Our new book is titled Divided We Stand: The 2020 Elections and American Politics. Among other things, it discusses state elections.
The absence of exciting California state races could depress turnout in 2022, which in turn could have consequences in elections for the House.
We’re officially in a gubernatorial campaign cycle — indeed, we’re now closer to the March filing deadline for the June primary than to last September’s recall — but you wouldn’t know it from surveying the landscape. No prominent Republican has announced plans to challenge Gov. Gavin Newsom. Top recall vote-getter Larry Elder has bowed out of a rematch, Assemblymember Kevin Kiley is preoccupied with a run for Congress, and Republicans John Cox and Kevin Faulconer haven’t reported raising money for months (if Faulconer runs at all).Similarly, serious opposition to appointed Senator Alex Padilla has yet to emerge.
Newsom’s resounding recall win is lost on no one. The Democratic incumbent crushed the recall attempt by double digits — by the same margin, down to a decimal point, as his 2018 landslide victory. You don’t need to run a campaign firm or hold a political science degree to look at those numbers and conclude that Newsom has cemented his overwhelming frontrunner status as he seeks a second term.
Money is an overriding consideration for Republican hopefuls. Newsom was sitting on $24.5 million at the end of June and has since collected at least $500,000 more, including from boldfaced corporate names like Google and Warner Bros. A viable statewide opponent would need to raise significant sums — and quickly — to compete. Faulconer has been gauging donors’ appetites, and his consultant told us the former San Diego mayor is unlikely to run unless he’s confident tens of millions of dollars will materialize behind him.
But the Republican donor class isn’t exactly energized.We repeatedly heard phrases like “burned out” and “worn out” after the recall fizzled. With much of the focus on competitive House races and potentially more promising statewide contests for attorney general and controller, one prominent GOP donor told us she nearly forgot the governor was also on the ballot. “I haven’t paid any attention to it,” she said.
In California’s case, initiative supporters must collect a number of signatures equal to or greater than 8 percent of the number of ballots cast in the preceding gubernatorial election.
California’s 2014 gubernatorial contest, in which Gov. Jerry Brown (D) skated to re-election over former Bush administration official Neel Kashkari (R), was a dismally low-turnout affair in which only 30 percent of registered voters bothered to cast a ballot.
That meant supporters of any particular ballot measure needed just 365,880 valid signatures to qualify an initiative or referendum for the ballot in the two elections that followed.
The bar was so low that California’s ballots were inundated by initiatives: In 2016, voters weighed in on 15 citizen-sponsored ballot measures. In 2018, they decided eight more citizen-sponsored measures.
The surge in turnout this year  means future ballot measures will require many, many more signatures. To qualify, initiative supporters will need to collect more than 623,000 valid signatures, a 70 percent increase.
“Generally speaking, 2016 and 2018 were seen as sort of opportunities in California for initiatives because of the low 2014 turnout,” said Josh Altic, who studies ballot measures for the nonpartisan website Ballotpedia. “2020 and 2022 will be seen as the opposite of that.”
The era of grass-roots, volunteer signature drives to qualify a ballot measure long ago gave way to an “initiative industrial complex” that pays petition circulators by how many signatures they collect at those ubiquitous folding tables outside supermarkets and department stores.
The economics are simple: Per-signature prices are low when an election is a long way away and only a few ballot measure proposals are in circulation. And prices rise sharply when interest groups begin their initiative campaigns late and petition circulators are in high demand.
Two veteran strategists of the initiative process said they wouldn’t be surprised to see prices as high as $15 per signature by the time the finish line approaches this spring. While there’s no official data on signature payments — campaigns report total petition costs on disclosure forms, a lump sum of these expenses — the consensus seems to be that $10 per signature is the high-water mark from previous statewide ballot measure drives. (Local ballot measures often cost much more per signature, partly the result of having a smaller pool of voters from which to gather the needed support.)
(And the COVID-era labor shortage probably also boosts the cost.)
More and more ballot initiative campaigns are pulling the plug as they confront the difficult realities of signature-gathering. An effort to channel general fund dollars to water storage projects looks like the latest to capsize, with organizers telling The Mercury News that they lacked the resources to rally enough voters. The measure’s committee had reported raising about $100,000 so far from farms and farmers. Now environmentalists needn’t come up with the cash to counter.
Organized labor could have fewer fights on its hands , too, as a trio of potential threats have evaporated or been deferred. One of two school voucher initiatives folded earlier this month; a proposal to make a quality education a constitutional right, cracking the door to teacher employment law fights, is now looking to be kicked to 2024; and Silicon Valley player and periodic ballot bankroller Tim Draper has abandoned his quest to declaw public employee unions by barring them from collective bargaining.
ALREADY IN — If you love watching campaign ads or make your living off of them, don’t worry. We’re still likely to see a lively and expensive ballot. A tobacco-sponsored referendum on California’s flavored tobacco ban, a recycling overhaul funded by waste management companies and the latest doctors-versus-lawyers fight over malpractice payouts have all gathered enough signatures to qualify. So too has a tribal-backed sports wagering effort, although that could be supplanted by a new tribal proposal that seeks in turn to compete with FanDuel et al’s still-circulating gaming push.