A Big Win for Democrats in California Came With a Gut Check for Liberals

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OAKLAND, Calif. — The message that California voters sent in the presidential election was unequivocal: With almost two-thirds of ballots counted so far going for Joseph R. Biden Jr., the nation’s most populous state put up mammoth numbers for the Democrats. But dig a little deeper into the results and a more complex picture of the Golden State voter emerges, of strong libertarian impulses and resistance to some quintessentially liberal ideas.

In a series of referendums, voters in California rejected affirmative action, decisively shot down an expansion of rent control and eviscerated a law that gives greater labor protections for ride-share and delivery drivers, a measure that had the strong backing of labor unions. A measure that would have raised taxes on commercial landlords to raise billions for a state that sorely needs revenue also seemed on track for defeat.

The full force of the election results provided something of a gut check for liberals in a state that plays a big role in the Democratic Party and often offers insights into where the rest of the nation might be headed.

“The results in California show the Democrats that you can go too far,” said Bob Shrum, a former Democratic strategist and the director of the Dornsife Center for the Political Future at the University of Southern California. “California is a very liberal state that is now resistant to higher taxes and welcoming to the new gig economy, which is where the industry was created.”

That is not to say California is lurching rightward. The state is unwaveringly Democratic up and down the ranks of its government. Democrats have a supermajority in the Legislature, and the governor and lieutenant governor are Democrats. Even the state’s chief justice, Tani Cantil-Sakauye, quit the Republican Party two years ago and became an independent.

Pockets of unambiguous liberalism stayed strong on Tuesday with San Francisco voters saying yes to liberal priorities including affordable housing, police oversight and new taxes on companies whose highest-paid manager makes more than 100 times the level paid to its local workers.

Credit…Mike Blake/Reuters

And on many ballot measures, California voters validated the state’s liberal reputation. They rejected an expansion of penalties for some crimes and restored voting rights for felons who are on parole, securing the state’s position as a national leader in reducing mass incarceration and reforming its criminal justice system.

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This year’s mixed results, however, were not an anomaly. California has always had competing impulses. The state that is home to Nancy Pelosi, the speaker of the House of Representatives, also produced icons of conservatism including Ronald Reagan. Some of the most prominent conservative voices during the Trump presidency hail from California, including Kevin McCarthy, the House minority leader; Devin Nunes, the outspoken congressman and staunch Trump ally; and Stephen Miller, the hard-line anti-immigration White House adviser.

This has put California on the front lines of many political battles. The affirmative action measure on the ballot this year, for example, dated to 1996. That year, 55 percent of the state’s electorate voted to ban the use of race, ethnicity, national origin or gender in public hiring, contracting and university admissions.

The proposition that California voted on this time would have repealed the ban and was supported by a who’s who of the Democratic Party in the state, including Kamala Harris, the senator and vice-presidential candidate. But it was defeated by almost the same margin with which it had passed originally.

Analysts saw a reflection of the state’s demographic complexity in the vote.

“It’s always difficult to do proposition campaigns in a state of 40 million people,” said Anthony Rendon, a Democrat and the speaker of the California Assembly. “But our racial and ethnic groups are more complicated and divided than they used to be, in a bunch of different ways.”

Since 2014, no one racial or ethnic group has constituted a majority of California’s population. Thirty-nine percent of California residents are Latino, 37 percent are white, 15 percent are Asian-American, 6 percent are Black and fewer than 1 percent are Native American or Pacific Islander, according to the 2018 American Community Survey.

Against that backdrop, Mr. Rendon said, affirmative action is difficult to define, with different meanings to different generations, ethnic groups and income brackets. In most of the state’s working-class, inland counties, Californians voted to keep it banned. Only wealthier, left-leaning urban areas such as Los Angeles and the Bay Area supported bringing racial and ethnic preferences back into the public sector.

And in statewide polls, Latino voters expressed ambivalence — one survey done shortly before the election showed that only 40 percent of the state’s Latinos supported the proposition. Many white and Asian-American Californians opposed the measure, fearing that higher admissions for underrepresented minorities might mean less room for their own children in the University of California system. Some young voters did not even understand the concept, Mr. Rendon said.

