Revisiting the 2018 Tactical Voter’s Guide to California
Just like 2018, 2020 is going to be the most important election in United States history. The Blue Wave in 2018 was a sign that the American democracy can still be salvaged. The 2020 election is our one chance to stop and roll back Trump’s authoritarian takeover of the entire US government and America’s descent into fascism.
With 2020 primaries already in sight, it is important to review what we learned in 2018. The outcomes of the California races that I analyzed in my Tactical Voter’s Guide last year (search for #TacticalVotersGuide on Facebook to find my original posts) matched my predictions almost perfectly, I think this makes my conclusions worth revisiting. The same principles are going to apply, and many of the same people are going to show up in 2020, too.
I offered recommendations for 27 votes in this guide. I was wrong about three: House District CA-1, won by Audrey Denney rather than Jessica Holcombe; and Board of Education districts 3 and 4 which were also won by other Democrats than I expected. On the other hand, I was right to go against CDP endorsement of Hans Keirstead, it was Harley Rouda who ousted Dana Rohrabacher in CA-48, and he almost got crowded out in the primary because Keirstead refused to concede.
So here is how I did my homework.
1. Vote. Even if you are not sure, even if you don’t much like any of the candidates, pinch your nose and vote for the least horrible option. There are actual Nazis running for election all over US, including California, along with people who pretend not to be Nazis but would be just as bad if they were allowed into office. Not voting in the primaries is, in a very practical sense, a vote for that lot.
2. No Republicans. It may have been a grand party once, but now that it has collectively decided to support the most corrupt and treasonous administration in United States history, and to advance its intentionally divisive and thoroughly destructive agenda, now that we have observed even the few remaining decent people voting along the party lines against their own publicly stated reservations, we simply can’t afford to trust their judgement anymore.
3. No vote splitting. Especially essential in the California “jungle primary”, where it can cause two Republican candidates and no Democrats on the ballot in November even in districts where all Democrats combined have a 10% advantage over the Republicans. If there is a Democrat incumbent, vote for the incumbent, no exceptions. If there isn’t, check who has the most endorsements from other Democrats, from Indivisible, from human rights organizations that you trust (ACLU, HRW, SPLC, etc.) Be wary of polls and surveys, at this point they’re mostly noise and lies.
3. Red flags. Bad money (oil, telecoms, NRA and other Russian mob connections, Kochs and Mercers, dark money PACs). Anti-immigrant rhetoric (in California, this includes anti-farming in addition to more widely known racist dog-whistles). Endorsements from alt-right (means they recognized a dog-whistle that you may have missed).
Dianne Feinstein is the incumbent, that alone is enough to recommend voting for her. There’s 9 other Democrats, 11 Republicans, and 11 others running for her seat, that alone tells you how risky it is to split this vote. I’ve seen people raise concerns about Feinstein’s connections with the intelligence community, but this year, it is actually an asset, which she has already wielded to great effect when she released transcripts of Glenn Simpson’s interview with Senate Judiciary Committee, revealing both new facts about Russia’s involvement in 2016 elections and the lengths Republicans are willing to go to cover it up. She’s better than ok, she’s a great candidate.
Kevin de León has reached his term limit in the State Senate and has decided that the best way to stay in politics is to challenge Feinstein. This decision is already a ding against him: he’s creating a major risk for the party and the country to satisfy his personal ambition. Best case, he helps crowd Republicans out of the ballot in November. Worst case, he takes enough votes away from Feinstein to let Republicans crowd both of them out. Unlikely, but not a risk worth taking. Having some hedge fund manager as the top endorser is two dings: one because I trust Obama’s judgement in politics, and one because I don’t much trust that of hedge fund managers. Not being a woman is another ding, there’s only 23 women in the current Senate, replacing one of them with a man is a move in the wrong direction.
The rest of the Democrats don’t have any kind of public track record, that summarily disqualifies the lot of them from running for this seat. Can’t trust someone who wants to jump straight into the top tier of American politics without showing what they’re worth at the local level.
My recommendation: Dianne Feinstein.
Gavin Newsom is the current Lieutenant Governor, this makes him the closest thing Democrats have to an incumbent in this race. Following the general principles I outlined in part 1, this makes him the automatic choice, assuming there are no red flags. As far as I can tell, there isn’t. Under his and Jerry Brown’s leadership, California has grown from 6th to 5th largest economy in the world. He spearheaded progressive breakthroughs like same-sex marriage and cannabis legalization. He’s endorsed by teachers, firefighters, health care workers. If elected, he’ll make a great governor.
Antonio Villaraigosa, former mayor of LA. I’ll start with same ding I’m going to apply to all Democrat candidates irresponsibly challenging the incumbent, but this case is really special. Herbalife advisor. Ethics violations. Campaigning on the job. Forcing and then overriding 3 consecutive votes of the 2012 DNC convention to inject religious language into the party platform. Ugh, hard pass. Having this guy instead of Newsom on the November ballot would be a disaster.
