California General Election Outlook

Client Alert

As in years past, hundreds of millions of dollars are being spent to sway voters in California before the general election. On Tuesday, California voters will determine who will hold nine statewide offices, a seat in the U.S. Senate, and a number of competitive seats in the U.S. House of Representatives and in the state legislature as well as decide the outcome of dozens of local municipal races and determine the fate of seven statewide ballot propositions.

Statewide Offices

Democrats currently hold all eight state offices elected statewide—Governor, Lieutenant Governor, Attorney General, Secretary of State, Treasurer, Controller, Insurance Commissioner and Superintendent of Public Instruction. All eight are on the ballot, and all but one seem certain to be held by Democrats largely because of a 23-point voter registration advantage over the GOP.

Governor Gavin Newsom will face the voters for a second time in as many years as he runs for reelection to his second, and last, four-year term. Last year, Newsom prevailed 62% to 38% in a statewide recall election. This year, Newsom faces state Sen. Brian Dahle, who represents a rural district stretching from the Oregon border down through the northern Sierra. Several public polls as well as a steep advantage in fundraising suggest Newsom will be reelected.

Similar dynamics exist in six of the other statewide races. Only the race for controller, an open seat, seems to be competitive. The Republican candidate, Lanhee Chen, a Stanford University professor and policy advisor, is facing off against Democrat Malia Cohen, the chair of the State Board of Equalization. Chen appears to have outraised Cohen—and every other Republican seeking statewide office this cycle. Chen has been endorsed by California’s major newspapers, including the Los Angeles Times, The Mercury News (San Jose) and The Sacramento Bee. Still, Cohen seems likely to prevail given the large Democratic voter registration advantage over the GOP.

Propositions

Voters will also decide seven statewide propositions on an array of issues. These ballot measure campaigns have spent hundreds of millions of dollars to persuade voters, especially on two sports betting measures, Propositions 26 and 27, discussed below.

Proposition 1, a measure the legislature voted to put on the ballot, would enshrine in the state constitution the right to reproductive freedom, which includes the rights to choose to have an abortion and to use contraceptives. A recent poll showed support for Proposition 1 at 71%.

Proposition 26, sponsored by some of California’s largest Native American tribes, would legalize in-person sports betting on tribal lands and at four horse-racing tracks. A yes vote would also allow tribal casinos to offer roulette and games played with dice (such as craps) if permitted by individual tribal gaming agreements with the state. The measure would also allow tribes to sponsor individual private attorney general actions—lawsuits brought by lawyers in private practice—against cardrooms in order to enforce state regulations.

Proposition 27, primarily sponsored by online sports betting companies, would allow licensed tribes and online betting platforms to offer sports betting over the Internet and mobile devices to people 21 years of age and older, regardless of whether the bettor is on tribal land. Those offering online sports betting would be required to pay the state a share of each bet, and a new state entity would be created to regulate online sports betting.

Proposition 28 is a measure that would require approximately $1 billion annually to be earmarked to pay for arts and music education in public schools. This measure is supported by a former superintendent of the Los Angeles Unified School District and has no major opposition.

Proposition 29, which is sponsored by a union of health care workers, would require dialysis clinics to have a physician, nurse practitioner or physician assistant on premises during treatment hours. Voters rejected by wide margins two previous attempts, in 2018 and 2020, to regulate the dialysis industry.

Proposition 30 would require wealthy Californians—those making over $2 million annually—to pay an additional 1.75% in income tax to incentivize zero-emission vehicle purchases, fund vehicle charging stations, and fund wildfire response and prevention activities. The initiative has created interesting coalitions: Proposition 30 is supported by Lyft, the electrical workers union and the state Democratic Party but is opposed by Governor Newsom, public employee unions and the state Republican Party. Proposition 30 was polling well until Newsom appeared in a high-profile advertising push against the measure. The most recent publicly available polling suggests a slight majority of voters (52%) now oppose the measure.

Proposition 31, mainly funded by the tobacco and vaping industries, is a referendum on whether a 2020 state law banning the sale of most flavored tobacco products should take effect. A yes vote on Proposition 31 means the law should take effect and would prohibit the sale of most flavored tobacco products and tobacco product flavor enhancers.

Congress

U.S. Sen. Alex Padilla will face California voters in a general election for the first time since being appointed to the Senate by Governor Newsom to replace Vice President Kamala Harris, who resigned the seat to assume the vice presidency in January 2021. His name appears on the general election ballot twice: once to be confirmed to retain the seat through the end of former Sen. Harris’ term in January 2023 and a second time to be considered for election in his own right to serve a full six-year term beginning in January 2023.

There are also a number of interesting races for California seats in the House of Representatives. California’s congressional, legislative and Board of Equalization seats are drawn by an independent citizens redistricting panel. The panel’s post-2020 Census redrawn congressional districts created a number of competitive seats that House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Bakersfield) has targeted as part of a national drive to regain GOP control over the body.

Below are a few races to watch.

Rep. David Valadao (R) vs. Assemblymember Rudy Salas (D) (San Joaquin Valley) – Salas is challenging Valadao to represent a swath of the San Joaquin Valley, including portions of Kern, Kings and Tulare counties.

Assemblymember Adam Gray (D) vs. mega-nursery owner John Duarte (R) (Upper San Joaquin Valley) – Gray, a ten-year assembly veteran, is in a high-stakes race against Duarte, whose candidacy is being particularly well-funded by the GOP in an effort to flip the seat of retiring Democrat Jerry McNerney to GOP control. The new district leans Democratic and spans the heart of the Central Valley, running from Modesto in the north to Coalinga in the south.

Rep. Mike Garcia (R) vs. Christy Smith (D) (Los Angeles) – Smith, a former assemblywoman, is challenging Garcia for the third time. Newly drawn lines make this seat more Democratic and more competitive for Smith, but McCarthy and the Republican Congressional Campaign Committee are defending the seat with funding for TV and mail advertising that has targeted Smith’s campaign in recent weeks.

Rep. Katie Porter (D) vs. Scott Baugh (R) (Orange County) – Second-term Rep. Porter is fending off a challenge by former Assembly Republican Leader Scott Baugh to represent a coastal Orange County district. Due to redistricting, this seat is more evenly split between Democrats and Republicans than when Porter first won the seat, and the GOP is hoping to flip it.

Rep. Mike Levin (D) vs. Brian Maryott (R) (San Diego/Orange) – Two-term Rep. Levin defeated businessman Maryott in a close race for reelection to Congress in 2020, and faces him again this year in a race likely to be even more competitive in this redrawn district representing coastal communities in Orange and San Diego counties.

State Legislature

Despite redistricting, Democrats are likely to retain supermajority control of both the California State Senate and the California State Assembly. However, there will be change due to an unusually large influx of new members as a result of the decennial redistricting process, term limits and early retirements. More than a quarter of the 120 members of the legislature who take the oath of office in December will be new. In addition, most competitive legislative races in 2022 are between members of the same party, and in those few races, the differences between the candidates are much more about degrees of ideology than about each candidate’s specific positions on the policy issues at hand. These campaigns are being fueled by huge independent spending by business, labor, charter schools, dialysis providers and others that are looking to elect new friends or defeat adversaries.

Given the state’s heavy reliance on mail-in ballots, many of these contests might not be decided for several weeks.

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