Most years, California offers up supersize election stories — an embarrassment of riches for the opinion columnist. This year, other states are getting all the drama while California looks as staid as a bored accountant.
In 2010, the big story was Meg Whitman’s millions vs. Jerry Brown’s cheapskate comeback campaign. Whitman spent $140 million of her own money on her campaign for governor, only to watch attorney Gloria Allred chastise her on TV for firing a nanny because she had come to the country illegally. The previous two elections — one a recall — starred Arnold Schwarzenegger, the cigar-chomping movie star who boasted about kicking nurses’ butts and dismissed state legislators as “girlie men.”
This year, it’s Brown vs. Neel Kashkari, a buttoned-down former U.S. Treasury official who’s not even a billionaire. Because Kashkari doesn’t have Whitman’s money — he started the election worth $5 million, and he’s poured $3 mil into the campaign — Brown is free to ignore him. And the press corps is free to ignore the race.
If Republican Assemblyman Tim Donnelly had won in the June primary, California’s gubernatorial contest would be more interesting. He’s a former Minuteman who was put on probation for trying to get through airport security with a gun. Donnelly also accused Kashkari, a Hindu and son of Indian immigrants, of supporting Shariah when Kashkari worked for the Treasury Department. This year’s Republican voter had little appetite for a candidate who can spit out quotes that bring on weeks of damage control and paint the GOP as ethnically insensitive.
Turnout in June was an abysmal 25 percent — a big drop from 2010’s 33 percent. In the 2010 election, 60 percent of California voters participated. This November, turnout is expected to slump to 50 to 52 percent, according to Neal Kelley, who is the Orange County registrar of voters, although the state organization for election officials he heads hopes it will be larger. Kelley did confirm that so far, absentee ballot submissions are 5 to 6 percent lower than four years ago.
Given the lack of conflict, I think it will be amazing if half of registered voters turn out. If Donnelly had won, then Democrats would have used his border background to whip up a lather of Latino voter indignation; demonization boosts turnout. In the absence of a mud fight, only 1 in 4 voters could identify Kashkari for a September Los Angeles Times poll.
San Jose State University political science professor Larry Gerston notes that turnout is likely to be low because there’s no presidential contest; California’s a very blue state, which makes outcomes predictable; and there are few initiatives on the ballot. Gerston also sees a trend of public disengagement. “We all know our rights,” Gerston told me, but not necessarily our obligation to vote.
Without big money (which is supposed to be a voter turnoff) — and without mountains of mudslinging (the other alleged voter turnoff) — and with two good candidates, voter turnout likely will achieve a record low. As California becomes increasingly liberal and liberal pols make it increasingly easy to vote, see more Californians who can’t be bothered to do so. One-party rule begets two kinds of elections: ugly and inevitable or boring and inevitable.