REGION — In a year where Democrats nationwide are hoping to ride a “Blue Wave” back into control of Congress, California Democrats are seeking to tighten their stranglehold on Sacramento.
But Republicans are pushing back, using two major state issues — the so-called “gas tax” and the state’s sanctuary status — as their rallying cries in an effort to break up the Democratic supermajority in both halls of the legislature.
One race emblematic of this struggle is the State’s 76th Assembly District, where seven candidates — five Republicans and two Democrats — are vying to replace outgoing Republican Assemblyman Rocky Chavez, who is running for Congress.
Encinitas Councilwoman Tasha Boerner Horvath and community activist Elizabeth Warren are the two Democrats in the race. Former Encinitas Councilman Jerome Stocks, Vista Councilwoman Amanda Rigby, two-time candidate Thomas Krouse, San Dieguito Union High School District board member Maureen Muir and former Encinitas City Council candidate Phil Graham comprise the Republican field of candidates. Political newcomer Brian Wimmer recently withdrew from his campaign for state assembly and announced his endorsement of Graham.
The district stretches from Camp Pendleton to the north to Encinitas and includes the coastal cities of Encinitas, Carlsbad, Oceanside and the inland city of Vista.
Chavez, who is considered a moderate Republican, has held the seat since its creation following redistricting after the 2010 Census, and won with strong majority support since his first race in 2012.
But Democrats see the seat in play following 2016, where a strong majority of voters cast their ballots for Hillary Clinton and Kamala Harris for U.S. President and U.S. Senator, respectively.
At a recent candidate forum at MiraCosta College, several issues emerged as the centerpiece issues for the race: Senate Bill 1, the state’s fuel-tax and registration fee increase to help fund transportation projects and road repairs; SB 54, the state’s so-called sanctuary laws; commitments to environmental and coastal protection and the need for intervention in the housing crisis.
The two former issues dominated the debate.
Thad Kousser, a political science professor at UCSD, said that Republicans are working hard to frame the state races around these issues, where they feel they might have traction with independent voters, especially when it comes to the gas tax.
“If Republicans have anything to do with it, they will be the key issues in every race this year,” Kousser said. “Those are two areas where the Republican Party sees an advantage in a blue state, and possibly can drive a wedge between Democrat and independent voters on one hand and Democrat politicians on the other.”
Stocks, who did not attend the debate due to a scheduling conflict, said that Sacramento is sending mixed messages to residents about the state’s economic state.
“Jerry Brown touts we have a balanced budget, and a billion-dollar rainy day fund,” Stocks said. “At the same time, there is a money grab and we are raising taxes to get more money. Wait a minute, make up our mind, do we need money or are we rich? Either we are flush or are we in need.”
Republicans are not the only ones campaigning against the gas tax. Warren split from fellow Democrat Boerner Horvath, calling the tax regressive and impacting the working class that Democrats claim to represent.
“So I’m probably the only Democrat in California who is opposed to the gas tax,” Warren said. “I think we need to go somewhere besides people who have no choice but to commute, small businesses who have to get their goods from one place to another, people who are working very hard who live in Escondido, but work in the coastal cities and have to commute every single day.
“We are nickel and diming working people and small businesses into poverty,” she said.
Boerner Horvath said she supported it because the price tag for repairing the roads was cheaper than waiting longer to fix them.
“If we do not have roads and bridges and the infrastructure we need to get from A to B, we will have major costs for businesses and major costs and delays for individuals,” Boerner Horvath said.
Kousser, who moderated a 76th Assembly District race this year, said that Warren’s stance on the gas tax shows a divide within the Democratic Party, as working-class voters who might traditionally vote Democrat might oppose the tax because it hurts them more so than the wealthy.
“As small as it (the increase) is, it is still a regressive tax, and lot of Democrats have a lot of concerns about that,” Kousser said. “There are lots of Democrats that don’t drive Priuses and Teslas. There’s a lot of working class and commuting class Democrats.”
The state sanctuary status issue has been magnified locally by the County Board of Supervisors vote in April to support the Trump administration’s lawsuit challenging the state laws.
All six Republicans are opposed to the state’s stance, while both Democrats support it.
The Republicans said they opposed it because it stifled cooperation between state and federal agencies to ensure that undocumented immigrants who have committed serious crimes do not return to local streets.
“It’s illegal, it’s dangerous and it’s unconstitutional,” Graham said.
Krouse said that while the law carves out exceptions for violent crimes, some of the non-violent crimes covered under the law are actually very serious crimes, and cooperation between state and federal agencies should not be stifled by state law.
Republicans have run on illegal immigration before, most notably in 1994 when they rallied behind Proposition 187, which would have, among other things, established a state-run citizenship screening system and prohibited undocumented immigrants from using non-emergency health care, public education and other services.
Republicans gained more seats in the legislature than in recent memory, but lost those gains over the next three cycles as most of the law was ruled unconstitutional.
Kousser said this issue might play differently than in 1994.
“The question though is whether they are playing with fire in a very different state in a pretty diverse district,” Kousser said. “The issue will truly galvanize the Republican base, but it will also likely really turn off Democrats and independent votes, which comprise one-third and one-third of this district. This is a district that went to Hillary Clinton by 12 points, so this is not a district that embraces Trump’s policies on immigration.”
All of the candidates expressed a desire to protect the state’s coastline from offshore drilling and preserve them for the benefit of the environment and tourists. One candidate — Krouse — however, said he wasn’t in favor of sand replenishment if the science did not support it. The candidates also agreed that the state’s environmental quality act, known as CEQA, needs reform.
As it pertains to housing, all of the candidates said the state needs to do more to create housing, especially for low- and middle-income earners. But several of the candidates — Krouse, Graham and Rigby — said they believed the state should accomplish this by cutting regulations that make the cost of building houses higher than in other states.
“Before our builders even start building, the cost of building is 40 percent higher due to permit fees and other soft costs,” Rigby said.
Warren said she was a strong believer in creating “workforce housing,” building housing around work centers to reduce commuting, which puts a strain on the environment.
Warren and Boerner Horvath also called for the state to guarantee a free college education to students, building on a bill recently passed that guarantees the first year of junior college is paid for California full-time students.
Big money and the top-two system
If the money flowing into the race is any indication, the stakes are high. During the first reporting period of the year, from Jan. 1 to April 21, Graham, the stepson of former California Governor Pete Wilson, raised $242,000 alone — that’s more than the other seven candidates have reported raising combined.
Graham also received more than $43,000 in mailers, polling, consulting and research in the month of May alone from JobsPAC, a pro-business political action committee.
Muir, whose husband Mark, serves on the Encinitas City Council, has raised the next highest with more than $116,000. Boerner Horvath has raised more than $69,000 during that period.
The Republican Party is also coming to the aid of candidates in the form of attack mailers against Democrats Warren and Boerner Horvath, spending more than $17,500 during the month of May.
With the number of Republicans running, some political insiders have expressed concern that they might split the vote in a way that would allow Warren and Boerner Horvath to advance.
But Kousser and others said that the money trail appears to point to the Republicans galvanizing their efforts around Muir and Graham.
“If all six candidates had $200,000 war chests, it would be a big problem for Republicans,” Kousser said. “But it sounds like Graham and Muir are doing the lion’s share of the campaigning.”
Kousser pointed to a possibility, however, of two Democrats advancing in the 76th Assembly race, and two Republicans advancing in the 49th Congressional District, which largely overlap. If that happens, he said, Sacramento would likely move quickly to ditch the top-two system.
“Wouldn’t it be irony of ironies?” Kousser said. “That could sound death knell of top-two system because it would show how many problems it creates.”