The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion California is sending warning signals to Democrats

A parent encourages people to sign a petition supporting the recall of members of the San Francisco School Board at a playground in San Francisco on April 15. (Melina Mara/The Washington Post)
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California, one of the bluest states in the country, is sending a flashing warning signal to Democrats. They would do well to pay attention.

Famously liberal San Franciscans voted overwhelmingly on Tuesday to throw out of office three school board members who had been insufficiently attentive to parents’ concerns about prolonged classroom closures during the coronavirus pandemic. The board members also faced criticism for focusing their energies on uber-woke causes, such as changing the names of a third of the district’s schools (including, embarrassingly, ones honoring George Washington and Abraham Lincoln) and ending merit-based admissions at elite Lowell High School, one of the best schools in the country, citing “pervasive systemic racism” at a campus where more than half the student body is Asian American.

The recall election was the first in San Francisco in nearly four decades, but it may just be a warm-up. A recall of progressive San Francisco District Attorney Chesa Boudin will be on the ballot in June, testing how much voters — who are increasingly fed up with rising crime — are willing to support his efforts to reduce the number of people in jails and prisons.

And these are not the only clouds of voter discontent in the not-so-Golden State. A raft of fresh polling by the Los Angeles Times found approval of Gov. Gavin Newsom (D), who easily beat back a recall effort in September, has dropped from 64 percent during the early months of the pandemic in the fall of 2020 to 48 percent. The chief reasons, according to the Times: “concerns about rising crime and California’s seemingly intractable homelessness crisis.”

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The poll, which was conducted with the UC Berkeley Institute of Governmental Studies, also showed approval of Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D) at an all-time low of 30 percent, and that Vice President Harris, the state’s former attorney general and U.S. senator, has sunk to just 38 percent. “I was amazed at the disaffection for both of the women,” Mark DiCamillo, director of the IGS poll, told the Times.

Among those turning thumbs down on Feinstein’s performance are voters who identify as strongly liberal, people under 40, Latinos and Asian Americans. In other words, core parts of the Democratic base. “I’ve never seen those constituencies moving to the negative side in unison as we’re seeing now,” DeCamillo said.

Henry Olsen: San Francisco just recalled three uber-progressive school board members. Good riddance.

Perhaps most strikingly, only one-third of female voters said they approve of Feinstein, a former San Francisco mayor whose 1992 election to the Senate alongside fellow Californian Barbara Boxer (D) was emblematic of what became known as “The Year of the Woman.”

Crime poses a serious challenge for Democrats. Seventy-eight percent of Californians say they have seen a rise in crime, and most told pollsters they would support changes to Proposition 47, which passed in 2014 and reduced some theft and drug felonies to misdemeanors. The measure, which voters approved overwhelmingly, was seen as a justice reform and a means of reducing overcrowding in prisons. Now, with a wave of smash-and-grab and other property crimes in the headlines in California, public sentiment is apparently building in favor of tough approaches to brazen offenders.

None of this is to suggest that the nation’s most populous state is likely to turn red or even purple any time soon. Republicans are in danger of becoming what is essentially a third party there, behind Democrats and voters who claim no party affiliation. But the signals suggest that Democrats across the map are likely to have trouble motivating their voters to turn out in an off-year election, especially since they do not seem to be listening to the concerns of a stressed-out electorate.

California was the epicenter of the Democratic wave in the 2018 midterm election, with the party picking up seven House seats. But they lost four in 2020, even as President Biden carried the state by nearly 2 to 1 over Donald Trump.

Some liberals try to reassure themselves that worries such as rising crime and inflation are merely being ginned up by the Fox News outrage machine. Consider the reaction of San Francisco Board of Supervisors President Shamann Walton, who shrugged off the school board recall results as driven by “closet Republicans and most certainly folks with conservative values in San Francisco, even if they weren’t registered Republicans.”

Really? In a city where nearly 9 out of 10 voted for the Biden-Harris ticket in 2020?

California has a history of being a harbinger of anger-fueled national political trends, and one may be building there now. Denialism is always dangerous in politics, and this year, for Democrats, it could be fatal.