Credit…Tag Christof for The New York Times

That complexity extends to the state’s Democratic majority, Mr. Rendon added. “When the left is united in California,” he said, “we win.” But on issues from bail reform to rent control, he said, the party’s factions — progressive, moderate, coastal, inland — “were not all on the same page” this election year.

The way voters approached taxes was also nuanced. Local ballot initiatives were set to generate at least $ 15 billion in new bond authorizations, according to the California Local Government Finance Almanac. But the biggest tax question of the election — whether to raise property taxes on corporations and other large landowners — looked headed for defeat.

For all their liberal leanings on issues like the environment, California voters have long been less welcoming to new taxes than their reputation would suggest. For 40 years the pillar of local finance has been Proposition 13, the 1978 measure that limited local property taxes and has been considered politically untouchable ever since.

Expecting a Democratic wave, a coalition of public employees’ unions and progressive groups targeted 2020 as a moment to peel back part of the law. Their measure, Proposition 15, would have removed the Proposition 13 tax limits on commercial properties like office buildings and industrial parks, continuing to shield homeowners while raising an estimated $ 6.5 billion to $ 11.5 billion a year for public schools and local governments. The measure was trailing on Thursday, suggesting that, even if it wins, close to half of voters remain fiercely protective of Proposition 13.

California is unique in its reliance on direct democracy to decide some of the most crucial issues of the day. Ballots bulge with so many initiatives they might be better described as booklets. And it is not just ideology or the zeitgeist that can determine the outcome. Corporate interests, wealthy donors and advocacy organizations spend what amounts to hundreds of millions of dollars on initiatives every election.

The proposition that repealed the labor protections for ride-share and delivery drivers saw more than $ 200 million in campaign spending, breaking national records for a ballot initiative.

More than $ 100 million was also spent on another hot-button measure, rent control. Polls showed that the housing crisis was the No. 1 concern for state voters, and Gov. Gavin Newsom dedicated the bulk of his State of the State speech to the state’s worst-in-the-nation homeless problem. And yet voters up and down the state resoundingly rejected efforts to expand tenants’ rights and rent control.

The most prominent example was the failure of Proposition 21, a ballot initiative that would have given local governments more leeway to cap rental rates but was decisively defeated, according to The Associated Press. That marked the second time in two years California voters have rejected rent control by wide margins, and for the most part local attempts have not fared any better: On Tuesday, voters in Sacramento and Burbank also rejected rent control proposals.

“I keep thinking of this house I saw in a pretty affluent neighborhood that had a ‘Biden Harris’ sign and ‘No on 21’ sign,” said Tony Roshan Samara, program director of land use and housing at Urban Habitat, a Bay Area policy and advocacy organization. “That captures it. People will vote Democratic but when it comes to these issues of land and property, they vote in the interest of landowners.”

Credit…Mark Von Holden/Associated Press

Californians are sometimes described as moderate on fiscal matters but liberal on social ones. That seemed mainly consistent with the passage of a number of criminal justice measures, perhaps most importantly the rejection of an initiative that would have made it harder for people convicted of certain felonies to be considered for early release from prison.

Jerry Brown, the state’s former governor, called the vote a “decisive repudiation” of punitive sentences and a “milestone” in California’s evolution from the 1980s and 1990s, when the state, amid crime waves and the crack epidemic, led the way on mass incarceration.

“There’s a lot of work to be done in this field, but California is showing the way in a very positive and I think creative way,” Mr. Brown said.

Mr. Brown spent $ 1 million left over from his campaign funds to defeat the measure, which was supported by police unions and get-tough-on-crime politicians and would have reimposed restrictions on early releases and toughen sentences for certain crimes.

What do voters think about voting for Democrats and at the same time not supporting Democratic-led initiatives? José Legaspi, a Los Angeles resident who runs shopping centers in Latino communities across the country, said he hardly saw a contradiction. He voted for Mr. Biden and did not think twice about opposing the measure that would raise taxes on commercial properties.

“I truly believe in paying taxes,” he said. “However there is a point at which one should limit how much more in taxes one should personally pay.”

Thomas Fuller and Conor Dougherty reported from Oakland, Shawn Hubler from Sacramento, and Tim Arango from Los Angeles. Jill Cowan and Miriam Jordan contributed reporting from Los Angeles.

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