At a recent debate, Assembly candidate Charles Cole began to answer a question about climate change by lifting his hands and making the universal sign for “air quotes.”
“As the ‘evil Republican,’” he said, pointers and middle fingers punctuating his words, “climate change is not that a big a deal to me.”
“Why do you put that in quotes?” the moderator asked, as Cole laughed along with the audience.
As a political matter, the 22-year old Cole does represent a kind of evil figure to his six opponents in the 37th Assembly District contest – even though he’s a boyish, uncertain and somewhat shy, first-time candidate who’s raised less than $3,000.
Come November, it's all but certain that yet another Democrat will win election in the district that has been represented, consecutively, by Monique Limon, Das Williams, Pedro Nava and Hannah Beth Jackson, liberals all. Before then, however, there's the small matter of next Tuesday's primary, which will award only two tickets to the fall run-off.
Alas for the pack of half-dozen Democratic wannabes, as the only Republican campaigning, Cole has the most clearly defined political base heading into March 3: the 23 percent of the district’s 276,329 voters who are registered Republican.
As the Dems compete for the 46 percent registered with their party (and the generally Democratic-leaning 24 percent of No Party Preference independents) Cole stands to benefit, both from the historic reliability of GOP voters to turn out and from the tribal passions of the Trump era, with partisan identity by far the single best demographic predictor of political and policy attitudes and behavior.
By the numbers. A look at recent primaries involving Republicans in the Democratic district, which includes parts of Santa Barbara and Ventura counties, illustrates the point, as GOP entrants won sizeable vote chunks -- despite being largely unknown and poorly funded.
In 2012, the first election using current district lines, Republican Rob Walter won 44 percent of the vote in the primary, as the only candidate on the ballot besides Das, then the Democratic incumbent.
Two years later, GOP contender Ron De Blauw won nearly an identical share of the vote, capturing 43 percent against Williams, then running for his third term.
As every school child knows, California’s primary rules, changed with the passage of Prop. 14 in 2010, decree that the two candidates with the highest primary vote totals, regardless of party, advance to the November election.
At first glance, that appears to benefit Santa Barbara Mayor Cathy Murillo and Ventura County Supervisor Steve Bennett, both of whom enjoy far more name identification – and far more financing ($261,730 for Bennet, $168,602 for Murillo) -- than Cole.
However, the partisan calculus of the primary presents a major challenge, especially as both also contend with the campaigns of fellow Dems Jonathan Abboud, Stephen Blum, Jason Dominguez and Elsa Granados, several of whom are running energetic campaigns.
“One of them is going to get squeezed out,” one Democratic strategist working in the race said of Bennett and Murillo. “Don’t be surprised if Cole comes in first.”
Of course, even if the Republican rookie celebrates on primary night, it’s likely to be a short and pyrrhic victory. The 37th AD is such fallow turf for the GOP that they didn’t even put up a candidate in the last two elections.
Caveat emptor. Reminder to voters of a certain age feeling a trifle confused by the appearance of Proposition 13 on the March 3 ballot: California’s Secretary of State recycles the numbers for ballot measures once a decade, and this year’s Prop. 13 does not effect the iconic 1978 tax cut measure.
This year’s version proposes $15 billion in general obligation bonds to finance renovations and construction in public school facilities -- $9 billion for K-12 and $6 billion for higher ed.
Jon Coupal, president of the Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Association, named for the late co-sponsor of the legendary Prop. 13, told reporters that the group has received calls from some people, asking if “this is some sort of nefarious trick.”
The influential anti-tax group in fact opposes the current iteration of Prop. 13. Reason: with interest over the 30-year bond term, total cost to taxpayers will be more than $25 billion.
“That’s $12 billion that’s not going into schools,” Coupal said. “We’re sitting on a surplus. Why can we not finance this on a pay-as-you-go basis?”
A version of this post is published in this week's Santa Barbara Independent.
Images: Charles Coles; Steve Bennett; Cathy Murillo; Montage by KUSI.com