Call the Coroner: The Election Post-Mortem

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Getty/Kevork Djansezian

Happy Democrats. Angry Republicans. Mixed messages from the voters. Three admittedly obvious but major stories this morning from California's 2010 elections.

Californians are waking up to a past-and-future governor and a Democratic party that seems to stand out as the strongest in the nation. And we're left to wonder whether these results are a mandate for anyone; voters didn't seem to express anger over these last few weeks as much as they did a malaise.

So, in no particular order...

Getty/Justin Sullivan

What Can Brown Do For You?

Leave it to Governor-elect Jerry Brown to sum up both his top goal and his greatest dilemma all in a single point last night.

"They're divisions tonight in California," said Brown. "They'll be divisions in the state Capitol. They're divisions in Washington. So I take, as my challenge, forging a common purpose."

But at this stage, no one seems to have any idea where that common purpose lies... except, perhaps, in wanting things in the state to be better in the generic sense. Brown's re-emergence as the dominant political player in the state does not seem to bring along a mandate on any particular set of issues; let's not forget that the Democrat's campaign was, by and large, not one waged on particular positions or ideas. In many ways, he is poised to become a governor who's a bit of a blank slate -- an advantage, perhaps, when first meeting one's adversaries... but something that could become a liability when the natural anti-Democratic interest groups start to attack his every move.

We should also note that Jerry Brown, should he stay as healthy and robust as he seems (he challenged a reporter to a pull-up contest this past spring), will become the longest serving governor in California history. The only other three-term chief executive, Earl Warren, left early to become chief justice of the United States. Brown's third term also means he's eclipsed his father, the late Pat Brown, in electoral success (who, as we know, lost his third campaign to Ronald Reagan in 1966). But the elder Brown is still regarded as one of California's greatest leaders, thanks to the big things that happened under his administration -- the public works masterpieces on water and transportation, and the emphasis on the state's higher education system. The shadow of the father still seems large, though the governor-elect now has a chance to leave his own lasting mark.

Budget Brain Freeze

The voters told California lawmakers that it's easier to pass a budget, harder to raise revenues through fees, harder to redistribute tax dollars between local and state government, harder to fund state parks, and important to offer businesses tax breaks.


The passage and defeat of the five aforementioned initiatives is likely to mean some unusual fits and starts in the state Capitol come January. And the most dangerous of all of them for Democrats is Proposition 25, the majority vote budget measure. Its passage may help Republicans create a narrative that improves their currently anemic standing statewide.

"The Democrats now have 100% control of the budget process," said former GOP legislative leader Jim Brulte this morning. "And they get to own the results."

Brulte is right about the latter, wrong about the former. A majority vote budget will not allow Democrats to, for example, solve a deficit through higher taxes (they'll still need Republican votes). And Proposition 26, the supermajority fees initiative, seems to nullify the controversial 2009 budget 'tax swap,' a change that could reopen a $1 billion gap in the state's finances.

That, plus the already projected $10 billion deficit for 2011-12, means it's going to be a very tough budget season ahead.

The Nightmare Dream Ticket

For a state Republican party that crowed about its diverse ticket for statewide offices that would prove this is a different GOP... it's the same results. In fact, it's even worse; it now appears Dems ran the table on all eight constitutional offices and, of course, the U.S. Senate. The party's chairman, Ron Nehring, was still calling Brown and newly reelected U.S. Sen. Barbara Boxer "relics" on Election Night. Well, looks like voters like their relics.

California Republicans, for all of their crowing about party growth and dynamism, continue to be stuck with a large registration gap among voters -- now 13 points. That means that even less-than-loved Democratic candidates simply need to bring out their base and a moderate number of independents to win statewide races. That certainly seems to have been part of what happened Tuesday. Just look at the latest returns in the race for governor: pre-election predictions were that 39% of the electorate this year would be Republican in the Golden State. But if the numbers hold, they seem to imply that Meg Whitman only won a small sliver of votes above that motivated base -- nowhere near enough to carry the day.

It should be noted that the GOP could still end up with a plum prize: attorney general. There, Kamala Harris' current lead over Steve Cooley is only about 30,000 votes. But even so, Cooley is not seen as someone around which to build a Republican brand.

It would seem Reeps are going to need to do some serious re-examination of their priorities.

Other Tidbits...

As returns get finalized and sleep returns to us all, there will be more to say, but consider this an homage to the King of the Journalistic Ellipsis:

Was Whitman a bad candidate or was it a flawed campaign strategy?...did the legalize pot forces behind Prop 19 lose an actual lead, or had voters really not thought through the measure when they initially told pollsters they supported it?...can Arnold Schwarzenegger, thanks to the passage of independent congressional redistricting and defeat of the climate change law suspension, now cement his legacy as an innovative reformer, or does the budget mess still hang around his neck?

These questions, and more, await answers.

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About John Myers

John Myers is senior editor of KQED's new multimedia California Politics & Government Desk.  He has covered California politics for most of the past two decades -- serving previously as Sacramento bureau chief for KQED News and, most recently, as political editor for KXTV News10 (ABC) in Sacramento. He moderated the only gubernatorial debate of 2014, and was named one of the nation's top statehouse reporters by The Washington Post. Follow him on Twitter @johnmyers.
  • Kory

    On an Unmerry-go-Round. America has done the almost immpossible; to Itself.
    We allowed something Other than “Us”, the absolute Power and destiny of Our Nation. People are no longer the Backing of Politician’s and Political Election’s.
    Un-Named Corporation’s from all over the Globe Handed Over Million X Million’s to Influence Voter’s that carried the GOP into the Majority in the
    House of Representatives.

    Are “We the People” just a Little Curious about Who is Willfully giving MILLIONS AND MILLIONS of Dollar’s to Elect Congressman, Governor’s, ETC, and what do these Corporation’s expect for Political Favor ?