California Primary Results: More of Scott Walker, Less of the Tea Party


To average American voters, Californians are that "big blue state," filled with Hollywood liberals and San Francisco hippies. To political junkies, Californians are more nuanced, but still confusing, with ballot initiatives that muck up the state constitution, recalls that elect movie stars, and elections like 2008, when Barack Obama carried the state but gay marriage was banned.

Yesterday's primaries only added more mystique to Californians' political identity. Recent reforms dramatically changed the Golden State's electoral landscape, making both history and controversy. For the first time ever, five independents made it to the general election, and nine congressional races will feature members of the same party duking it out for the seat (seven all-Democrats and two all-Republican contests). Redistricting changes put some long-time and legendary lawmakers into the same district, forcing them to battle each other in November or convinced them to retire, "robbing California of seniority and influence" in Washington.

With Democrats battling Democrats for the center-left sweet spot, and independents sticking a thorn in extremist Republicans' sides, next year's congressional delegation looks to be decisively more moderate. One example is the Bakersfield race: Tea Party darling Kevin McCarthy (and current House Majority Whip) isn't facing stiff competition, but without a Democratic foil, it will convince him to campaign from (and be accountable to) a more centrist position to his constituents. Riverside (east of Los Angeles) and Stockton and Elk Grove (in the agricultural Central Valley) have potentially competitive races: Democratic challenger Ami Bera is closing in on Elk Grove's Dan Lungren, as well as the well-financed and rising GOP star (at age 25) Ricky Gill against incumbent Jerry McNerney.

But Californians also wanted a piece of the Scott Walker-style pension reform pie. Two major cities, San Diego and San Jose, each passed measures containing elements of the Wisconsin governor's reform with strong majorities. While the measures differed in certain aspects (see great reporting here and here), both were serious and courageous efforts to reform public employee pensions/benefits. Californian cities like Stockton are hurtling towards bankruptcy, finding that overgenerous pensions/benefits promised in the late 1990's and early 2000's are now crowding out basic municipal services. In the face of overwhelming support for the measures in both cities, it's clear that unions,long a major influence in state politics, need to reassess their standing on pension reform.  

California also has a reputation of being an American microcosm. If that's so, both Republicans and Democrats need to take note of a rising -- and, in my opinion, welcome -- tide of national sentiment that wants their government to be more electorally accountable, more moderate and open to compromise, and more bold in addressing long-term and structural problems like pension reform.