It was a perfect storm for Democrats. They had an immensely popular incumbent with deep pockets running against a field of unknown Republicans with no money. It was a Presidential year, which heavily favors Democrats, and the President was very popular in California. Democrats also got a boost in registration due to the advent of online registration. Feinstein won 62.5%-37.5%. It was the highest percentage a Democrat has gotten in California since 1986. Because all the elements were great for Democrats, that’s likely the ceiling a Democrat can get in a statewide California election. That total sounds okay until you realize that recently the percentage was exceeded by Democrats in swing states like Iowa and Michigan as well as red states like South Dakota and Montana. California may be a blue state, but Republicans loyally vote for Republicans, even if they like the Democrat.
In the June 2010 primary, Democrats running for statewide office got 51-52% across the board. Feinstein’s senate election in 2012 was the only statewide race that year, so it’s the only one we can use to compare to those races. Feinstein and five other Democrats beat the Republican vote share 56.6%-39.4%. While Feinstein likely garnered some Republican votes in the primary, the Democrats still fell about 6% below what she got in the general election. That’s simply because Democrats show up at a much lower rate than Republicans do in California primaries.
California congressional primary elections had some districts that were similar to Feinstein’s election, a popular incumbent who spent money running against an unknown or series of unknowns who didn’t.
What we see here is that Democratic incumbents matched or exceeded Feinstein in 7 of the 14 races, although the one where they exceeded Feinstein by the most was one where there were two incumbent Democrats spending a lot of money to heavily court Republicans. Despite the Republicans being some dude, there were six races where the Democratic margin of victory was 3.4% or more lower than Feinstein.
The next group are the districts are the Republican districts, most of which had an incumbent running. These districts had heavy spending Republicans and non-spending Democrats. Not surprisingly, the Democrats lost by a lot more than Feinstein did.
The districts that are important to look at are 14 districts that were possibly going to be competitive. Feinstein got between 46.9% and 59.8% of the vote in them. These districts were mostly competitive in November and Democratic congressional candidates won 11 of them.
Democratic margins fell short of Feinstein’s margin in all 14 districts. Unsurprisingly, the district where the Democrats came closest to matching Feinstein’s margin is the one where Republicans had a major recruiting fail, CA-16. Some of the others are a bit surprising. The next closest the Democrats came was CA-31, a district that was either open or had a Republican incumbent, depending on how you classify Gary Miller. He was a sitting congressman but had represented none of the district previously.
Should we expect Democrats to do better, worse, or about the same in 2014?
So while Feinstein’s totals are likely a ceiling for Democrats we shouldn’t expect Democratic congressional candidates to match that total in competitive districts in 2014. They couldn’t in 2012, even in districts where Democrats had much higher name recognition and spent more money. The 2014 primary electorate figures to be more favorable for the GOP than 2012. Republicans look stronger this year, according to polling, and mid-terms skew more Republican than Presidential year.
The Democrats could get a boost from the new online registration voters that didn’t vote in the 2012 primary but voted in the general election. This is subjective, but I don’t expect them to vote heavily in this election, because they never showed any interest in voting in a primary election before.
I’d expect the Feinstein numbers to be a ceiling in the districts, although I think it’s more likely that the less favorable 2014 electorate means that the 2012 vote share is the ceiling.
The exceptions might be Democrats in CA-7, 26, 36, 41, 47, and 52. These congressmen were challengers in 2012, but now may benefit from being incumbents. Of course, the 2012 Democratic incumbents weren’t all the best performing compared to Feinstein. While Costa, Garamendi, and Waxman were the closest to her, Capps and McNerney underperformed her totals more than Democrats in open seat races and some who were challenging incumbents.
One of the districts that should generate the most interest is CA-31. Of all the competitive districts, Democrats did second closest to Feinstein here. This happened even though there were two well known Republican running. Since it was so close to Feinstein I wouldn’t expect the Democratic vote share to be higher in 2014 and it’s possible that they could underperform her total closer to the 12% worse mean. Statistical pull suggests the district shouldn’t fall on the high side two elections in a row.