Apr 15, 2024 - News

Democrats tackle voter engagement in California

Aerial photo of the California state capitol in the daylight

The California State Capitol. Photo: Visions of America/Joe Sohm/Universal Images Group via Getty Images

Even in solidly blue California, discontent with the Democratic Party and President Joe Biden has grown in recent years, leading some local and national leaders to worry about voter engagement in state-level races.

Why it matters: Voter turnout in March was lower than in previous presidential primaries. More than half of Californians hold an unfavorable view of the Democratic Party, per a February survey by the Public Policy Institute of California (PPIC).

State of play: The narrow margin of voters that decided Proposition 1 — the product of legislation passed in 2023 — was a wake-up call for Democrats, PPIC survey director Mark Baldassare told Axios.

  • "It does raise some questions about how secure you can feel about the vote in November," he said.
  • Democrats currently hold a two-thirds majority in both chambers, which allows them to raise taxes and place constitutional amendments — like 2022' abortion rights — on the ballot without GOP votes.

The latest: The Democratic Legislative Campaign Committee (DLCC) is rolling out a new messaging strategy that emphasizes the threat of policy actions in red states to engage voters in blue states, including California.

  • It plans to make the case that blue states aren't immune to the impact of legislative attacks on issues like reproductive rights — the ongoing abortion pill legal challenge, for instance, could curtail access even in states where abortion is legal.
  • It reinforces the fact that California must continue to serve as a "blue wall," DLCC President Heather Williams told Axios during a trip to San Francisco.

The other side: "California Democrats are wrong to tailor their messaging on issues that are completely settled in this state," state Senate Minority Leader Brian Jones said in an emailed statement.

  • GOP messaging will highlight how Democratic policies have led to "record-high prices," homelessness and crime, according to Jones, who noted he sees opportunities for Republicans to "pick up a couple of seats."
  • The GOP equivalent of DLCC has also told its candidates that focusing on the economy and crime will give them the edge over Democrats who prioritize abortion and democracy.

What they're saying: The Democratic Party hasn't historically invested as much in down-ballot races compared to national races, yet state legislatures often affect people's lives more directly, Williams noted.

  • Republicans have launched a coordinated effort in state legislatures, and "the story that we're really trying to tell is that the same is true for Democrats," she said. "The structure is built for them to move legislation fast."
  • The DLCC has set a $60 million target budget for 2024, which Williams says is its largest to date. It's unclear how much will go towards California.
  • It's working with officials like state Sen. Monique Limon (D-Santa Barbara) to identify races to prioritize.

Yes, but: Anger over policy issues won't necessarily motivate people who aren't politically engaged, especially those whose priority is high costs of living, UC Berkeley political scientist Lisa Garcia Bedolla told Axios.

  • "Not all Democrats are created equal in … their policy interests," she said. "Lead with issues, not with party."
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