OPED: Did California Democrats sleep through Election Day?

Jon Healey
Tribune News Service

Judging from Tuesday's primary results, the "blue wave" in California means Democrats waving at their polling places as they drove by.

Final numbers on voter participation won't be in for a while, but turnout seems unexceptional. With more than 97 percent of the precincts reporting, less than 21 percent of registered voters had cast ballots. That's in line with the anemic turnout in the 2014 primary, and far, far below the five previous midterm election primaries.

Who said this year was special? Oh right — Democrats did.

The line from the national media echoed this making-lemonade-out-of-lemons paragraph by The Times' Christine Mai-Duc: "Democrats in California appeared poised Tuesday night to avoid getting shut out of key congressional races for the November election, the most pressing risk they faced as they seek to retake control of the House."

Yes, there were a lot of Democrats competing with one another to flip the six Republican-held U.S. House seats in districts won by Hillary Clinton in 2016. But not getting shut out isn't exactly the same as "striking fear deep in the heart of Republican incumbents." Democrats may remain within hailing distance in four of those seats, but the strongest candidate in each of them was from the GOP.

In fact, the only incumbent House member who didn't come out clearly on top was a Democrat, Pete Aguilar in the Inland Empire, who trailed Republican Sean Flynn by less than 100 votes.

One interesting non-factor: identity politics. In a state where Latinos make up the largest ethnic group, the two most prominent Latino candidates sputtered badly. Former Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa came in a distant third in the governor's race, and former state Senate president pro tem Kevin de Leon was still battling for a spot in the U.S. Senate contest, barely visible in Sen. Dianne Feinstein's rearview mirror.

Democrats are counting on liberal Californians' antipathy toward President Donald Trump to energize the party, just as sparked so many first-time candidates to run for office. But the real MAGA effect on the primary seemed to be on the GOP side, where the Trump endorsement of John Cox pushed the Republican businessman and frequent failed candidate into the gubernatorial top two.

Cox would appear to have as much chance of beating Democrat Gavin Newsom in the general election as the Cleveland Cavaliers do of winning the NBA finals, but that's not really the point. Merely having a Republican at the top of the ballot will help bring out GOP voters, or so the theory holds. Will Democrats turn out as well, or will November bring another drive-by blue wave?

— Jon Healey is a columnist for the LA Times.