A lot of California Republicans have been lamenting the fact that no credible GOP candidate has yet emerged to run for governor next year in a race in which he or she would likely challenge Democrat Jerry Brown, who is expected to seek re-election.
But, longtime Democratic strategist Bob Mulholland told me yesterday, perhaps it is the Democrats who should be most concerned. If Republicans are unable to field a credible candidate, he mused, voter turnout in the 2014 election without a contested top-of-the-ticket race would likely be abysmal. And that would severely damage the chances of Democrats running for Congress and the Legislature across the state.
It may seem counterintuitive, but the theory makes sense. If Republicans essentially concede the governorship, it very well could create the kind of turnout model that could swing back into their column many of the down-ticket offices they lost last year in an election with a strong, Democrat-friendly turnout.
Thus far, only Assemblyman Tim Donnelly, a Tea Party favorite and founder of the Minuteman movement, has publicly expressed an interest in the GOP nomination for governor. While some mainstream Republicans worry that such a candidate would be a disaster for the party in California and result in many voters casting a straight party-line ballot for Democrats, it is also true that such a candidate would likely be unable to raise anywhere near the amount of money necessary to wage a visible campaign. In such a scenario, occasional voters might not see any reason to vote, and many might not even become aware that there is an election. With Barbara Boxer and Dianne Feinstein both in the middle of their six-year terms, there will be no U.S. Senate race in California next year.
It's likely that some Republicans have already figured this out. Former Sen. Jim Brulte, all but certain to be installed as state GOP chairman next month, has said that rebuilding the party will be a six-year effort. Perhaps that's just an expression of realistic expectations. But perhaps it's also an indication of a strategy that would involve using the 2014 election to try to start rebuilding from the bottom up, maneuvering to get into a position from which the GOP could make a credible run for the governor's office in 2018.
What could Democrats do to defend themselves against such a possibility? Turn to ballot propositions to drive voter turnout.
Efforts are already under way to qualify an initiative that would increase tobacco taxes and devote the revenue to higher education -- an effort that, if successful, would likely rally college students to turn out as they did last year in support of Proposition 30. Beyond that, Democrats in the Legislature could use their supermajority to place other measures on next year's ballot that might have strong appeal to other Democratic-leaning voter groups. Perhaps one seeking an increase in the minimum wage? Perhaps political reforms?
In this off year in California politics, there are some interesting strategic decisions to be made about 2014.
SMYTH FORMS COMMITTEE: Former GOP Assemblyman Cameron Smyth this week opened a Senate campaign committee for 2016, but that means less than it might suggest.
Smyth ruled out a run for Senate last year in which he could have challenged incumbent Democrat Fran Pavley, but he said at the time he wasn't foreclosing the possibility of running for elected office again at some future time. The 27th Senate District could be more appealing in 2016, because with Pavley termed out it will become an open seat.
Smyth told me this morning he formed the committee because still had money in his Assembly campaign account that needed to be parked somewhere, so he opened the new committee and transferred the balance into it. He said he has no intention at this point of using the committee for any active fund-raising.
He said his thinking remains the same as last year -- he's happy working in the private sector, enjoying coaching his kids' soccer team, but not ruling out a return to the political arena at some point. Maybe for Senate in 2016, and maybe not.