Republicans didn’t win any statewide offices in California and actually lost a congressional seat. So it appears the Republican wave didn’t hit California. That’s not quite the case. But wait, Republicans won the governor’s mansion in blue states Maine, Massachusetts, Illinois, and Maryland.
Why not California?
There are some differences. Maine had a sitting Republican governor. Massachusetts, and Maryland were open seats. Illinois had an unpopular incumbent. California, on the other hand, had an incumbent Democratic governor who was very popular. In the four states Republicans won the Republicans had a lot of money to run a statewide campaign. The Republican in California, Neel Kashkari, had very little money. A lot of voters had never heard of Neel Kashkari before they got their ballot.
In 2010, Democrats beat Republicans 57.0%-43.0% in the seven statewide offices. This year the vote is 56.9%-43.1% Democrats. That's not much of an improvement. Money, incumbency, and the candidates played a big part in Republican failure. In 2010, Democrats ran only 3 sitting statewide office holders. This year they ran 5. The Democrats were more well known and spent more money in 2014 than 2010. California is such an expensive state that you can’t expect to win unless you do a major advertising campaign. In 2010, Meg Whitman did just that. Steve Cooley and Abel Maldonado did that to a lesser extent and Maldonado was actually the incumbent Lieutenant Governor. He wasn’t elected, but in California ballot designation can be huge and his ballot designation was Lieutenant Governor. Even the lesser candidates in 2010 were sitting state senators.
There was no Meg Whitman spending $100 million this year. Some of the Republicans were just names on the ballot running non-serious campaigns. The ones that did, Ashley Swearingen and Pete Peterson, didn’t spend enough to mount a good campaign. Still, those two finished with 46.1% and 46.5% respectively. The Board of Equalization may be a good way to tell how the two parties did statewide. The state is divided into four districts for the Board of Equalization. None of the districts had a competitive election. Two of them were safe for Republicans and two safe for the Democrats. The statewide offices had well known incumbents and unknown challengers. Even incumbents on the Board of Equalization are unknown. So it’s the best way to judge a pure party vote. Democrats won the Board of Equalization vote 53.5%-46.5%.
Wait a second. Didn’t Republicans lose a congressional seat?
Yes, they did, but while winning and losing seats is the goal of elections it isn’t the ultimate sign that the party did better in elections. As you can see on the linked chart if you compare 2012 to 2014 the GOP candidate improved by an average of 3.2% in congressional races and 4.3% in assembly races. That’s the improvement of the Republican candidate. You double that if you want to get margin reduction. What’s unfortunate for Republicans is that the districts they improved least in or lost ground include those that were closest in 2012, CA-3, 7, 26, 36, and 52. They improved by more in CA-9, 16, and 24, but not enough to win the districts. Democrats seemed to get just enough votes to win them. On the other hand, Republicans took 4 Democratic assembly districts that they improved by the most in.
How does that compare to other states?
It’s pretty much average. If you look at congressional seats where both parties had candidates in 2012 and 2014 the average two party Republican gain was 3.5%, 7.0% margin increase. Republicans increasing 3.2% in California looks pretty good when you consider that the seats include 8 safe Republican seats, 13 safe Democratic seats, and 12 competitive seats where Republicans were outspent in most of them.
So why didn’t Republicans do better in California?
The state is too blue for Republicans to improve statewide and the GOP was mostly running pro forma candidates with no money against well-funded Democratic incumbents. On a congressional level, Republicans were massively outspent in competitive seats and the party was snakebit going 0 for 5 in districts decided by 3 points or less, and 0 for 8 in ones decided by 5 points or less. Republicans did win 2 of the 3 assembly races decided by 3 points or less, however.