SACRAMENTO — For those who think California politics is on the far-left fringe of the national spectrum, stand by. The next election season, already well underway here, will showcase a younger generation of Democrats that is more liberal and personally invested in standing up to President Trump's Washington than those leaving office.
Here in the self-labeled "state of resistance," the political debate is being pushed further left without any sign of a Republican renaissance to serve as a check on spending and social policy ambitions. Even some Republicans are concerned about the departure of Gov. Jerry Brown (D), who proved to be fiscally cautious after inheriting a state seven years ago in deep recession.
The race to succeed him, as well as contests for U.S. Senate and statewide offices, probably will feature a November ballot exclusively filled with Democrats. The top two primary finishers compete in the state's general election regardless of party, setting up several races between the Democrats' left and even-more-left wings in the nation's most-populous state, races that could signal the direction of the party's future.
In an off-presidential election year, California will serve as a campaign lab for many national issues, including taxes, immigration, health care, climate change, rural-urban income disparities and sexual harassment. The campaigns will test for national Democrats the most useful positions on issues important to the party's base and will provide a preview for national Republicans of the popularity of those stands.
"You are going to be talking about Democrat-on-Democrat crime, for the most part," said Bill Whalen, a research fellow at Stanford University's Hoover Institution. "What also is certain is that the next governor is going to be more progressive than Jerry Brown."
The prescription here for Democrats in a state where few — if any — will need to moderate their positions for the general election is simple. "You go left," said Karen Skelton, a Democratic consultant here.
That means staking out the most liberal stance on issues such as single-payer health care in California, a highly expensive initiative that failed in the legislature last year. The push is in response to the uncertainty surrounding health-care revisions in Washington, but it is estimated to cost twice the state's annual budget.
Candidates will be forced to defend California's "sanctuary state" status on immigration and push investment in the solar power and electric car industries to reach strict environmental goals. They also will have to address a sexual harassment scandal that, in Democratic consultant Bill Carrick's description, "hangs like a black cloud" over a State Capitol where two Democratic lawmakers have resigned and another has been suspended.
Then there is Trump, who lost the state by a 2-to-1 margin and has yet to visit as president. Through focus groups, Democratic consultants have found that Trump's policies occupy voters' attention to a degree that is overwhelming state races.
"He's really pulling our ponytail hard," Skelton said, citing the administration's recent decisions to open the Pacific Coast to offshore oil drilling, to threaten a crackdown on legal marijuana just as sales began in California and to condemn the state's immigration policy.
"That's the zeitgeist, that's where the energy is, that's where people are," said Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom, the former San Francisco mayor whom polls show leading the gubernatorial race with many still undecided. "They're not focused on this race, understandably."
Newsom is running to the left of the popular Brown, who is nearly 30 years older, on Democratic litmus-test issues such as single-payer health care for state residents.
Newsom also is attempting to speak to the growing sense among the state's more conservative rural voters that they are paying too much for services that primarily benefit those who live on the coast. That east-west divide largely has replaced the north-south rivalry that once shaped state politics.
In his final State of the State address on Jan. 25, Brown said California is "prospering," a nod to a growing economy that is the sixth-largest in the world.
But in an interview after the speech, Brown said that "does not mean all Californians are prospering," and he made a distinction between the coastal "consulting class" and rural laborers whose "culture of working with their hands" is disappearing.
The state's December unemployment figures tell the story: The rate in San Francisco County was 2.2 percent; in Imperial County, which borders Mexico and Arizona, the rate was nearly 18 percent.
"The state is more divided," Brown said. "And it's divided this way right across the country."
Brown said he is uncertain whether he will endorse in the race to succeed him, even though Newsom also is a Bay Area Democrat who, on climate change in particular, supports the governor's policies. Some of Brown's transportation initiatives, including a high-speed rail project from Los Angeles to San Francisco that is bursting its budget, remain in question.
"I don't think the people of Tulare County or Modoc County want to hear from Jerry Brown on who to vote for. Maybe the people in Oakland would, I don't know," Brown said. "I'll decide what to do based on 45 years of campaigning in this state."