John Chiang is an unremarkable good guy (standing up to Schwarzenegger in 2008 ticks my “hard choices” checkbox), but considering how little of a track record he has compared to Newsom and how far behind he is in the surveys, all I have for him is a ding for splitting the vote.
Delaine Eastin, polling behind even Chiang, is another wasted vote. Having a lonely endorsement from SF Berniecrats, an affiliate of Our Revolution, makes me even more suspicious of Bernie’s motives and, by extention, of anyone he supports, including Eastin. I could believe that in 2016 they did not anticipate how disastrous the consequences of their attacks on Clinton would be. In 2018, I’m all out of benefit of doubt, this endorsement can’t be anything other than a deliberate effort to harm Democrats, just like Sanders’ own move to crowd out real Democrats from the primaries in Vermont.
My recommendation: Gavin Newsom.
Eleni Kounalakis is not an incumbent, but she is one of only two Democrat candidates with public service record worth considering, and the only woman of the two. More importantly, she is a life-long activist (see Wikipedia), an influencer (see Ballotpedia), and a fundraiser, which all adds up to having the connections, the skills, and the funds needed to win this race.
Edward Hernandez, just like Kevin de León, is a state senator who has hit the term limits, only he has decided to run in the race without an incumbent, so there’s no reason to ding him for splitting the vote. His record as a state legislator is unremarkable, and 78 out of 100 on Capitol Weekly scorecard is pretty low, so while he’d probably make an ok Lt Governor, I’d be surprised to see him make a lasting positive impact on California in this position.
Same as in other races, I’m not even considering the other candidates without a record of public service. Without a way to tell whether they even are real Democrats or, like Douglas Deitch in CA-20, closeted magaheads registering as Democrats to mislead the voters, none of them are safe to vote for, even without the tactical concerns about splitting the vote.
My recommendation: Eleni Kounalakis.
Xavier Becerra is the incumbent, and with two Republicans in the race, that alone is enough to recommend voting for him in the primary. His position is consistently progressive: opposes cutting Social Security and Medicare, supports DACA, pro-choice. Filed 32 suits against Trump administration primarily about its rollback of environment policies. Opened investigation into the killing of Stephon Clark by Sacramento police. His Wikipedia biography page has been repeatedly vandalized over the past few weeks, showing exactly what kind of people don’t want him elected.
Biggest ding against him that I could find was about not joining New York and Massachussetts investigation into Exxon and what it knew about climate change, and this one has been blown way out of proportion by ThinkProgress, a site I’ve put on my suspect list after it ran an attack piece against Harley Rouda (Democrat candidate in CA-48 trying to unseat Putin’s pet Dana Rohrabacher) sponsored by an anti-Democrat dark money 314 PAC. One, Becerra recently was pressured into admitting that there is an ongoing investigation (and, shockingly, it actually is normal to not talk about ongoing investigations), and two, the most significant part of this lawsuit is going to be discovery (exposing what exactly Exxon knew since the 70s about global warming), other than that there’s no way it leads to anything more than a slap on the wrist for Exxon. I’m fine with California prioritizing more urgent legal efforts and letting NY and Mass lead this case.
Dave Jones, current commissioner of insurance, is the Democrat challenger. Only half a ding for challenging the incumbent, on account of Becerra becoming the incumbent more than a year after Dave Jones announced his intent to run, and another full ding for actually suing Becerra over his campaign ads. Still, Jones has a pretty progressive voting record in the State Assembly (94 out of 100), has sponsored 3 minor environment and healthcare bills, and, as commissioner of insurance, wrestled with health insurance companies of excessive premiums, so he makes for a decent plan B.
My recommendation: Xavier Becerra.
Secretary of State
Alex Padilla is the incumbent, and has the endorsement of the CDP and many other respectable organizations, making him the obvious top choice. Extra point for sponsoring the bill banning single use plastic bags, and another for being hated by maga bots (e.g. “voter fraud” is a giveaway dog-whistle of suppressing minority votes). A ding for taking money from AT&T, and another for getting the state sued by ACLU over disenfranchising votes based on handwriting analysis. Not a perfect candidate, but really the only one we got this year.
Ruben Major is the challenger. While I actually like what he says (demanding paper ballots and open source software), everything else about him just smells wrong. A novice candidate with no record of public service. Endorsed by an extremely dodgy and toxic Berniecrat site VoxPublica alongside the most obvious spoiler candidates I’ve ever seen. No trace of maga trolls in the comments to his Facebook posts. Vouched to take no corporate money, but has Wells Fargo PAC listed as #3 donor on Voter’s Edge (which also says that, excluding his own personal contribution, he only raised $14,000). Even if he means well, tactically he is a wasted vote. Can’t have that when deciding who will manage California elections in 2020.
My recommendation: Alex Padilla.
