Riding a wave of anti-Trump sentiment, Democrats in California were able to cobble together enough State Assembly and Senate seats to give them a two-thirds supermajority in both chambers. Their strengthened majorities have emboldened them to pursue a liberal agenda, but the latest polling data suggests they may be overreaching and it could cost them big at the ballot box in 2018.
Democrats flexed their newly acquired legislative muscle with one of their first pieces of legislation; Senate Bill No. 1, which raised the car and gas tax in order to pay for infrastructure improvements and garnered the required two-thirds majority vote for approval. A survey by UC Berkeley’s Institute of Governmental Studies, which was conducted five days after Governor Brown signed the tax increase into law, found the measure extremely unpopular.
A majority (58%) of registered Californians opposed the tax increase. Even more striking was the fact that the rejection spanned across almost every group of voters in California. While Republicans were largely unified against it, 63% of Independents and even 43% of Democrats opposed it. Several key groups were also opposed including 60% of Latinos, 58% of Asians and 65% of seniors, a critical voting bloc in midterm elections.
The tax increase was so unpopular that it fueled a successful petition drive to recall Democrat State Senator Josh Newman, who voted in favor of the increase. Supporters of the recall effort may have history on their side. Fourteen years ago, the car and gas tax played a central role in the successful recall of California Governor Gray Davis. The recall effort, which has enough signatures but has not officially qualified, will serve as a barometer of voter’s feelings of not just Senator Newman, but also of the Democrat-held legislature and their policies.
The strength of the Democrat majority has also exposed massive divides between the liberal and more moderate wings of the party. Look no further than the Democrat’s latest single-payer snafu; Democrats successfully pushed the Healthy California Act (SB 562) through the State Senate only to have it die in the Assembly when State Assembly Speaker Anthony Rendon refused to put it up for a vote. The Speaker pointed to the fact that the bill didn’t provide a mechanism to fund the $400 billion program.
The backlash among progressives in the state was fierce. Activists filled the chambers chanting “shame” and holding pictures of the California Grizzly Bear stabbed in the back with a knife bearing Rendon’s name. One would suspect the moderate versus progressive battle will spill into Democrat primaries come June further fracturing the Democrat base.
There is a renewed effort to bring a single-payer health care system to California but the latest polling shows voters are not on board with the idea. A PPIC Statewide survey conducted in May found that when presented with the idea of single-payer, a majority of voters favored it, but when presented with the fact that it will raise taxes, voter sentiment flipped 26 points and a majority opposed it.
As Democrats continue their leftward shift, voters’ opinions of both Governor Jerry Brown and the State Legislature have sharply declined since the beginning of the year. Looking at trend data from the PPIC Statewide Survey, Governor Brown’s approval nose-dived from a historic high of 62% approve 31% disapprove in January to 50% approve and 40% disapprove in May, a net 21 point drop. The State Legislature, which hit an all-time high in January, has dropped a net 17 points.
If conditions for Democrats continue to deteriorate, Republicans could be in a position to make significant gains. Furthermore, it’s important to note that midterm elections are typically whiter and older than Presidential elections, both of which favor Republicans. Combining the structural advantages Republicans will have in 2018 with voter rejection of the Democrats’ policies, a perfect storm is brewing to wipe out the Democrats’ supermajority.