Bridging the rural-coastal divide will be a difficult task for Newsom, who grew up in San Francisco's Marina district with a divorced mother. He spent time with his father in rural Placer County — which stretches through California gold country, from Sacramento to Lake Tahoe — but his politics and well-tailored appearance are distinctly urban.
"There are often two different worlds in the same cities, not just the same state," Newsom said. "There's a cultural divide. And we're not able to communicate on a level that is not seen as arrogant and dismissive. We need a new vernacular."
His chief rival is Antonio Villaraigosa, a former Los Angeles mayor and state Assembly speaker. With many Latinos on the ballot, Latino turnout is projected to be high, though it usually trails expectations.
"It's a moment when I'm challenging Latino activists and challenging the population as a whole to make sure that they come out," said Assembly Speaker Anthony Rendon, a Los Angeles-area Democrat.
Rendon stands at the line where the spirit of resistance meets practical politics, the divide within the state Democratic Party. He calls the resistance "an interesting way of marketing stuff and selling T-shirts."
Last year, Rendon angered the powerful state nurses union by declining to put an unfunded single-payer health-care bill to a vote after it passed the Senate. Recalling last year's effort as "symbolic rather than substantive," Rendon said he will try again only if "it becomes a serious piece of legislation, which it still is not."
"I'm not blind to it," Rendon said of the energy behind the idea of resistance to Trump. "But these elections ultimately come down to fundamental economic realities, and I think those are the types of things we should focus on rather than labeling things."
Those economic realities — housing costs, government regulation and the gas tax — are where Republicans hope to make inroads in a state where the cost of living has pushed the poverty rate higher than any other in the country.
Brian Dahle, a seed farmer and the Assembly's Republican leader who represents the northeastern corner of the state, argues that business regulation is too strict, fuel prices due to the recent state gas-tax hike too high, and housing too scarce.
"You know people don't pay attention when everything's working, only when it breaks," Dahle said of a growing state economy. "But right now, we're on the way to tipping over."
The last time a Republican won statewide in California was in 2006, when Arnold Schwarzenegger was reelected governor and tech entrepreneur Steve Poizner won the race for insurance commissioner.
But Schwarzenegger's success was viewed more as a testament to his movie-star name recognition than to the strength of the state party, which since embracing a harsh anti-immigration ballot measure in the mid-1990s has failed to gain traction with young voters and Latinos, now the state's single-largest ethnicity and a vibrant strain of the resistance.
In response, state Attorney General Xavier Becerra, whose mother was born in Mexico and whose father was raised there, warned California businesses that they might be subject to prosecution if they cooperate with federal officials.
"Donald Trump wants us to go back to 'Make America Great Again,' and to me those are the days that my dad could not walk into a restaurant because of signs that said 'No dogs or Mexicans,' " said Becerra, who after his appointment to his post last year is seeking statewide election for the first time. "I think of the issue in those terms."
State Sen. Kevin de León, the Los Angeles-area Democrat who runs the Senate chamber, wrote the sanctuary state bill. He hopes to harness Latino enthusiasm to his candidacy for the U.S. Senate seat held by Dianne Feinstein, a five-term incumbent nearly three decades older than he is.
During the recent federal government shutdown, Feinstein voted against reopening the government because the deal did nothing to protect undocumented immigrants brought to this country as children, roughly 220,000 of whom live in California. Democratic consultants here say Feinstein's move to the left is inevitable given de León's resistance-inspired candidacy.
For Republicans, the question is how to get back into contention statewide, which not even the most optimistic believe is possible this year.
Assembly member Chad Mayes, who was ousted as Republican leader last year after he supported a Democratic environmental initiative, has started a moderate GOP movement called "New Way California." The group is running ads on the Internet celebrating immigration and diversity, and confusing a GOP caucus that has yet to determine how much to associate itself with Trump.
"We are in a death spiral," said Mayes, an evangelical Christian who represents a mixed urban-rural district east of Los Angeles. "If you look at the way voter registration trends are going, we are, as Arnold Schwarzenegger said in a speech 10 years ago, dying at the box office. And that is still the truth. The question is: What do we do about it?"