State Executives and Measures
Most of these races are pretty straight-forward, so this here is more condensed than the previous parts of this guide.
Treasurer: Fiona Ma. Public service since 2002, endorsed by CDP and California Teachers Association. There is another Democrat and two Republicans in this race, so a split vote can lock Democrats out, make sure to get this one right.
Controller: Betty Yee. The incumbent and the only Democrat on the ballot, case closed.
Insurance Commissioner: Ricardo Lara. The only Democrat in this race with public service experience, endorsed by CDP, and this is another race with a possibility of lock out. Vote for Lara.
Superintendent of Public Instruction: Tony Thurmold is the only Democrat in this race, and he has public service record (State Assembly since 2014). Vote for Thurmold.
Board of Equalization:
District 1 - Tom Hallinan (the only Dem);
District 2 - Malia Cohen (with only one Republican in the race, it’s safe to go for the Democrat with the best progressive record);
District 3 - Nancy Pearlman (environment and education activist in a race overcrowded with zero-exposure candidates);
District 4 - David Dodson (alternatives are a formerly Republican state assemblyman recalled from school district board and an 80 years old disbarred religious NIMBY... good lord, what a district).
Prop 68 (Environment) - Yes;
Prop 69 (Transportation) - Yes;
Prop 70 (Cap-and-Trade) - No;
Prop 71 (Effective Date) - Yes;
Prop 72 (Rainwater) - Yes.
So far, my guide is in full agreement with CDP endorsements. I found two cases where CDP has voted for something incredibly stupid (failing to endorse incumbents for Senate, Governor, and AG; going against the district’s other Democrat candidates, Indivisible, and DCCC to guarantee a split vote in CA-48), but overall its endorsements list is not too bad, use it. From now on, I’m going to focus on the gaps in it: districts where CDP failed to reach a consensus, and cases where I found strong reasons to disagree with their decisions.
United States House
For any district not listed here, follow the CDP endorsements list.
CA-1: Jessica Holcombe. Peterson is an obvious spoiler (3 prior failures with abysmal single-digit results, late entry into an already crowded race). Denney refused to commit to stepping aside if she falls behind in the polls (and she did fall behind). Walters runs a shoestring campaign and also fell behind in donations and polls (and what happened to that commitment to step aside?).
CA-10: Josh Harder outraised the competition by a wide margin, both in small and in large contributions, indicating better outreach and stronger ability to amplify his message.
CA-25: Katie Hill outraised other candidates, gathered an impressive list of endorsements from local politicians, and has a public track record running a homelessness issue nonprofit. Caforio already lost this race once to the current incumbent, and this year has been outraised by Hill. Phoenix is significantly behind them both, and is another Our Revolution spoiler. Pallant is an even more obvious spoiler (no endorsements, no contributions, absent from forums).
CA-39: Gil Cisneros has the endorsement of DCCC and 14 US representatives, has outraised the competition, and leads in the polls. Thorburn is another Our Revolution spoiler, hard pass. Tran is behind in contributions, endorsements, and polls, and gets an extra ding for working with 314 PAC (which spends primarily on on anti-Democrat attack ads) and Jammal is even further behind.
CA-48: Harley Rouda has the endorsement of DCCC, Indivisible, 9 US representatives, and 2 other Democrat candidates who have withdrawn after a second Republican, Scott Baugh, joined the race at the 11th hour. Rouda gets a ding for telling everyone back in 2017 that Baugh won’t run (should have known better with Baugh setting up a decoy candidate to split Democrat vote back in 1995). Keirstead joined the race later than Rouda, secured the CDP endorsement early on, but has already spent most of his contributions on the primary race, as if he doesn’t expect or doesn’t indend to really fight in the general. Keirstead also works with 314 PAC, which is currently running a nasty attack against Rouda, megading for that. This is going to be the first (and hopefully only) case where I disagree with CDP endorsement and recommend Harley Rouda.
CA-49: Mike Levin got more endorsements than everyone else in this race, has outraised Applegate (ding for losing to Issa in 2016) and is ahead of Jacobs (who effectively isn’t campaigning, as if she’s willing to cede the field) in the surveys. All three look like good options, and in a massively split race like this one you have to go with the most reliable and verifiable indicator: endorsements. I recommend Mike Levin.
I was debating myself about refreshing this guide for November, but there’s not that much to change: most of the candidates I endorsed got through, now it’s relatively safe to just vote straight tickets for Democrats.
Yes, even good Republicans have to be voted out. They all tend to vote along the party line, and the GOP party line is just not good anymore.
Some state and local propositions are less obvious than others, I couldn't find the time and the energy to do proper research on all of them, sorry about that. Please comment if you have questions or important information about them.
One part of the 2018 ballot that I didn’t cover before primaries is judicial electees. In case you didn’t vote early, here’s my 2c.
Supreme Court: Carol Corrigan: No. Leondra Kruger: Yes. Court of Appeals: Vote yes to retain all judges.