One hundred state legislative seats will be filled four weeks hence, and the Capitol will see a final wave of newcomers as 20 legislators depart under the state’s old term-limit law.
Under revised term limits enacted in 2012, legislators may remain in one house for up to 12 years, dampening the forced turnover that had seen about a third of the 120 seats change occupants every two years.
After this year, for instance, no Assembly member will be forced to leave until 2024. Thus, this could be the last election until then for interest groups to have a major effect on the Legislature’s partisan makeup and the tenor of its Democratic majority.
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This could be a very rough year for Republicans as California turns ever bluer. The GOP’s share of registered voters has dipped to scarcely a quarter while those of Democrats and declined-to-state voters continue to swell, with the latter now just three percentage points behind Republicans.
Moreover, it’s a presidential year, which means a higher voter turnout that favors Democrats, especially as they gleefully use Donald Trump as a club to batter GOP legislative and congressional candidates.
Democrats gained two-thirds supermajorities in both legislative houses in 2012, but lost them two years ago, when voter turnout plunged to a record low. They need two more Assembly seats and one more in the Senate to regain their supermajorities, and there are enough shaky GOP-held districts to make it possible in at least one house.
Four first-term Republican Assembly members who grabbed seats two years ago, all in districts with Democratic registration pluralities, are under siege – David Hadley, Young Kim and Marc Steinorth in Southern California and Catharine Baker in Contra Costa County.
Two open Senate seats in Southern California that had been held by Republicans also could change partisan hands this year.
That said, even if Democrats regain supermajorities, it may not mean much in policy terms, given the substantial number of moderate Democrats who are unlikely to support such liberal goals as tax increases.
Therefore, the real legislative election issue this year is what kind of Democrats fill the seats that they either regain from Republicans or are vacant due to term limits.
Thanks to the “top-two primary,” another recent change in election law, there are 11 Assembly districts and five Senate districts that have Democrat-vs.-Democrat runoffs, and several of them are clearly contests between moderate and liberal Democrats.
The most significant is Eloise Reyes’ challenge, backed by unions and other liberal groups, to San Bernardino Assemblywoman Cheryl Brown, who belongs to the Assembly’s moderate bloc. Brown is receiving heavy support from business interests, which have counted on the bloc for support on key issues such as reducing carbon emissions.
Interestingly, all of the Senate’s Democrat-on-Democrat duels, and several of those in the Assembly, including the Brown-Reyes runoff, are also contests between candidates of different ethnic backgrounds, reflecting intraparty rivalries of another kind.