent who did not shy away from taking a strong stance on DACA and immigration reform.
Two additional local races that stand out are that of Escondido Mayor Sam Abed, and LA County Sheriff Jim McDonnell. Abed sided early with President Trump over his opposition to the CA Values Act and even visited the White House as a guest of the President on this very issue. As Mayor of an area of San Diego County with a large Hispanic population, this was seen as a risky move in a contentious election year, as Trump built his candidacy on malice toward immigrants. Abed’s race hasn’t been called yet, but his opponent has taken the lead and seems likely to pull out as the winner, and the Escondido City Council also flipped to Democratic control following a vote this year to support the administration in opposing the CA Values Act.
As for McDonnell, he was replaced by underdog lieutenant Alex Villanueva in an election that marked the first loss for an incumbent in the position in more than a century. Political strategists pointed to the fact that in a region of the state that has been a Democratic stronghold for decades, this opportunity marked a unique chance for voters to express their distaste for the current administration. Villanueva ran as an unabashed Democrat in a nonpartisan election, promising to remove ICE agents from the county’s jail system and appealing to the Latino voters in the county. Sheriffs’ across the state have been the most outspoken skeptics of the CA Values Act, so his stance stood out as a break from most law enforcement entities in the state.
The victory of incumbent Senator Dianne Feinstein over progressive challenger and author of the California Values Act, state Senator Kevin de Leon, provides another interesting and somewhat contrasting data point. In a midterm year when many young progressives in liberal parts of the country unseated establishment Democrats, there was a chance that discontent with Feinstein’s moderate streak would be her undoing - especially after the state Democratic party voted to endorse de Leon.
The challenger relied heavily on his push for the CA Values Act and his roots as the son of an immigrant mother; he even tried to tie past comments on immigration by Feinstein to Trump, but the message didn’t stick and Feinstein won by 8.6 points - illustrating that a statewide strategy of putting immigration reform front and center was not a winning message for de Leon.
As expected, the midterm immigration conversation in California was not black and white, and candidates could not follow one blueprint to victory. Democrats in districts and areas of the state with large Hispanic and liberal-leaning populations were able to speak about immigration in an explicit way to motivate their voters and overturn Republican incumbency in important and unexpected ways. Alternatively, Democrats in traditionally conservative and less diverse areas of the state were able to win over Republicans, Independents, and NPP voters by focusing more on moderate economic messages - while also keeping their voters happy with muted nods to inclusive immigration policies.
Although President Trump wasn’t the primary topic of any race in California, his presence cannot be undermined as a major cause for the unprecedented Republican lack of representation going into 2019. And while Democratic candidates focused on health care and tax policy, Trump’s immigration rhetoric spoke for itself among California moderates and Republicans leaving the party behind. Political strategists on both sides of the aisle agree: in the first true sanctuary state, the first isolationist President in decades was a major motivating factor.
Nicky Riordan (@nriordan120), Political Analyst, The Utica College Center of Public Affairs and Election Research, reporting from California